A healthy diet may be the foundation for good health but what about good digestion? If nutrients are not absorbed they provide no benefit to the body. Efficient breakdown of foods allows easier absorption of nutrients. Unfortunately, poor digestive function is common. Many of the people that consult me have digestive issues. These range from constipation and irritable bowel syndrome to food intolerance and heartburn. Yet, improving digestive health often clears up other seemingly unrelated health issues. Such as migraines, chronic fatigue, skin conditions or depression. So there is a lot to gain from improving digestion.
The digestive process can begin even before food enters the mouth. The sight, smell or the thought of food can trigger production of digestive secretions. Adequate chewing mixes food with saliva. Salivary enzymes begin the breakdown of the food into simpler substances. The saliva also moistens the food for easier swallowing. When food enters the stomach it mixes with stomach acid and other stomach secretions. This continues the digestive process, breaking food down further. Later, the partially digested food enters the small intestine. Most digestion and absorption takes place here. Food is further broken down by bile from the liver and digestive enzymes from the pancreas. Food moves along the digestive tract, through the small intestine and the large intestine. Rhythmic contraction of the intestinal wall ensures progressive movement of the gut contents. Finally the waste products enter the rectum for excretion.
The intestines are also home to our unique colony of gut microbes. The microbes have a role in protection against infection by pathogenic bacteria. They also protect and nourish the intestinal lining. A healthy colony of gut microbes promotes normal gut function.
So how can we improve our digestion?
Bitters are bitter tasting herbs or foods that can support digestive function. Bitters play a common part in some traditions related to meals. It is common in certain cultures to have a bitter aperitif, eat a bitter green leaf salad with a meal, or have a bitter tasting coffee after a meal. The significance of these traditions is that bitterness improves the digestive process. Bitters increase production of saliva, stomach acid, bile and digestive enzymes. Recent research suggests an additional way that bitter flavours may improve digestion. The bitter taste almost instantaneously changes blood flow in the body. Blood shifts away from the periphery to the digestive organs. The higher blood volume may in turn, improve absorption of nutrients into the blood.
Another method of including bitterness in your daily routine is to take a bitter formula. A half teaspoon of a bitter herbal formula in a small amount of water before a meal. Classic bitter herbs include gentian and wormwood. These can be quite cooling to the digestive fire in the long term. I suggest adding warming bitters to the classic bitters to make a more balanced formula. Warming bitters include angelica root or citrus peel. Ginger or other warming spices can also have the same effect. Spices warm the formula so that it can be taken long term without cooling the digestive fire.
Other simple habits that help to improve your digestion include thorough chewing of each mouthful of food. Taking time to enjoy a meal, sitting down. And enjoying tasty, colourful but simple meals.