5 Easy Ways to Optimize your Digestion for Easter!
Easter Dinner. It can be one of the most joyous meals of the year. Or it may be one of the most uncomfortable meals of the year. Let's discuss how we can prevent the latter so you can focus on the joy!
Here are some simple solutions to helping you digest your large Easter (and any other celebratory) meal. These are in order of when they would apply to the meal.
Traditionally, families would say Grace or give thanks before every meal. This would allow everyone to stop and focus on the moment before diving in for the first bite. There's little research behind this one, but I find taking pause before you start eating, whether it's to pray, give thanks or even catch your breath, can make a big difference. It reminds your body it's time to rest and digest.
I personally also give specific thanks to animals when I consume a meal that contains meat. That may seem a bit odd, but most of us have become disconnected from our food, and it's important to remember that the meat we're eating was previously an animal (eg another living being).
In several Native cultures, animals that were killed and consumed were first thanked and/or worshiped. This allowed the hunters/consumers to honour the animal that was about to give them life.
However you do it, take a few moments before every meal and give thanks to the food to prep your digestion and your soul for the beautiful meal you're about to consume.
We're always in a rush these days. Whether it's working, walking, driving, loving, eating - everything has to be done fast so we can get to the next task. Well, that doesn't bode well for your digestion.
Your digestive system works best when your nervous system is in a parasympathetic (or relaxed) state. It's in this state that your digestive juices are secreted, your digestive tract relaxes and your food gets processed optimally. The opposite is a dry and tight digestive system that would rather you don't put anything in it - doesn't sound like fun, does it?
Here are three ways to slow down when you eat:
1) Chew More - aim to chew 20-30 times per bite. It may seem crazy at first, but do it consistently, and eventually you won't even notice you're chewing so much.
2) Put your Cutlery down between each bite - this too may seem strange, but you'll find putting down your cutlery will enable you to be more mindful of what's currently in your mouth, rather than loading up for the next bite before the current bite is down.
3) Engage in Conversation - having a meaningful conversation during mealtime will force you to slow down. Ever notice that meal time is quiet? Try going to a traditional Italian meal. The conversation only gets louder and the meal often lasts hours. This is proven to contribute to optimal digestion and is a habit practiced by some of the oldest people in the world!
If the above suggestions just aren't cutting it or you need a little extra support, these are some simple digestive aids that may help your GI functional more optimally. Exercise caution when using these and consult a Naturopathic Doctor or other qualified healthcare provide if you're unsure whether you can take these.
Apple Cider Vinegar
There's nothing more traditional to help your digestion than a sip of fermented apples. By taking a small amount before a meal, this is one of the best ways to increase your stomach acid. In fact, low stomach acid is often the cause of acid reflux since low it can cause foaming of food, which leads to regurgitation.
We get a lot of questions regarding what kind of apple cider vinegar is best. We typically recommend an organic kind that contains the Mother (original, unstrained filtrate) and is unpasteurized. You can find this in the health food aisle of your grocery store or any health food store.
Take a small amount right before meals to help your stomach do its job!
Another traditional means of supporting digestion, "bitters" are simply bitter herbs that cause an increase in the release of digestive secretions (acid, bile, enzymes) necessary for digestion. When you take a bitter herbal formula, it first stimulates the bitter taste receptors on your tongue (you'll notice), which sends a signal along the vagus nerve to stimulate the stomach, pancreas, liver and gall bladder, indicating it's time to get going. This should naturally occur when you smell food (the first step of digestion), but we sometimes need a little help.
Historically, a bitter tincture, plant or liquor (Campari, for example) would have been consumed shortly before a meal for this reason.
St. Francis Herb Farm has a great formulation called Canadian Bitters, based on the well-known formulation of Swedish Bitters.
Similar to apple cider vinegar, take bitters in small amounts (see product recommended dosage) shortly before meals. They should help digest a large meal and reduce discomfort, bloating and flatulence after.
A more recent addition to the toolbox, digestive enzyme supplements are typically a blend of enzymes found in our digestive tracts or in foods. Enzymes act like scissors for your macronutrients (large food particles), cutting them into smaller pieces to aid absorption. Normally, the majority of your digestive enzymes would be secreted by your pancreas, liver, stomach and small intestine, but the amount of enzymes will be decreased if your gut is damaged or you're stressed when eating. With large meals, you may also not have enough to break down the food fast enough, resulting in that ever-familar "I'm so full" sensation!
One enzyme that is now commonly known is lactase, used to break down lactose, the most common carbohydrate molecule found in milk. If you're lactose intolerant and take lactase, it helps break down lactose into tiny, manageable pieces so your digestive tract can deal with it. If you're lactose intolerant and don't take lactase, the undigested lactose will travel to your large intestine where bacteria will ferment it, resulting in the beautiful smell of methane.
Digestive enzymes can be very effective in helping you digest large meals, but should not be abused. If used too frequently, your body may reduce it's natural production of enzymes, thereby forcing you to keep taking more supplements. Use these wisely and sparingly when consuming a very large meal only or when under the guidance of a qualified healthcare provider.
Post-Meal Digestive Relaxation Aids
So what if you've been grateful, taken a few digestive aids, slowed down and engaged in conversation, but you're still feeling uncomfortably full after an excessively large Easter meal? Not to worry, we have a few tricks for that as well.
These are herbs that help relax the digestive system and include well-known herbs like chamomile, peppermint and fennel. An easy way to ease digestive tension after a large meal is to consume a carminative tea or chew on fennel seeds. Just don't consume the tea too close to the meal (at least 30 minutes after your last bite) to ensure your stomach acid stays acidic and keeps breaking down that meal!
Yes, we're back to bitters. Although ideal before a meal, bitters can also be taken after a meal to continue helping with secretion of digestive juices. Similarly to digestive enzymes, don't overdo it with bitters or your digestion may eventually become lazy.
If you're interested, our Rest & Digest tea includes both carminatives and bitter herbs. Several of these herbs may grow in your garden, so feel free to make your own tea using our formula or something similar. Just make sure you know what you're picking!
Take a Load Off
That's right - after a meal, put your feet up and take a load off for a while. Coming back to optimizing Parasympathetic (relaxation) nervous system functon, be sure to relax after you eat, especially after eating a large meal. This is why it's still common to take a siesta (nap) after meals in many Mediterranean cultures. If you immediately engage in a physical or stressful activity after eating, your body will direct blood away from your gut and prevent optimal digestion from happening.
So by golly, if there's one thing you do, RELAX after eating!
These are some basic tips for optimizing digestion this Easter or with all future meals.
Always keep in mind that these are general recommendations and may not apply to you. If you are unsure whether certain supplements or foods are good/recommended for you, consult with a Naturopathic Doctor or other qualified healthcare provider.