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4 Steps to Better Digestion

4 Steps to Better Digestion 0

Most of the time, we take our digestive system for granted. But when it goes out of whack it’s a whole different story and digestive issues can quickly become all-encompassing.  Stomach pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, frequent bowel movements, constipation, even night sweats and unexplained weight loss or gain are just some of the signs of poor digestive health that people regularly live with. We may start to believe these conditions are “normal for us”.

The Prevalence of Digestive Issues

A 2013 study revealed that 74% of all participants had experienced digestive discomfort for six months or more, yet only 37% sought help from their doctor. Additionally, 56% of those who experienced discomfort didn’t seek medical help because they didn’t believe their symptoms required medical attention.

Ignoring the Signs

Ignoring digestive issues is a dangerous approach to take. Sometimes digestive distress is symptomatic of a deeper medical issue that requires medical attention. It is important to talk to your doctor if you experience ongoing or severe digestive symptoms to understand what is really going on and ensure it’s nothing serious.

What if it’s Nothing Serious?

The good news is that if a diagnosed digestive disease is not the reason for your symptoms, it’s often possible to get your digestion back on track by making a few targeted diet and lifestyle tweaks.

Good Digestion: It All Starts with Chewing Your Food

When your digestive system is acting up, the first step should always be to go back to the basics. Simple but effective, chewing your food properly supports the digestive process and makes nutrient absorption easier for your body. That is because chewing starts the digestive process. Mechanically, it breaks food into smaller pieces to increase its surface area so that your digestive enzymes can get to work more effectively. Chemically, chewing also triggers the production of saliva which contains the first enzyme in a cascade of different enzymes, each triggering the next to achieve complete digestion and absorption of nutrients from your food.

Eating too quickly, while distracted or on the go are often reasons we don’t chew our food well enough.  It is more important than many of us realize to set aside ample time to enjoy your meals. If this is new for you, try scheduling meal times like any other priority to help fortify the habit in the beginning.

Digestive Health Tests Can Uncover Imbalances

Optimizing digestive health is an area where Integrative, Functional and Naturopathic medicine excel.  We can run laboratory tests to see what is really going on, even if your regular checkup did not give you a diagnosis of digestive disease. We have a full toolbox of strategies to evaluate your digestion and uncover issues that may be at the root of your symptoms, including:

  • Stool testing to check your unique microbiome of bacteria and yeasts
  • Testing for markers of inflammation
  • Checking pancreatic enzyme levels
  • Checking for food intolerances and immune markers, as well as celiac antibodies
  • Testing for nutritional deficiencies, diabetes indicators, liver function, stress hormones and more.

4 Steps to Supporting Good Digestion

1 - Eat a Digestion-Focused Diet

What you eat matters. Nutrient dense, fiber-rich foods filled with enzymes help your meals move through your digestive system.  We are spoiled for choice, and have a variety of vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruit available to us year round.

More Fiber

High Fiiber foods absorb water and other fluids to form a gel-like substance that feeds the good bacteria in your digestive system and soothes the gut wall. This helps provide bulk, which eases the passing of waste through your system.

Fewer Irritants

Reducing sugar and caffeine also aids in the digestive process by reducing irritation that is often caused by gas and unfriendly bacteria - the bacteria that causes gas and cramping feeds off sugar and multiplies. Stevia is a good alternative to sugar and consider Rooibos tea to give you a bit of energy midday rather than that extra cup of coffee, as caffeine can be irritating to the digestive tract.

Probiotic Foods

Eating probiotic rich, fermented foods like unsweetened probiotic yogurt, kimchi, kefir, miso, and sauerkraut helps as well.  Probiotics battle bad bacteria in your digestive system and lower the ph levels in the colon which supports your gut lining and aids in absorbing nutrients.

Healthy Fats

Lastly, fats encourage gallbladder function and thus support the absorption of minerals from your food. Healthy options including avocados, nuts, seeds and their oils as well as fatty fish are all great ways to support your digestive cascade while nourishing your body the right way.

2 - Drink Plenty of Water

Dehydration and constipation go hand in hand. Water is needed to produce digestive enzymes, it helps move nutrients from your food into your cells, it supports your fiber intake by keeping soluble fiber hydrated and puffy so it can do its job of “sweeping” the digestive tract, and it is a crucial part of muscle movement - remember that your gut is a long tube made up of muscles that need to contract in a co-ordinated wave-like motion.

3 - Reduce Stress at Mealtimes

In “fight or flight” mode the body redirects water from your digestive system to serve the immediate survival need, so high stress over time causes constipation and a host of digestive symptoms. Keeping stress low is particularly important during mealtimes as the body needs to be in a state of calm for digestion to occur at all.

Slow down and make a conscious effort to sit down at a table to eat your meal. Turn off any screens, take slow, deep breaths and pay attention to the pleasure of good food, and if you’re lucky, good company. This will help put your body into “rest and digest'' mode and enable the body to do what it needs to do next in the digestive cascade.

4 - Make Sure to Move

Digestive health pioneer Dr. Bernard Jensen famously said “After your meal, sit a while, then walk a mile.” Research has shown us that exercise can indeed improve the rate at which you digest food. Gravity and movement stimulate peristalsis by helping to trigger various “fullness” receptors in your colon, which triggers healthy peristalsis to push your digested food through the digestive tract at a regular pace. Exercise is also a great stress reducer, which may explain how hearty your appetite for a healthy meal can be post workout.

Helping out your Digestion with Supplements

Digestive Enzymes

For many of us these days, eating well, chewing well and relaxing are not quite enough to bring balance back. If meals still have you feeling overly full, your enzymes may need some support. Your healthcare practitioner can help you to find the right enzyme supplement for your symptoms. Alternatively, digestive enzymes can be found in  papaya and pineapple and their mild support may be enough.

Probiotics

The good bacteria in your digestive tract supports gut health by breaking down specific carbohydrates, soothing the gut wall and producing hormones such as serotonin, the “feel-good hormone”. Maintaining that microbiome is essential for avoiding digestive problems like gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea - and for mental health.

A good quality probiotic supplement  can help replenish and balance your gut bacteria, and research suggests they can help support a healthy gut and digestion even with existing digestive problems. Make sure to get a recommendation from your healthcare practitioner as not all probiotic supplements are created equal.

We are Here to Help

Don’t let poor digestion cramp your style! If you’re experiencing digestive distress, book an appointment with me through Whole Body Medicine, and together we’ll get your digestion back on track, including possibly ordering a GI-MAP test to personalize our approach to your ongoing gut issues. We’re here to help.

Call or email us at: 203-371-8258 (Ext. 2), or info@wholebodymed.com

References

AbbVie, (Nov. 6, 2013.)New Survey Reveals More than Half of Americans are Living with Gastrointestinal Symptoms and Not Seeking Care from a Doctor.

Anderson JW, Baird P, Davis RH Jr, Ferreri S, Knudtson M, Koraym A, Waters V, Williams CL. Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutr Rev. 2009 Apr;67(4):188-205. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x. PMID: 19335713.

Boekema PJ, Samsom M, van Berge Henegouwen GP, Smout AJ. Coffee and gastrointestinal function: facts and fiction. A review. Scand J Gastroenterol Suppl. 1999;230:35-9. doi: 10.1080/003655299750025525. PMID: 10499460.

 Everhart JE, editor. The burden of digestive diseases in the United States. US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2008; NIH Publication No. 09-6443.

 Iorgulescu G. Saliva between normal and pathological. Important factors in determining systemic and oral health. J Med Life. 2009 Jul-Sep;2(3):303-7. PMID: 20112475; PMCID: PMC5052503.

McFarland LV. Use of probiotics to correct dysbiosis of normal microbiota following disease or disruptive events: a systematic review. BMJ Open. 2014 Aug 25;4(8):e005047. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005047. PMID: 25157183; PMCID: PMC4156804.

Oettlé GJ. Effect of moderate exercise on bowel habit. Gut. 1991 Aug;32(8):941-4. doi: 10.1136/gut.32.8.941. PMID: 1885077; PMCID: PMC1378967.

Patricia JJ, Dhamoon AS. Physiology, Digestion. [Updated 2021 Sep 18]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK544242/

Schloetter, M., Mietus-Synder, M. et al. Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. Dr. Bernard Jensen. Dr. Jensen's Guide to Better Bowel Care: A Complete Program for Tissue Cleansing through Bowel Management. Avery; 1190th ed. edition (Sept. 1 1998)

You Can Take Control of Chronic Pain

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Chronic pain is a common and complex problem affecting 20–30% of the population of Western countries. The pharmaceutical industry has garnered billions of dollars in painkiller and anti-inflammatory sales, yet this hasn’t come without potential health risks to consumers from a well-documented crisis level of opioid addiction to frequent gastrointestinal complications and an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. We witness these side effects with an understanding that pharmaceuticals may provide partial, and not always full relief from chronic pain.
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Lifestyle Factors to Reduce Pain and Inflammation

Lifestyle Factors to Reduce Pain and Inflammation 0

Chronic pain is a common and complex problem affecting 20–30% of the population of Western countries. The pharmaceutical industry has garnered billions of dollars in painkiller and anti-inflammatory sales, yet this hasn’t come without potential health risks to consumers from a well-documented crisis level of opioid addiction to frequent gastrointestinal complications and an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. We witness these side effects with an understanding that pharmaceuticals may provide partial, and not always full relief from chronic pain.

It’s no wonder we’re hearing from a lot of patients who are looking for a more natural approach to managing their chronic pain.

What is Chronic Pain?

We all feel physical pain from time to time. Injury, inactivity, sickness and disease can cause many different types of aches and pain. When this occurs, our bodies work hard to heal so that we can return to our normal lives. But what happens if the pain doesn’t go away, or doesn’t fully go away, or even worse… begins to hurt more? This is when pain becomes chronic. Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts more than three months.

What Does Chronic Pain Feel Like?

Chronic pain comes in many forms. It can be dull, sharp, heavy, tingling, throbbing, burning, squeezing, shooting, achy, or sore. I can be a mix of any of these forms, or be only one. It can come and go or be consistent over the course of a day or many days, but it is always recurring. It can also be dull, or acute, or a mix of both and anywhere in between. It can happen during the day or night, or both.

The Emotional and Social Cost of Ongoing Pain

Chronic pain takes its toll on your lifestyle, your relationships and your mental health. It can create brain fog during the day and sleep disturbances and/or sleepless nights. Chronic pain sufferers also regularly report feelings of fatigue, sadness, nervousness, overwhelm, irritability, frustration and anger. There are high incidences of anxiety and depression among chronic pain sufferers.

Additionally, long-term depression increases the probability of a person reporting high levels of chronic pain. All of this combined can create a terrible cycle of inactivity and suffering.

Natural Options for Chronic Pain Are Available

In addition to the conventional approach, there are a number of natural modalities that can work alongside medication and potentially lessen the need for pharmaceutical support. Here are some of our favourites.

Movement

Regular, gentle physical movement, particularly activities involving the mind-body connection or meditative movement therapies (MMT) help minimize chronic pain. These activities strengthen the body and help develop mindfulness, leading to stress reduction, at the same time. Pilates, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and Yoga are fantastic examples of mind-body therapies.

Flexibility training, core training, balance training, and light strength training are other forms of movement that help manage chronic pain by lubricating the joints, improving your overall stability and increasing your range of motion.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture has been used in traditional Eastern medicine for thousands of years. It involves inserting small needles into the skin at specific acupoints, typically leaving them in place for up to 30 minutes while you rest. The body reacts to the process by releasing endorphins into your bloodstream. These endorphins act as natural painkillers and also affect the part of the brain that governs serotonin, one of the brain chemicals that positively affect mood.

An Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Keeping inflammation under control is critical when it comes to managing chronic pain. Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet can help reduce your diet’s impact on inflammation and is something you can start today. The main tenets of a diet designed to lessen inflammation include:

  • Eliminate sugar: Too much added sugar is one of the primary contributors to chronic, low-grade inflammation.
  • Eat Your Greens: Eat a diet rich in an assortment of vegetables. Choose a variety of colours and vegetable types to ensure you are getting a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and antioxidants. Cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage and broccoli are particularly rich in phytonutrients that help lower inflammation.
  • Limit Nightshades: Some people benefit from limiting or completely removing vegetables in the nightshade family. These include tomatoes, bell peppers, white potatoes, and eggplant.
  • Check for Food Sensitivities: Knowing whether your body is reacting to certain foods known to commonly trigger sensitivities, such as wheat and dairy, can help you choose your ingredients appropriately and lessen any inflammatory reactions.
  • Eat Whole Foods: A whole food diet means avoiding processed or refined foods, instead opting for foods in their original form, chock full of vitamins, minerals and fiber. This includes whole grains like oats, quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, and spelt, as well as fresh vegetables, whole, unprocessed proteins and beans.
  • Choose Cooking Oils Wisely: Refined oils such as soybean, cottonseed and canola oils are highly unsaturated and oxidize easily when they come into contact with heat in the refinement process, leading to harmful trans fats. Less refined oils with a higher smoke point make healthier options that your body will know what to do with. Extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil have a smoke point of around 400F, making them good choices for healthy cooking.
  • Eat Less Red Meat: When it comes to reducing pain and inflammation, red meat is under scrutiny not so much for the saturated fat it contains, but rather because red meat is high in arachidonic acid. This essential fatty acid is pro-inflammatory and plays a role in promoting pain messaging in the body. If you already have symptoms of inflammation and chronic pain, reducing how much red meat you eat can help tone down those pain-promoting chemical messages.
  • Eat More Fish and Nuts: Oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel contain anti-inflammatory essential fatty acids, as do seeds such as hemp, flax and pumpkin seeds, and nuts such as walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts. These fats help your body to build healthy cells and hormones, and reduce inflammation throughout the body.
  • Drink plenty of filtered water: Adequate water intake helps flush inflammatory toxins and irritants out of your cells. Water helps your body to eliminate waste effectively, lubricates your joints and muscles, and is the vehicle many nutrients need to be properly absorbed into your body. Water is an absolute must if you are working to reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Supplements & Herbs to Consider: Several supplements and herbs have been researched for their role in helping reduce pain and inflammation in the body. Our favourites include the following:

Supplements

Herbs

Oils rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids, including fish oil and flax oil

Turmeric/Curcumin

Oils rich in linolenic acid, including borage seed oil, evening primrose oil, and blackcurrant seed oil

Ginger

Vitamin D

Spirulina

Chondroitin sulphate

Cat’s Claw

Glucosamine

Devil’s Claw

S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe)

White willow bark

Pycnogenol

Green tea

Resveratrol

Boswellia

Alpha-Lipoic Acid

Triphala

Everyone’s journey with chronic pain is unique. The modalities that may work wonders for one person, may not work as well for another for a variety of reasons. The best results can be achieved with a tailored, holistic treatment plan that is adapted to the individual and managed through the different stages of healing and/or pain management. As a functional/naturopathic/integrative healthcare practitioner, I/we have the lab tests and resources to support you.

 

Resources

Achilefu, A., Joshi, K., Meier, M., & McCarthy, L. H. (2017). Yoga and other meditative movement therapies to reduce chronic pain. The Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, 110(1), 14–16.

Berman B. M. (2003). Integrative approaches to pain management: how to get the best of both worlds. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 326(7402), 1320–1321. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.326.7402.1320-a

Crofford L. J. (2015). Chronic Pain: Where the Body Meets the Brain. Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association, 126, 167–183.

Dansie, E. J., & Turk, D. C. (2013). Assessment of patients with chronic pain. British journal of anaesthesia, 111(1), 19–25. https://doi.org/10.1093/bja/aet124

de Heer, E. W., Gerrits, M. M., Beekman, A. T., Dekker, J., van Marwijk, H. W., de Waal, M. W., Spinhoven, P., Penninx, B. W., & van der Feltz-Cornelis, C. M. (2014). The association of depression and anxiety with pain: a study from NESDA. PloS one, 9(10), e106907. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0106907

InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Using medication: Painkillers: How common are severe side effects of NSAIDs? 2016 Apr 6 [Updated 2017 Aug 10].

Maroon, J. C., Bost, J. W., & Maroon, A. (2010). Natural anti-inflammatory agents for pain relief. Surgical neurology international, 1, 80. https://doi.org/10.4103/2152-7806.73804

Şahin, N., Karahan, A. Y., & Albayrak, İ. (2017). Effectiveness of physical therapy and exercise on pain and functional status in patients with chronic low back pain: a randomized-controlled trial. Turkish journal of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 64(1), 52–58.

Vickers AJ, Cronin AM, Maschino AC, et al. Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Individual Patient Data Meta-analysis. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(19):1444–1453. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.3654