How to Tell if Your Digestion is Weak, And What to Do About It

Image of woman holding hands over her stomach in the shape of a heart

So many of us have poor digestion and don’t even realize it, and the broader impact weak digestion has on our bodies and overall health.  Here’s a little quiz for you to assess how well your gut is functioning.

It’s lunchtime.  How do you typically feel?

  1. Can’t wait to try that little café on the corner everyone’s been raving about, or I brought my favorite leftovers, let’s eat.
  2. Meh, I’m never really hungry, but I guess I should eat.
  3. Ugh, I’m hungry, but I’ve got a meeting after lunch, so I’ve got to watch what I eat so I don’t belch or fart in the meeting, or I always feel bloated after I eat.
  4. I’m hungry, I enjoy eating, but afterwards I just want to find a corner to curl up and take a nap.

If you answered 2, 3 or 4, you guessed it, you have digestive problems.  Even if your answer was #1, if you struggle with anxiety or depression, bruise easily, legs and arms feel heavy, or you sneeze, get phlegmy or have other allergy symptoms after you eat, you have a weak digestive system.

So, What To Do About It?

Some of the simplest things we can do to strengthen our digestive function is to relax while we eat, and enjoy eating.  A friend once shared a story about being at a retreat for a couple weeks.  While the food itself wasn’t the highlight of the experience, meals were always served at the same time 3 times a day and eaten amongst the camaraderie of friends.  She said that one small change resulted in a total absence of the digestive problems that she had dealt with for years (tired after eating, bloating, gas, alternating constipation and loose stools).  Don’t work while eating, or do anything that is mentally taxing while eating.  In Chinese Medicine, the Spleen and Stomach are both responsible for digestion and the Spleen also correlates with over-thinking and worry, so too much of that type of mental activity taxes the digestive process.

 

Digestion Impacts Our Physical Health AND Our Emotional Health
Getting nutrients from the food we eat is vital not only for energy, healthy muscles, skin, and bones, but also for our mental and emotional wellbeing.  That’s right, 80% of our neurochemicals are made in the gut, not in the brain.  Anxiety is strongly linked with poor digestive health.  Nutritious food, and healthy eating patterns are more vital than we realize.  Here are some ways you can easily improve your digestive function.

How to Eat

  • Eat at consistent times and make sure you have enough stomach acid.  Just like children and animals benefit from routine, so does our digestive system.  When we eat at regular times, the digestive system prepares by activating enzymes for digesting a meal.  However, many people do not have enough stomach acid for the stomach to properly digest the food they eat.  Acid Reflux and GERD are more often the result of too little stomach acid rather than too much.  
  • Stop the proton pump inhibitors (they are only meant to be taken for 2 weeks because long term use can impair stomach function) and take either ½ fresh squeezed lemon in a glass of water before eating, or if you need stronger acid, take Betaine HCl right before each meal.   
  • Also, too little stomach acid keeps the proteins we eat from being broken down into amino acids.  The small intestine is only meant to absorb amino acids.  If proteins get into the small intestine, the body reacts to them as if they were a virus by creating antibodies against the food protein and that is how we become allergic to what we eat.  Remember I said that sneezing, getting phlegmy and feeling like you have a cold after eat indicates weak digestion, this is why.  
  • If your problem truly is too much acid (you’re hungry soon after eating, you have bad breath or mouth ulcers, you have stinky bowel movements), take ¼ teaspoon of baking soda in a glass of water daily. 
  • Refrain from strenuous mental or emotional activity while eating.  No working, reading, or arguing while eating.  The Spleen/Pancreas and Stomach systems in Chinese Medicine are associated with thinking and worrying.  If the digestive system is taxed with thinking and worrying, the digestive function is weakened.  
  • Savor and enjoy what you eat while you are eating.  Remember the ad: “Happy cows produce better milk”?  When we are in a parasympathetic or rest and digest state, blood is available to flow to the stomach to support digestive function.
  • Chew food thoroughly.  The first step of digestion happens in the mouth with the teeth reducing food to small pieces, and with the amylase in saliva that helps break down starches. 

Quality of Food

  • Organic.  If bugs and animals won’t eat it, it’s not good for your insides either.
  • Natural.  Avoid chemically enhanced, or processed foods.  If the ingredient list is full of things you need a degree in chemistry to understand, leave it on the shelf.
  • Fresh.  You want actual fresh food in your body, not something engineered for a long shelf life.  

Foods to Avoid or Eat Sparingly

  • Sugar.  Avoid. Refined sugar, corn syrup, and the like are linked to chronic inflammation.  Excessive refined sugar use can also lead to damp heat- see the effects of Alcohol below.  When you need sweetness, use honey or if you must have sugar, use unrefined cane sugar.  Use pure raw honey that is not filtered or blended with molasses or corn syrup.  Local honey is best and it has the added benefit of helping reduce seasonal allergies.
  • Gluten.  Be Aware.  Given the genetic modification of our wheat sources, many people have a difficult time digesting gluten: bloating, gas, nausea, edema, rashes.  If you eat wheat, notice how you feel after eating it.  Do you have any swelling in your hands, joints, eyelids, stomach bloat, gas, nausea, or skin rashes?  Remove gluten (bread, pasta, pastries, cereal, etc.) and see if your symptoms clear up.  Also make sure you have enough stomach acid to digest gluten.
  • Dairy.  Be aware.  Dairy products (milk, cheese, cream, yogurt) create dampness in the body which can show up as edema, swelling, phlegm in the throat or nose, and weight gain longer term.  This does not mean zero dairy.  Dairy is not evil, just be aware that if you have edema, or phlegm, too much dairy can make the situation worse.
  • Caffeine.  Be Aware.  Caffeine stimulates the nervous system, and constricts blood vessels which increases blood pressure.  If you suffer from anxiety, high blood pressure, or a heart condition, caffeine can make the situation worse.  

If you take triptans for migraines or Sudafed (phenylephrine) for congestion (both of which constrict blood vessels and thereby raise blood pressure) or epinephrine (EpiPen) or dopamine (Bupropion / Wellbutrin) – epinephrine and dopamine both increase the force of heart muscle contractions and thereby raise blood pressure – then you should avoid caffeine. 

 

Consistent caffeine use can also tax the adrenals.  If the area around your eyes is dark or your eyes are sunken, or if caffeine makes you tired, these are signs of adrenal fatigue.  Caffeine makes adrenal fatigue worse.  In the case of adrenal fatigue, herbs like Ashwagandha, Rhodiola (Hong Jing Tian), and Schisandra (Wu Wei Zi) are all helpful.  

If you miss the taste of coffee, Teeccino makes a wonderful line of herbal coffees from Chicory and other herbs that tastes amazingly similar to coffee.  I also like Raza coffee alternative.

 

  • Alcohol.  Be Aware.  Alcohol creates both heat and dampness in the body.  If you suffer from genital itch, yeast infections (Candida), genital herpes, urinary infections with pain, smell, or blood, drinking alcohol can make the situation worse.  Herbs that combat damp heat and yeast infections include Long Dan Xie Gan Tang and Huang Lian Su (berberine).

Energetics of Food

  • Cold, Raw Foods.  Be aware.  If you tend to feel cold, gain weight easily, have edema, or have poor digestion (bloating, gas, nausea, feel tired after eating), then cold foods will make your situation worse.  Salads, raw vegetables, refrigerated or iced foods or drinks all have a cold property to them.  The stomach needs heat to digest food.  Chinese Medicine likens the stomach to a boiling cauldron.  With ample fire below the cauldron, the contents inside will boil, cook, and be consumable.  Similarly the stomach needs an ample amount of heat to assimilate the contents and make them usable to the body (the process of hydrochloric acid and pepsin turning the food we eat into chyme so nutrients can be absorbed by the small intestine).  If we eat too many physically or energetically cold foods or pour too much cold liquid into what should be hot, we weaken the digestive process.  When this dynamic is chronic, we damage the digestive process.   The result is acid reflux, loose stools, heavy feeling in the body which is worse on rainy days, brain fog, and general fatigue.  These are all signs of weak digestion.

Eat at least lightly cooked or steamed vegetables, meats, and drink warm or room temperature drinks (no ice) if you are a cold person.  In the summer months you can consume more cold foods, just notice how your digestive process responds to what you eat.

 

Herbs and foods that are warming include: ginger (fresh is milder, powdered is stronger), cinnamon, cloves, basil, rosemary, cumin, hot peppers, quinoa, sunflower seeds, parsnip, mustard greens, winter squash, sweet potato, kale, onion, leek, chive, garlic, cherry, citrus peel, dates.

 

  • Hot, Spicy Foods.  Be Aware.  If you tend to feel hot, are constantly hungry, have acne, foul smelling stools, burning urination, or have itchy, hot skin rashes, then hot spicy foods will make your situation worse.  The signs and symptoms above indicate heat in the body and adding hot or spicy foods will increase the heat and make you feel worse.  Herbs and foods that clear heat are seaweed, kale, mustard greens, lettuce, watermelon, cucumbers, strawberries, peppermint, chicory, dandelion leaves (Pu Gong Ying), chrysanthemum flower (Ju Hua), and the formula Qing Wei San which clears heat from the stomach.
  • Deep Fried Foods.  Be Aware.  Deep fried foods should be kept to a minimum.  Similar to dairy, fried foods lead to dampness which shows up in the body as edema and eventually excess fat in the body, as well as phlegm in the sinuses and lungs.  
  • Oils and Fats.  Avoid polyunsaturated oils such as corn, sunflower, safflower, soy, linseed/flax, and walnut.  Instead use olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, Ghee, butter, or animal fat.  Yes, I said animal fat.  Dr. Broda Barnes did extensive research on health and longevity with specific focus on thyroid disorders and heart disease and found substantial evidence that eliminating animal fats and dairy products greatly accelerates atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) which is a known risk factor for heart attacks.  For details on this research, read “Hypothyroidism Type 2” by Dr. Mark Starr, or look for Dr. Barnes’s research at the Broda O. Barnes, M.D. Research Foundation.


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