From occasional constipation or diarrhea to chronic digestive disorders such as irritable bowel disease (IBD) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), controlling symptoms is more important than food choices. A concept called “dietary hygiene” offers non-food ways to support your gut health.
What’s in the GI tract?
Our gut includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, and supporting organs such as the gallbladder and liver. This system does two main things: digestion and absorption. Digestion is the breaking down of food particles into smaller and smaller pieces, releasing carbohydrates, fats, proteins, water, vitamins and minerals. Combined with digestive secretions (such as stomach acid and bile), the intestines begin to absorb these nutrients, which are transferred from the intestines to the body’s cells, where the nutrients can be used for energy, building and repair, and other bodily processes.
Try these tips on food hygiene to help your digestion and absorption. These steps work with nutritious food choices, but the Gut and Food Choices blog is another matter.
The human gut is designed for eating gaps. We have a system called the mobile motor complex (MMC), which consists of a series of muscle contractions that help move food through the gut. This only happens when you’re not eating. If you’re eating a grazing diet (or taking small bites every hour), your MMC can’t efficiently move digested food (and also bacteria and other microbes) through your gut. Shift: Make it a point to eat regular meals and snacks every at least 2-4 hours. (Read more about beverages and digestion below.)
- Chew to the consistency of applesauce.
Digestion begins with chewing in your mouth. Swallowing food with little chewing means the rest of your stomach and intestines have to work harder to digest what you eat. Put another way: Chew well – as close to the consistency of applesauce as possible.
- The speed at which you eat.
Fast food usually means you don’t have time to chew your food efficiently (see above). Because your gut needs time to communicate to your brain that you’re feeling full, eating fast can lead to overeating and gut symptoms such as bloating and discomfort. Eating slowly takes practice and determination, especially if you’re used to eating when you’re pressed for time. Change: Slow down.
- Consistent food.
Eating at regular times throughout the day will give your body the energy it needs to accomplish all bodily processes, including digestion and absorption. Irregular eating can be characterized by eating one or two large meals a day, skipping meals, or eating at different times of the day. Change: Eating regular square meals and snacks every day.
What happens when you eat irregularly?
One or two large meals a day puts a lot of food into your gut. This can be challenging for your body to digest effectively and can lead to symptoms like bloating and discomfort.
As for irregular eating times each day, a long-term study has shown that irregular eating times are associated with higher rates of Helicobacter pylori infection. H. pylori is a gastric bacterial infection that causes gastric reflux and other symptoms. In another study, regular daily eating was associated with a lower incidence of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
While research on how skipping meals affects gastrointestinal or intestinal symptoms is mixed, skipping meals has been linked to heart disease and mental health challenges.
- High posture.
When you eat, stacking your shoulders and chest over your stomach squeezes your esophagus and stomach. (Think staring at your smartphone with your head and shoulders moving forward.) This can make swallowing difficult or put pressure on the muscles that allow food to pass between your esophagus and stomach. Change: straight when eating.
- Drink fluids with meals.
Your stomach contains stomach acid, which helps break down food, releases vitamin B-12 from protein foods, and helps kill bacteria and other microorganisms. Studies have shown that drinking water increases the pH of stomach acid (that is, stomach acid becomes weaker). While no studies have focused on the relationship between drinking water or other beverages and gut symptoms, it is thought that drinking water with meals may dilute stomach acid and lead to incomplete digestion of food. In fact, many gut health registered dietitians recommend against drinking water with meals. Change: Don’t drink water with a meal or take only a small sip.
- Fluids between meals.
Let’s go back to the Migration Movement Complex. Water and unsweetened coffee and tea don’t activate MMC and are great to drink between meals while still allowing your gut to focus on digestion and absorption. However, beverages like juice, milk, sweetened coffee, tea and soda contain carbohydrates, fats, proteins or nutrients that contain energy/calories. When the body detects a calorie in a food or drink, it triggers an MMC stop-switching back to digestion instead of intestinal motility. Research is still exploring how non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) (or alternative sweeteners or artificial sweeteners) affect MMC. Change: Choose water and sugar-free beverages in between meals.
- Eat less stress.
When we are stressed, the brain’s parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is active. This is commonly referred to as “rest and digest”. Effective digestion and absorption occurs in this relaxed state. Conversely, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – also known as “fight or flight” – slows down digestion. When we are stressed or busy, we may be in a “fight or flight” state when we eat. Staying in a place of “rest and digest” can support your gut health. Change: Take a few deep breaths before your first bite.
- Reward – Eat without interruption.
How many times have you watched a YouTube video or read a magazine while eating? This extra tip is an anecdotal story from my gut health journey. I focused on eating one meal a day without any distractions, like my cell phone. This forces me to do many of the things mentioned above: I eat more slowly, I chew well, I focus on my posture, and I eat with minimal stress. Yes, I spent a lot of time getting bored and noticing cobwebs on the ceiling, but after three or four months, I felt like I had a good foundation in using the Meal Hygiene Steps. My gut symptoms are much better too do I still do this? Not as often as I used to, but I do take care of my dietary hygiene every time I eat. Your journey won’t be like mine, but if you try any of these non-food methods, let me know which one’s work.