If you have ever experienced a stomachache, you would likely want the pain to end soon and you may have a visceral understanding that digestive health is important to well being. On the other hand, if you hardly ever experience digestive issues, then you may take your ease of living almost for granted and be surprised when faced with the need to adjust your eating habits or lifestyle. What we eat and what happens thereafter is a living relationship we have with food and ourselves. Ideally, we have a good appetite to seek and enjoy food regularly to nourish ourselves, and after we have eaten, the food is digested and assimilated in a reasonable amount of time, with the waste eliminated easily. Ideally, food goes in one end and comes out the other, nice and easy.
There is wide variability in digestive capacity. Some people seem to be able to drink black coffee, alcohol and eat all the spicy food they want. Others seem to have a limited variety of food they can eat without consequence. Some people are very diet oriented and are always seeking to find more control on their diet to reach various goals they have. The most interesting explanation I have read in terms of diet seeking behaviour was in a Traditional Chinese Medicine textbook which references a deficiency in digestive ability causes the person to become overly obsessed with their diet. It could also be a chicken or the egg question, does the diet seeking behaviour start in the body or the mind? You certainly need plenty of mental energy to plan and adhere to a diet, especially restrictive ones. Culturally, we seem to be constantly drawn to the latest diet that promises weight loss, brain function, more energy along with age defying benefits.
I consider the digestive system to have several components- a mechanical, structural portion, a chemical component, and a neurological component. The mouth, tongue, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small and large intestines would be the mechanical structural component. The chemical component would be digestive enzymes, stomach acid and the various secretions needed to digest and assimilate food, and the gut bacteria could included here as well. The neurological portion of the digestive system is a component we are learning more about, which could encompass our mental and emotional health, one example being the vagus nerve (here’s an interesting video on the vagus nerve: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5d6e_Un6dv8) starting in the brain with feedback also coming through the gut. There is the enteric nervous system exists within the gut and has many mechanisms of feedback and function. We need all of these components functioning well to have optimal digestion. The food we eat is a variable we have the most control over. What eat and how it affects our health is a non linear equation and process, so there are a many aspects to consider.
We can all strive to have optimal digestive health which in simple terms is being able to enjoy food with a healthy appetite, digest the food eaten with ease, feel energized, have no bloating, gas, pain, and eliminate the waste material on a daily basis with ease and minimal smell.
Having studied nutrition and Traditional Chinese Medicine and knowing the benefits of healthy eating, I don’t like to prescribe diets to anyone. I believe it is best for a person to improve their eating habits by becoming more mindful of their body, appetite and lifestyle. I do my best to lead by example at every opportunity- I order the side of veggies when we’re out for dinner, I balance the sweet treats I like to enjoy with exercise, and I work at having a good relationship with food, which involves being enthusiastic about eating.
In cases of illness, allergies or skin conditions, it is helpful to make dietary changes to help alleviate the condition. In my acupuncture practice, the most common benefit experienced after relaxation is improvement in digestion. A patient may not come in with a digestive complaint, but they are able to note that their digestion improves with acupuncture treatment. It could be less propensity toward soft stool or diarrhea, improvement in acid reflux symptoms, relief from bloating, constipation, gas, or pain. The question becomes, how does acupuncture affect digestion? Acupuncture improves digestion by stimulation of the nervous system directly through the selected acupuncture points and indirectly through the relaxation response, which activates the rest and digest branch of the nervous system. The nervous system can respond instantaneously, although habitual stimulation for an optimal or dysfunctional state needs training over time.
Your digestive system is also very much related to your immune system, so improving digestion can also improve your immune health, which also relates to the skin. Your skin is the exterior of your body and the stomach and intestines are the exterior tube within the body. It takes processing before what we eat is taken into our internal organs. We are what we eat along with when and how we eat. We need to eat food for fuel and to rebuild/repair our cells on a daily basis. We also need adequate amounts of clean water to thrive. Food needs to be eaten at appropriate times to provide the right fuel for activity. Often overlooked, food is best eaten in a relaxed state to optimize digestion, which is a process that requires energy itself.
The stomach needs to be warm with adequate acid to have optimal digestive fire power. It appears that no one has improving digestive fire as they get older, the tendency is for digestive power to grow weaker with age. There is an element of habit and lifestyle that influences this slowing down. For example, eating cold, raw food requires more digestive energy and over time can cause backup, diminish digestive power and create further weakness. Consistent overeating also causes backup in the digestive system over time. The general thinking in TCM is to eat warm, cooked foods most of the time, especially in winter and have raw foods more in the summer for optimal digestion. This is dietary advice I have been able to adhere to for many years myself, as I enjoy real food and liquid meals like smoothies are unappealing to me. Moderate amounts of all foods can be healthy. Vegetables and fruit are required on a daily basis.
Whether you experience digestive issues or not, it is to your benefit to optimize your digestive health through your diet and lifestyle. Exercise is hugely beneficial, as it maintains circulation and encourages regular elimination. If you need help, consider acupuncture as a form of treatment that stimulates your nervous system to affect the digestive system and naturopathy as a form of treatment that can modulate the digestive system chemically through supplementation prescribed. It is best to consult a health professional who can assess your needs and help tailor your diet and lifestyle, so you can feel your best. Jumping onto the latest diet is not a long term formula for optimal health and wellness, anything restrictive or extreme is generally unsustainable and could cause health issues. Quote me on this: It is healthier to have some pizza, sweets and an occasional drink than the ‘achievement’ of the no sugar, low carb and no alcohol program. Cheers!