6 Ways to Optimize Your Digestive System

Digestive habits to incorporate into your family's routine
woman making heart shape on her belly with her hands
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Image: rangizzz / Shutterstock

Digestion is one of the most important things our bodies do for us. The energy and nutrients we get from our food allow us to live. Without proper digestion, we quickly slip into a suboptimal quality of health. The good news is we can easily remedy some of the more basic digestive system issues with a few easy daily habits. Let’s explore some of these habits that you can incorporate into your family’s daily routine.

Family meal times

As a family, it’s often difficult to find peaceful time together. There’s no better time for this than during meals. When we eat, our bodies should be fully relaxed–what’s called the parasympathetic state (dominated by the parasympathetic nervous system). If we are stressed, such as when we’re stuck in rush hour or scrambling to get everyone out the door in the morning, we are in a sympathetic state (dominated by the sympathetic nervous system). If you’re in this state, the blood flow to your stomach and intestines is reduced, thereby preventing proper digestive function.

The solution: rest and digest

When it’s time to eat, try to do only that. Spending time with loved ones in a calm atmosphere accentuates this state and ensures you all digest properly. Use it as a time of reflection, storytelling and laughter, and pretty soon your digestion will be laughing too.

Bone broths

Bone broths are one of the most gut-healing food sources available. Rich in glycine, a restorative and calming amino acid, healthy fats and plenty of other minerals, bone broth provides your digestive tract with the nutrients it needs to heal itself. Although partially lost to time, bone broths are making a resurgence due their health benefits.

To make bone broth

Quite simply, place a few animal bones (usually beef or chicken) in a slow cooker. Add water and spices for taste. Turn on low. Return 8-12 hours later. Enjoy your broth. We tend to make a pot per week and slowly consume it over 2-3 days.

Probiotic foods

Another food that’s rich in history, probiotic and fermented foods helped sustain digestive health for millennia before the gut microbiome was even discovered. Rich in beneficial microorganisms that populate our digestive tract, these foods are a must in every diet. The body of research on the gut flora (the collective population of micro-organisms in our gut) is currently growing exponentially. The health of our flora has now been associated with metabolic diseases like diabetes, mental disease, cardiovascular disease and more. It’s even being postulated that the health of our flora is more important than the health of our own cells. That may be because the number of microorganisms in our gut outnumber our cells by upwards of 10 to 1.

Support the health of your family’s gut by regularly consuming fermented foods like water-based sauerkraut, kimchi, yoghurt and kefir (if dairy is tolerated), kombucha, fermented tofu, and others. We regularly add a dollop of sauerkraut to our morning breakfasts. But beware – if you cook fermented foods, you nullify their probiotic benefit because you kill the microorganisms.

Minimal liquid at meals

This is an important one, and often overlooked, especially in the era of super-sized soft drinks. When we chew our food, we are mechanically breaking it down in preparation for the acidic bath of the stomach. If we drink liquids around meals, we reduce the acidity of our stomach acid, which inhibits proper breakdown of foods prior to their entry into the small intestine. When improperly digested foods enter the small intestine, you increase the risk of localized damage and eventual food sensitivity. To avoid this, minimize the amount of liquids that are consumed within 30 minutes of meals (before and after).

When I was a kid, my Swiss father would serve us a shot glass of orange juice every morning because this is what he was served as a child. This was laughable compared to the large glasses of OJ we’d get at our friends’ houses. Looking back, his European tradition had plenty of merit!

Exercise

At first thought, exercise would seem unrelated to digestion. However, the less you move, the less your gut moves, so exercise is good for your gut! There are caveats to this, such as high-stress movement or high-intensity exercise, both of which reduce blood flow to your digestive system. But regular moderate exercise will improve blood and lymph flow, and improve your overall digestive function. Regular exercise also helps modulate stress, and that contributes to overall digestive function as well.

Ensure that as a collective family you get regular exercise; just not immediately after meals! Better yet, try to incorporate exercise with outdoor time, which increases fresh air intake and further reduces stress.

Chew, chew, chew!

If there’s one thing you change, make it the amount that you and your family chew your food. Aim for 20 chews per bite. You can make it a game to see how long each person can chew one bite for. The more the food is broken down in the mouth, the less work the stomach has to do, and the better your food will be digested in the small intestine. It all starts in the mouth!

The takeaway

When it comes down to it, we have to treat our digestive system like a best friend and encourage our children to do the same. Be gentle, be slow, be nurturing, eat mindfully. Give your gut what it needs to heal. Maximize what it needs to function best.  And minimize how much bad stuff you force it to deal with. Your family’s guts will be grateful for this.

*Originally published January 7, 2016