Life Changing Digestive Health
We all eat and digest food, assimilate the nutrients and eliminate toxic by-products. This process must be able to happen without physical blockages or impediments in order for us to thrive. But what if one experiences digestive discomfort often and suffers with pain after every meal? Unfortunately, digestive distress is becoming the norm for many people today. Why? The short answer is our stressful lifestyles, unhealthful eating practices, industrialized farming methods, genetically modified foods, processed foods filled with chemicals and a plethora of pro-inflammatory foods which can lead to disease. For many, getting control over digestion by improving one’s gut health is a life changing experience.
Allopathic medical doctors pay little or no attention to gut health. They typically haven’t been trained in digestive wellness practices. For the most part, it has been the holistic practitioners who have gotten in the trenches with people, helped them heal their guts and saved them from a lifetime of medication. Despite the dominance of pharmaceutical medications for gut issues, several diets have emerged to help facilitate gut healing.
Elaine Gottschall, with the help of Dr. Syndey Haas, healed her daughter of ulcerative colitis with nutritional protocols in the 1970’s. Elaine became an evangelist for this work and introduced the Specific Carbohydrate Diet to the world. This grain-free, lactose-free, sucrose-free diet remains popular today. Another mother, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride saved her autistic son from crippling behavioral issues by using traditional foods. She developed the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) Diet which is a comprehensive healing protocol built upon the work of Elaine Gottschall and Dr. Haas. More recently, the FODMAP (Fermentable Oligosaccharides Disaccharides Monosaccharides and Polyols) Diet was made popular in the early 2000s when Dr. Peter Gibson and Dr. Sue Shepherd created it as an elimination diet that can improve symptoms in functional gastrointestinal disorders. These and other healing diets are gaining popularity because the need for digestive repair is so great in society.
So, what do you do to help heal yourself and create a more enjoyable life without digestive distress? It can be confusing to start; there are many voices touting many solutions to a very simple problem — digesting and absorbing nutrients. What happened to the basic food fundamentals of farming, cooking, eating and digesting? It shouldn’t be this hard! While it can be challenging to make dietary changes, since our nutritional practices become engrained in our psyche right from birth, for those with a debilitating digestive issue, a solution must be sought out and implemented so that you can move on with your life. It is totally worth the time and effort to improve your digestive health and to live pain free.
Let’s simplify it: the key to improving digestive health lies in changing one’s eating habits, improving the quality of food and supportive supplements consumed, along with making lifestyle changes. But after years of gut damaging habits, these seemingly simple solutions may be challenging to implement. However, once you make up your mind to change, you will be on your way. Follow these three simple guidelines — STOP, LOOK and LISTEN — to help ease your journey to better digestive health.
STOP what you are doing! If you are in pain or are having negative digestive symptoms, revaluate your eating habits and stop what and how you are eating. Sometimes a big turnaround is needed to heal the digestive tract after years of abuse. Acknowledging that a change is needed is the first big step before taking action. You may be able to make changes to your dietary habits without help, but if not, seek out a holistic practitioner to help you sort out options, craft a plan and coach you through it.
LOOK at what you should be doing. Start by analyzing your behavior. Are you stressed all the time? Are you stressed while you are eating? Not good. Stress is a huge disruptor of the gut. Stress tightens your muscles, such as your intestinal tract, and makes it hard for them to work efficiently. Stress releases hormones that tell the body to shut down digestive processes and route blood and resources instead to vital organs for “fight or flight.” If you are continually stressed and leading a 24/7 lifestyle, your digestive system is not able to work efficiently. This can lead to chronic conditions and diseases.
The most successful patients are those who are willing to make dietary changes and lifestyle changes to reduce their stress levels. The digestive system has a better chance of calming down when you calm down. This is not just an adult problem. If you are a parent, don’t underestimate the stress your child may be under. Adolescents and young adults experience digestive disorders in some part due to internal or external stress from life issues, school or sports.
Another behavioral consideration is your willingness to cook. The simple truth is that fast foods and processed foods are not as healthful as the meals that are cooked in your kitchen from whole, organic foods. You do not have to be a gourmet chef; keep it simple and use common ingredients that are always available. I know it is not fair that some people can eat fast foods and are seemingly fine. We are all different, so don’t try to compare yourself! Eating your meals with regularity also helps maintain digestive health.
After you’ve analyzed your behavior, turn your attention to the foods you are eating. Are you eating foods that result in painful digestion? Burning, bloating or cramping? Does your brain feel foggy or do you feel fatigued or depressed after eating certain foods? This is not your imagination! The gut is intimately connected to the brain via the vagus nerve. Certain foods may elicit a drug-like reaction for some who are highly sensitive. Foods may cause allergic symptoms as simple as a stuffy nose or as severe as hives, breathing problems or even seizures. Fundamental nutrition like broths and soups are very healing. Substitute these types of meals instead of unhealthy fast or processed foods to start healing and work from there. Small changes made over time add up to a big solution!
LISTEN to your intuition about your body and follow that lead. Someone tells you that raw food is healthy so you feel it must be good for you, but when you try to eat it your abdomen hurts. Listen when your body says, “I can’t digest that raw stuff and here is a pain response to let you know.” If you feel dizzy after eating breads and sweets, don’t eat them! If you feel pain after eating raw nuts, stop eating them. If you get a rash after drinking commercial milk, stop drinking it! You are the best person to analyze foods as to whether they are healthful or hurtful for you. Trust how you feel and follow that path.
Sometimes after avoiding a food for a while the symptoms will lessen or go away as you give the body time to heal. Ultimately, our digestive system must liquefy all foods so the nutrients may be broken down and assimilated into the body. If you are in digestive distress, think about how much digestive power it is going to take to liquefy a food item. Raw nuts can be irritating if your gut is not up to the task. Produce that is juiced is easier to digest than a whole apple or a raw carrot. Whole organic foods are, by definition, good for you, but particular food items may be irritating if you are having digestive issues. Foods that are, in essence, “pre-digested” during preparation may be more comfortable for you to eat. Nut butters or ground nuts may go down easier than whole, raw nuts. Meats and vegetables cooked in liquid, like soups and stews, are easier to digest than grilled and raw foods. Cultured, fermented foods are basically “cooked” in a brine and will be easier to digest as well as a great source of probiotic bacteria.
Digestive wellness is in your hands. Avoid foods that you know are not good, such as processed foods filled with chemicals and GM (genetically modified) foods. Look inside of yourself by stopping, looking and listening to what is going on nutritionally. Efficient digestion improves your energy level, cardiovascular health and brain function, which can help you to think and feel better for accomplishing your tasks at home, school or work. Maintaining digestive wellness can be a life changing accomplishment.
Beth Colon, MS, is a holistic nutrition and wellness counselor and owner of Holistic Nutrition Services LLC. She practices at The Healing and Wellness Center in Westborough, MA. Beth specializes in digestive health and is a certified GAPS practitioner. Contact Beth at 978-340-0448 or visit www.HolisticNutritionServices.com.