Many people report they struggle with heartburn and indigestion. It is common practice to reach for, or be prescribed ‘acid neutralizers’ (Prevacid, Nexium, Omeprazole (Prilosec), etc). With new research focusing on the adverse effects of chronic proton pump inhibitor use – such as increased risk of stomach cancer and bone fracture, kidney disease, and vitamin deficiencies to name a few – it is important now more than ever to learn other ways to help promote proper digestion without the lifelong use of a medication.
Breaking it down
First, a bit about digestion. Digestion is a multistep process that begins the moment you put a piece of food in your mouth. When you begin chewing, glands in your mouth and throat begin to secrete saliva. Saliva contains special enzymes that help digest the starches in your food before they reach your stomach.
Your teeth are also part of the digestive process. Your mother was right when she told you to “chew your food.” Bite-sized portions are optimal – eating too much per forkful promotes indigestion and causes your stomach to work harder to break down large pieces of food. The recommended amount of chews per bite for optimal digestion (yes, this has been researched) is 31 times! Chewing each bite 31 times ensures that the food is properly broken down and prepared for further digestion by your stomach and the pancreatic enzymes in the small intestine. Also, you will tend to eat slower, which fills you up faster and helps to satiate your appetite.
Prepping the stomach
Believe it or not, indigestion is often the result of too little stomach acid. Stomach acid is crucial in helping us break down our food in order to prepare and absorb nutrients. The stomach has two sphincters, or valves, that regulate the contents in the stomach. The Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES), which allows food to enter the stomach but prohibits reflux of gastric juices into the esophagus, is triggered to close with an increase in stomach acidity. As the concentration of stomach acid increases, the closing pressure of the LES increases. On the other end of the stomach exists the pyloric sphincter which works exactly the opposite of the LES. It will not open until stomach acidity has reached a sufficiently high level, ensuring that the food is properly digested before it flows into the small intestine. If the stomach does not reach the proper level of acidity, the pyloric sphincter remains closed and the stomach acid will linger resulting in indigestion and possibly forcing stomach contents to backflow into the esophagus.
In addition to acid-neutralizing medications, most are shocked to learn that drinking water with their meals can also promote indigestion. Water dilutes the stomach acid secreted as we eat, and therefore it is recommended to avoid drinking water with meals and for one hour after eating. Hint: You will remain well hydrated if you load up on your water intake between meals. Bitter herbs or apple cider vinegar can be used to prep the stomach for a meal. Tinctures of bitter herbs (Swedish Bitters) are preferred over apple cider vinegar because they stimulate the secretion of digestive enzymes and stomach acid, whereas apple cider vinegar acts as a substitute for stomach acid. If you choose to use herbal bitters or apple cider vinegar, sip a small amount in water 10-15 minutes before mealtime. Sipping water with lemon throughout the day also gently promotes mild stomach acid production.
It may seem obvious, but where and how we eat our meals plays a key role in how we digest our food. Consider incorporating these suggestions:
- The obvious: make healthy food choices, chew your food, and avoid water during and 1 hour after meals.
- Avoid eating on the run, or in your car.
- Eat at a dining table and not in front of your television.
- As the weather permits, enjoy eating on the patio.
- Play calming music during mealtimes.
- Allow at least two hours before lying down to go to sleep.
- Per Chinese wisdom – after eating, walk a 100 steps. Even better, take a loved one with you. Research has found that walking after you eat a meal can do wonders for your health; namely, lower your blood sugar, bring down your triglycerides, speed up digestion, and aid in weight loss.
The digestive system is at the very core of our well-being. Every system of the body is affected by what and how the digestive system absorbs the nutrients from our foods. As the saying goes, you are what you eat, but perhaps more accurate, you are what you digest.