We may look at digestion as starting in the mouth and ending in the stomach, but the process is far more complex than we think. And because the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food in our body involves multiple systems, improper digestion can have a tremendous impact on us. In addition to experiencing side effects such as constipation, gas, and bloating, having compromised digestion can also affect our mood, hormones, energy levels, and more, according to certified holistic nutrition consultant Lila Volkas.
In a class I attended on gut health at Prep School, a wellness cooking club based in San Francisco, we learned to look at digestion as a whole. You may have heard the phrase, "You are what you eat," but Lila's version goes like this: "You are what you assimilate, and don't eliminate." Meaning you can eat the healthiest foods and still feel terrible if your body is not absorbing the nutrients in the best way possible. For example, if constipation is an issue for you, Lila says it's like giving your body a "to-do" on its elimination list that rarely gets checked off. Too many bodily "to-dos" that don't get addressed properly can lead to health challenges down the line.
Thankfully, many of these issues can be prevented by following these practical digestion tips from Lila below.
1. Enter "rest-and-digest mode."
Our busy schedules don't always allow for a full lunch break, forcing us to shovel down salads at our desk. Though efficient, you're not doing your digestive system any favors by doing so. Whenever possible, Lila suggests creating an "intentional space" when you eat. This means eliminating distractions — yes, that includes your phone, eating outside when possible, and practicing mindful eating. At the very least, you can take three deep breaths before you start eating to enter a relaxed state.
2. Keep the temperature of your foods in mind.
A big, cold salad may not be as digestion-friendly as you think, according to Lila. Avoiding cold foods in common practice in Traditional Chinese medicine, and although it hasn't been studied, could provide help to you. To counter the cooler temperature and build up your digestive fire, she recommends sipping on hot water or tea before, during, or after your meals. Lila has found this to allow her to enjoy raw foods more easily. Another trick is to limit frozen smoothie ingredients to one. Many of us associate smoothies as being ice cold, but keeping them on room-temperature to cool-ish side might make them better to digest. She also suggests adding warming spices, like cinnamon and ginger, to your blender to help fire things up.
3. Chew your food.
This one seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised! Many of us inhale our food when we're short on time. "Breaking up your food into the smallest pieces you can is only going to be beneficial for the rest of your digestive system and the way food assimilates into your body," Lila told us. This rule applies to liquids, also! A great tip from Lila is to opt for a spoon over a straw and to add toppings to your smoothies to remind yourself to chew.
4. Increase and boost your hydrochloric acid.
The cells in our stomach lining secrete a chemical called hydrochloric acid, which helps break down proteins in food. Without it, digestion can become difficult. Based on Lila's work as a holistic nutritionist, she says drinking diluted apple cider vinegar and incorporating warming herbs as we mentioned before are great ways to maintain sufficient levels. However, these practices may exacerbate your symptoms if you have acid reflux and this particular benefit of ACV hasn't been medically proven but could work for you.
5. Populate your gut with beneficial bacteria.
Eating more fermented foods, including sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and well-source soy products (like tofu and tempeh), can promote a healthy microbiome. This can help with leaky gut and other digestive issues.
For more digestive tips you can follow Lila on Instagram.