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The Gut-Brain Connection and its Effect on Digestion

When thinking about an individual’s digestion, what they are eating is often prioritized over how they are eating. Here are a few simple tips and information on why supplemental enzymes are helpful.

Digestive complaints are one of the most common reasons patients seek care. It also seems like the majority of Americans suffer from some sort of digestive complaint -, gas, bloating, constipation, you get the picture…

When we think about improving an individual's digestion, we typically dive right into what they are eating, but we frequently overlook HOW they are eating! It’s not simply the food we consume, but the way we consume it that’s also important.

The digestive tract operates with a few key components; the enzyme action and mechanical activity that digests and moves food, the health of our gut flora, and the third (and often overlooked) component - the enteric nervous system (ENS), often called our “second brain”.

According to Jillian Teta, ND of Fix Your Digestion, the ENS is a plexus of nervous tissue in the GI tract that coordinates nearly every aspect of digestion including production of digestive factors such as enzymes and motility. Disruption of the ENS has been identified as a key feature in digestive concerns.

So, how do you hack the ENS to ensure optimum digestion?

  • As you sit down to eat, take 6-10 deep breaths before eating. It is well known that deep breathing calms the ENS and also the autonomic nervous system, pushing it away from “fight or flight” and more towards “rest and digest” mode.

  • Eat mindfully. “Mindless” eating is a recipe for overeating. Slow down and eat with all of the senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. ENJOY the food you are eating. In general, research shows that mindful eating helps people improve digestion, maintain normal body weight and have better overall health.

  • Take your time- eat slowly, Chew the food well. Remember that chewing is the important first step in the digestive process.

  • Pause frequently. As we all know, it takes time for the brain to catch up with the stomach when it comes to satiety. Pausing between bites, and before taking seconds or filling the plate fully is a great way for the brain to catch up with that true feeling of fullness.

  • Either rest or take a relaxing walk. A slow, brief, relaxing walk after a meal frees the mind and aids peristalsis. Suggesting a walk with family, friends or pets before dessert is a great way to get your digestive system moving. But remember, this is not a time to “exercise”. It’s time to “rest and digest”.

  • Try “bitters”. A few drops of bitters in water taken before a meal helps prime the digestive juices and enzymes to promote better digestion.

  • If symptoms persist, take enzymes. Even after following these key tips, patients may still struggle with digestive concerns. Digestive enzymes help most patients find relief fast. There is never a bad time to have patients give digestive enzymes a try.

Digestive enzymes are a staple in the integrative practitioner’s dispensary, because we know proper digestion and nutrient absorption is essential to good health.

While there may be inherent or genetic functional deficits to begin with, food allergies or sensitivities affecting GI function, illness or injury, it’s very important to remember that digestion is easily derailed by stress. Addressing the gut-brain connection through deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation and mindful eating are all ways to improve digestion and stress-related digestive concerns. To speed the process, calming supplements such as theanine, and herbal teas made with chamomile, lemon balm, passionflower, valerian and other calming herbs can be recommended before meals, along with the use of bitters or enzymes.

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