Common Sense Approaches to Digestive Health
Healthy digestion is at the root of well-being. Traditional medicines like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine build their foundation on the process of digestion as “digestive fire” or “sacred fire.” Digestion is a process of “fire” turning food into energy. Circulation deficiency in the digestive system due to stress affects the body’s ability to digest food. In addition, since physiological stress can cause a disruption of the secretion of digestive fluids and enzymes, stress ultimately affects the body’s ability to absorb and assimilate nutrients. Disruption of digestion can also affect bacteria in the digestive tract, which can have an effect on the immune system and mental health.
One of the body’s biological adaptations under states of stress is to divert blood from the digestive tract to the heart, brain, and extremities. Digestive fluids and enzyme secretions slow down in order to preserve energy. These adaptations occur because the body is preparing to either “fight” or “flight,” a response that was helpful centuries ago for those who had to periodically “fight” for their food and “flight” away from predators. However, in the modern world, individuals experience this state of sympathetic activation a majority of the time! The consequence is that the digestive system suffers, which in turn has an effect on many aspects of the body and health.
The gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons. It makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions.” The neurotransmitter serotonin is responsible for mood regulation and is often referred to as the “happy brain chemical.” Thus, if there is a disruption of this environment of the healthy and unhealthy bacteria, this can lead to issues like depression and anxiety. An individual may also suffer from symptoms like gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. A healthy bowel environment also ensures that the body is not exposed to toxins produced by unhealthy intestinal bacteria, which can contribute to poor immune function.
There are many ways to improve digestion in today’s fast-paced lifestyle. It is important to down-regulate the nervous system before eating by creating a practice around mindful eating. (Until recently, this mostly happened naturally, without any thinking or conscious effort, as we washed, peeled or chopped and simmered, grilled or sautéed a meal! Sadly, this meal preparation ritual is less and less common in the U.S.) This consists of slowing down to eat, taking a breath before consuming food, and making sure to chew each bite and taste each flavor. This will allow the nervous system to shift into the parasympathetic mode which promotes gut motility and secretion of digestive fluids and enzymes (“rest and digest”). Mindful eating has also been shown to decrease cortisol levels, which in turn helps to decrease inflammation and reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome.
And while it goes without saying it also bears repeating: Choosing fresh whole foods and organic when possible will make a big difference. Unprocessed food free from herbicides, preservatives, and other chemicals will create less damage and toxic load on the body after consumption. Fresh whole foods contain more nutrients and antioxidants that help to boost the immune system and increase overall health.
With the help of intuitive and powerful plant compounds like those found in many roots, tubers, blossoms and
seeds, achieving improvements in overall health in today’s busy society becomes more manageable. In addition to these compounds and nutritional modifications, mindful practices and self-focus will have a huge impact on the nervous system and in turn improve overall health.