I was the queen of digestive distress for nearly a full decade of my life (and I’m only 20!) – a crown I’m happy to have shed (hopefully forever). Poor digestion is multi-factorial picture, and I certainly never had one lone trigger or underlying cause. Whilst this list is by no means exhaustive (and is a bit generalised – not taking into account YOUR unique situation), you will hopefully still find it a good reminder of some basic rituals, habits and practices that may help to alleviate what ails you; nausea, constipation, gas, bloating, pain etc.
Cook with Spices
Spices not only help to add flavour to food, but they also can elicit mild medicinal effects. Here are some of my personal faves …
- Turmeric – potent anti-inflammatory, aces for reducing inflammation in the digestive tract – thus potentially reducing intensity of stomach cramps. The active ingredient curcumin tends to work better when the dish has been heated (think curries, soups etc.)
- Black Pepper – this hot spice is very warming and can improve circulation – including blood flow to digestive organs. It also can boost the effectiveness of turmeric’s active ingredient; curcumin, so turmeric and pepper are a good pairing. I love pepper on pretty much any savoury meal
- Cardamom – a beaut spice for easing stomach pain and gas and stimulating digestive processes. I use this baby in smoothies, soups, purees and porridges
- Ginger – I can’t go past this warming spice, it’s the ultimate tummy settler and, along with cardamom, is a beautiful digestive aid. I love ginger in teas, veggie purees and juices, smoothies, porridges and soupsm
Stop Following All The Food Trends
This might seem like an odd one, but here’s my reasoning. Every time we shift the diet, we change our micro biome (the diversity of bacteria in our digestive tracts). If this change occurs too quickly, or we become too reliant on one particular food (think paleo and coconuts or vegan and beans), it can lead to dysbiosis or even manifest food intolerance. We are all unique and not necessarily designed to thrive on every single whole food. I’m not saying don’t try new recipes or experiment with certain groceries that you haven’t played with before, but tread gently and listen to your body. It doesn’t mater how trendy a food or style of eating may be at the moment, if it’s not working for you, then leave it be (or at least explore why it’s not making you feel too good).
The same goes for eliminating foods. We’ll all have foods that our digestive system genuinely loves, even if they aren’t included in certain eating protocols. Allow me to give a personal example. I thrive on activated buckwheat – my tummy loves this stuff. However, if I were to follow the advice of grain-free advocates, they’d say I’d probably do better without it. Eliminating this food from my diet would also mean eliminating a beaut source of several key nutrients such as magnesium and manganese, plus antioxidants quercetin and rutin. Not to mention the fibre in buckwheat works really well for my bowel health and certain proteins in buckwheat have even been linked to gallstone prevention.
Bottom line: eat real foods of course, but don’t just add something in or take something out because “it seems like a harmless idea”. If a food works for you; keep it, if it doesn’t; ditch it. If you’re concerned about your reactions (i.e. you think you might have a genuine allergy or intolerance), maybe work with a nutritionist, dietitian or naturopath to determine the root cause (and make sure that your symptoms aren’t related to something more sinister).
Chew, Blend or Puree
Many of us eat on the go, or whilst doing other things – even if that other thing is just simply talking to the fam bam at the dinner table. I’m not going to suggest being “totally present” when you eat, because its impractical a lot of the time. It’s nice to be able to stop and read over brekkie or lunch and have a good chin wag come the evening meal. What I will suggest is this; chew your food properly, don’t just shovel and swallow. If you know you get too easily distracted at certain meal times (for example brekkie because you also like to read or do the puzzles from the paper during this time) then have a smoothie, bowl of porridge, soft poached or scrambled eggs or even a bowl of smooth veggie soup that is already pre-broken down for you. The smaller the particles of food are and the more enzymatic activity that’s occurred in the mouth and stomach, the easier it will be for the rest of your digestive tract to digest, metabolise, assimilate and eliminate your nutrients.
Include Ferments (but start small!)
Fermented foods are a great natural source of probiotic bacteria that (generally speaking) have been linked not only to improved digestive health, but also to improved immune, brain and hormone function. However, may of us think that if a little bit is beneficial then a lot must be better. Truth is, it takes time for the body to adapt to this influx of beneficial bacteria and if we consume too much too soon (think daily kombucha tea + sauerkraut with every meal + a probiotic supplement + some cheeky natural yoghurt for brekkie, snacks or dessert) we risk creating a picture of dysbiosis. This is frustrating, as usually dysbiosis is what we’re trying to treat in the first place and by doing what we think is the “right thing” we just exacerbate the issue.
So don’t eliminate fermented foods altogether, just work your way up slowly to a dose that feels good for you. Remember that little extras like apple cider vinegar or even fermented coconut nectar in coconut aminos counts as fermented food, as does miso paste that you might use in a stir-fry or soup. Sauerkraut and kimchi taste divine (once you have an acquired taste) and it’s easy to eat a full cupful with a meal, before realising how much you’ve actually loaded your plate with. Kombucha often feels like a health tonic, and if everyone else around you is going for that second drink, and you’re using kombucha as your alcohol-free beverage of choice, and thus indulge in another, you risk flooding your micro biome with too much of a good thing.
A small serve of a probiotic-rich food looks like …
- 1 Tablespoon of fermented vegetables (raw sauerkraut, kimchi etc.)
- 1/2 cup natural yoghurt (or homemade yoghurt) or kefir-based coconut yoghurt (if using Kultured Wellness brand, even starting with as little as one teaspoon might be enough initially)
- 1 tablespoon homemade fermented cream
- 100ml glass of kombucha tea
- 30-50ml coconut water kefir
- 30ml ACV (apple cider vinegar or coconut vinegar)
- 1/2-1 capsule of a commercial probiotic powder (about 1/8-1/4 teaspoon if the powder is loose)
Take 5 Deep Breaths Before A Meal (or do some gentle stretches)
This one may or may not be obvious to you. Eating in a stressed state isn’t a great idea, because when we’re stressed blood is diverted away from the digestive organs and sent to the periphery instead. It also mucks with our hormones and blood sugar control. Just taking 5 deep breaths before you sit down to eat, or alternatively, doing 5 minutes of gentle, restorative stretches before a meal, can turn of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (the branch that sympathises with your situation and turns on stress signals) and encourage the para-sympathetic branch to come back into play. The parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is also known as the “rest and digest” trigger, because when we’re calm, we’re able to digest our food and relax our bodies with relative ease.