The old saying, “you are what you eat,” is true, but it is arguable that you are actually what you absorb. Eating a healthful diet is imperative to disease prevention, but how we eat our healthful diet is equally important. For example, the person who eats plenty of calcium-rich foods, but has poor absorption is still largely at risk for osteoporosis.
HOW STRESS AND AGING IMPACT DIGESTION
Physiologically, stress shunts blood away from the digestive tract to muscles to support a fight-or-flight response. Historically, stress was short-lived, and the fight-or-flight response was balanced with the rest-and-digest response. We have not yet evolved to take on the amount of stress our Western lifestyles surmount upon us, so we need to be cognizant of our limitations. When we eat under stressful conditions, our bodies do not release the digestive juices like stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes required for breaking down food into nutrition.
As we age, our stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes decline naturally. Chronic stress and aging effects on digestion include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal bloating, gas, malnutrition, and susceptibility to infections like Helicobacter pylori, parasites and more.
SUPPORTING HEALTHY DIGESTION
Start cooking. Digestion truly begins when we first step foot in the kitchen to prepare our food. The tasty aroma of our food stimulates our sense of smell, and signals the brain to prepare the body to release digestive juices. We have all experienced this response when we start salivating at the thought, sight, or smell of food.
Relax and enjoy. Eating in a relaxed state is incredibly important to our food digestion and nutrient absorption. Whether alone or with friends and family, remove all possible stimuli including your television and cell phone. Take a few deep breaths, making your exhale twice as long as your inhale. When we inhale, we stimulate the sympathetic nervous system correlated with the fight-or-flight response. When we exhale, we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system correlated to the rest-in-digest response. By focusing on the exhale, we can prep our bodies to prepare to eat. Laughing and pleasant conversation improves the eating experience and reduces stress levels, so eat with the people you most enjoy in your life.
Chew your food. Digestion begins in our mouths using salivary amylase and lipase for fat and carbohydrate breakdown. Eating rapidly causes us to skip an important first step. The goal is to chew your food about 25 times per bite. Slowing down our meals also helps us digest better by building stomach acid and digestive enzymes and allows our stomach to properly signal our brain when we have become full.
Avoid water with meals. My patients are often surprised when I tell them to avoid drinking water with their meals. The reasoning behind this suggestion is that the alkalinity of water dilutes stomach acid and delays digestion. The consistent dilution of stomach acid often leads to heartburn and GERD. Low stomach acid causes undigested food to sit in the stomach and create pressure that produces heartburn symptoms. Those complaining of heartburn or who have been diagnosed with GERD have too little stomach acid, not too much. Long-term antacid use inhibits nutrient absorption and predisposes people to conditions like osteoporosis and anemia. Drink one tablespoon of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar in an ounce of water to aid healthy stomach acid levels. Some individuals’ stomach acid or pancreatic enzymes are so low that further support is necessary using hydrochloric acid or digestive enzymes.
NUTRIENTS AND HERBS TO SUPPORT DIGESTION
Water and salt. Chronic dehydration can also lead to low stomach acid. Bio-chemically, water donates hydrogen molecules to help make stomach acid, which is one hydrogen molecule and one chloride molecule. Chloride often comes from salt. In the United States, most people over consume salt, so this piece of the requirement is pretty simple to meet. The best indicator for hydration level is urine color — the goal is to maintain a straw color throughout most of the day. For those who take supplements, this may be more difficult to gauge, so half your body weight in ounces is another guideline.
Bitters. The same in-gredients found in many cocktails can also be used to help prime your body for a meal. Aromatic bitters contain an herb called gentian, which has been shown to support healthy hydrochloric acid and pancreatic enzymes. These bitters can be mixed with carbonated water and lemon to sip throughout a meal for those who have difficulty not drinking anything with food.
Spearmint. Spearmint tea is a great addition to the natural medicine cabinet and to a daily routine. This herb supports digestion by eliciting relaxation, soothing the stomach, and reducing spasms that can be associated with reflux. If spearmint is difficult to find, peppermint is a close relative and can also be helpful.