Digestive concerns are among the most common health problems in America. They range from minor, if chronic, concerns like stomachaches, gas, and heartburn to serious conditions such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and there are many disorders in between. Pain, diarrhea, constipation, cramps, and bloating are all common symptoms. Sometimes poor digestion is, like other health concerns, a result of eating unhealthy or imbalanced meals. Many foods that are digestive aids have disappeared from the average American diet, and many foods that are very difficult to digest have been added in. Over time these foods put stress on the digestive system, and it can lose much of its ability to fulfill its basic function: metabolizing food into the proteins, sugars, fatty acids, and nutrients that are essential for life.
Digestion is special because, often, what you eat isn’t the whole story. It’s also important to take into accounthow you eat. When you’re eating under the proper conditions, even a supposedly unhealthy meal—like a high–fat meal—can pass through you causing relatively little damage. The reverse is also true: even a supposedly healthy meal may not do you much good unless you’re conscious of how you are eating it. By the “how” I mean things such as: whether you’re relaxed at home or rushing to get somewhere; whether you chew your food or gulp it down; whether you’re stressed or sociable; whether you combine the different food groups properly and eat foods in the right order; and so on.
The conventional recommendations for digestive problems are medications like steroids, antibiotics, and antacids. These substances often have side effects that are debilitating in themselves, and they represent the point of view that there is something innately and mysteriously wrong with the sick person’s digestive system. The body is malfunctioning, and the medication will fix it (if taken forever). In my experience, though, the problem is that as a society we’ve gotten accustomed to eating in a way that stresses the digestive system. Everyone I’ve worked with has seen their digestive problems begin to clear up for good, all because of making some simple changes in diet and lifestyle. In what follows, I’ll make some specific recommendations which highlight the difference for digestion between the traditional diets and the modern, and the way we ate then vs. now.
1. Maintain a healthy bacterial environment. The digestive system contains trillions of individual bacteria—more than there are cells in the body. They are responsible for much of the metabolism that occurs in the small intestine and elsewhere, because they secrete acids that help us absorb vitamins and minerals. They also aid the immune system by making the digestive system an inhospitable environment for disease–causing microbes. With a weak bacterial environment, we are both more susceptible to disease and have difficulty digesting our food. Many people have lost large amounts of their good bacteria through the use of antibiotics, which kill both good and bad bacteria indiscriminately. Antibiotics have saved many lives, but because they are so often prescribed (and not always with good cause), many people develop digestive problems and a weakened immune system as a result of overuse of antibiotics. The most direct way to replenish the intestinal flora is to take supplements (called Probiotics) that allow you to ingest large amounts of bacteria in capsule form, and I recommend them for those who have taken many antibiotics in the past. There are two strains of bacteria to take: Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria bifidum. You can easily find them in the supplements section of the health food store.
I rarely recommend supplements, because I think it’s important to get all of our nutrition from food. However, there are some people who have lost large amounts of bacteria through medications, and probiotics can help return a person to normal faster than bacteria–containing foods. Once your digestive problems clear up, you won’t need to keep taking these supplements.
Eating well and living a happy, healthy lifestyle is the best thing you can do to avoid being in a situation where antibiotics (and subsequently probiotics) are necessary. There is a food group that we can eat from for the purpose of maintaining digestive health: the fermented foods.
2. Make fermented foods a staple of your diet. Fermented foods have been eaten for thousands of years and should form a separate food group of their own in any respectable Food Pyramid. Controlled fermentation (probably discovered by accident) served as a way to preserve food for long periods of time. It was also soon discovered that fermented foods were very good for the digestion, and fermenting was done for this reason also.
Fermenting or culturing is a process in which bacteria are allowed to feast on a food (such as cabbage for making sauerkraut) and transform its sugars, or carbohydrates, into acids such as lactic acid. This is what gives many fermented foods a slightly sour taste. The reason why fermentation works as a preservation method is because the increased acidity prevents pathogenic bacteria from contaminating the food.
Fermented food is easier to digest because the bacteria have already done some of the work in digesting it for you. You can therefore access its nutrients much more easily and quickly. Another advantage of fermentation has to do with digestive enzymes. Enzymes are proteins that are catalysts for chemical reactions in the body. Without them, it’s impossible to metabolize food. Enzymes also are very important for eliminating toxins from the body. Many raw foods, including raw animal products, come with their own enzymes that are more easily accessible after fermentation. This is why yogurt can be tolerated by lactose intolerant people: the enzyme lactase converts the indigestible lactose sugar into lactic acid.
Cooking or baking, and pasteurization, will destroy both enzymes and bacteria. The advantage of cooking is that it’s also a form of metabolism making foods softer and easier to digest. A healthy diet will contain mostly cooked foods but also some raw fermented foods. These include dairy products like yogurt; pickles like pickled cabbage (sauerkraut) and other pickled foods such as umeboshi plums, pickled ginger, and plain old pickles; vinegar; and fermented soy foods like tamari soy sauce, miso, and tempeh. These foods have many digestive enzymes and live bacteria that make it possible to digest even very heavy, fatty food. It’s been theorized that part of the reason why we suffer so much from clogged arteries, overweight, constipation and poor digestion in this country is not necessarily because we eat too much meat and fat, but because all the fermented foods we used to eat are now either no longer part of the diet or heat–treated to destroy the very bacteria we need to be healthy.
3. Maintain an acid–alkaline balance. The overall pH of the body is meant to be just above 7.0 (slightly more alkaline than the pH of pure water). At this level of acidity, our immune system and our body’s metabolism work most efficiently. A balanced diet has a roughly equal amount of alkalizing foods and acidifying foods. Too much of one or the other can result in health problems. A good analogy for pH is temperature. Your body is always working to maintain a temperature of around 98.6. A few degrees too hot or cold and the body can’t survive. Similarly, the body is always working to maintain a pH balance. The average American diet, though, contains an excess of foods that make the body overly acid. This leads to a lot of health concerns like acid reflux and Crohn’s disease. Too many acidifying foods can also deplete the body of buffering minerals like calcium, because these are used to help excrete the acid. Coca–cola, with all its phosphoric acid, is a good example of an extremely acidifying food that may be partly responsible for health concerns like osteoporosis.
In general, acid–forming foods are meat, oils and fats, coffee, and most grains (both whole and refined), and other refined carbohydrates like sugars and alcoholic drinks. Since these foods are so prevalent in our diets, it’s no wonder we have so many excessive acid–related health concerns for which they sell antacids. But what’s best is to introduce more alkalizing foods into your diet, which means (as you may have guessed) fruits and vegetables. Some of the most alkalizing foods are onions, radishes, sweet potatoes, the aforementioned umeboshi plums, limes, tangerines, pineapples, grapefruits, broccoli and other green vegetables, and of course salt, though because salt is so extremely alkalizing it should be eaten almost as moderately as sugar. Sea salt and sea vegetables also contain many trace minerals that replenish those that the acidifying foods deplete. One of the best ways to get more alkaline quickly is to drink some lemon juice or water with some apple cider vinegar, or a teaspoon of umeboshi paste; these remedies will help with acid–related digestive problems very quickly. But if in general you balance out grains, fat, and meat with fresh vegetables at a meal, your digestion will improve.
4. Combine foods well. Sometimes problems like gas, stomachaches, and poor assimilation of nutrients are a result not of the ingredients in our food, but how we combine them. Since different kinds of foods break down at different times in different ways, eating them all randomly at once will cause problems. The combinations that work best are heavy foods like meat with vegetables (a sort of Atkins–like diet; no grains or beans, but also not a whole lot of fat); grains and beans with fats and cooked vegetables (rice and beans are both made more palatable and smoother to digest with the addition of some fat; like meat, they also go well with vegetables). Fruit is best eaten alone and not combined with any other foods, unless cooked, in which case it goes well with grains. Raw foods are also best eaten with other raw foods or alone, and not in the same dish as cooked foods. In general it’s important to avoid making recipes with too many different ingredients. A good experiment if you’re having digestive troubles such as those listed above is to try following these rules of food combining (having meat and vegetables for lunch, and a more vegan meal for dinner, and raw fruit as a snack).
Even more important than combining, though, may be the order in which you eat your foods. We have a custom of always eating our salad, or vegetables, as an appetizer at the beginning of a meal. This is precisely the dish we want to eat at the end! Refined grains, oils and fats, and animal foods don’t have fiber and have a tendency to stick in your digestive system without breaking down, causing weight gain and constipation, and sometimes they are assimilated into the bloodstream undigested, which can also cause serious problems. If you eat vegetables and whole grains last, they will push through these heavy foods and aid the digestive process. The foods that really should be eaten first, or at least alongside the heavy foods, are the fermented foods with enzymes like miso and sauerkraut. They will prepare the body to break down the fat and protein while the vegetables come in later to finish the job.
5. Eat mindfully. Even if you follow all these recommendations, your digestion may still suffer, unless you eat with awareness. Many people don’t even give their bodies a chance to focus on the job of digestion. We often eat under the worst of conditions: while stressed out, while driving, while watching TV or a movie, while working, or while doing any number of things that distract our attention from the food in front of us. Stress in particular draws resources away from digestion to deal with threats, real or imagined; digestion is effectively halted and stomachaches or headaches are often a result. Let’s say you are paying full attention to the meal in front of you. You might say a word of thanks before you begin, or start with a toast. You’re able to smell your meal and see it, perceptions that signal your body to be ready to receive the food. You’ll also taste it fully. I recommend always eating with this sort of mindfulness, if you can. Eat slowly, chew your food, and share the meal with someone; don’t eat alone. It’s very likely that even a high–fat diet (like that of the French, who typically take long social lunch breaks) will not cause as many problems if eaten in a relaxed and meditative mood. The best part is that when you’re paying attention, you’ll hear the automatic signals your body sends when telling you that it’s full. We don’t hear this stuff when we’re eating out of boredom or occupied with something else; and I recommend, even if you don’t change your diet at all to include bacteria or enzymes or more vegetables and alkalizers, that you at least slow down and enjoy your meals in good company.
This is a big topic, too much for me to cover in one article, but these recommendations are a basic foundation for how to overcome digestive problems and many health problems that are related (such as arthritis, osteoporosis, migraines, heart disease, autoimmune diseases in general, eczema and fatigue). As I mentioned above, I will be giving a workshop on this subject this weekend (February the 11th) at my home in Alexandria, in which I’ll discuss the above concepts in more detail and also discuss some others I didn’t have room for in this article (including more information about dairy products and digestion, chewing your food, pungent vegetables, further recommendations for eating mindfully, and recommendations for specific digestive concerns. I’ll also have samples of some of the more exotic foods I mentioned for people to try). Everyone is welcome to attend this workshop—if you are in the area, send me an email! I encourage you to come.