Do you get tummy aches often after eating? Suffer from heartburn or indigestion? Or find yourself uncomfortably full after meals? When was the last time you really slowed down and thought about the process of eating?
When we eat, we don’t often really stop to think about how the food we are enjoying actually nourishes our bodies—the actual physical and biochemical processes that turn food into energy and nutrients. But, understanding that process can be vital in getting the most nourishment from the food we eat, and in making us feel our best after we eat. Let’s take a closer look at the process of digestion, and how eating mindfully can help make us feel great!
Digestion Begins Before We Eat
Digestion actually begins before food ever enters our mouths. When you first start to think, see, smell or think about food, your central nerve system sends signals that release hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes which prepare your body to take in and digest food.
When you are stressed (and in fight-or-flight mode), this parasympathetic response doesn’t kick in and your digestive system doesn’t get primed for food. Your body forgets about digestion, because it’s busy dealing with crisis. This is one of the reasons it is important to slow down and center ourselves before meal time, not just mindlessly eating.
Chewing: An Important First Step
Chewing food is important for two reasons. First, the mechanical process of chewing breaks down food into smaller pieces that are more easily digested in the gut. In fact, food should be ground down into a paste to be properly digested. Second, chewing your food completely mixes it with saliva. The saliva in your mouth isn’t just there to keep your mouth moist. It also contains important digestive enzymes that begin to break down the building blocks of food (primarily starches) into smaller particles.
Therefore, chewing food thoroughly is very important for proper digestion. If you swallow larger pieces of food that haven’t been mixed with saliva, those food particles become food for bacteria, which can cause gas, bloating and discomfort.
Stop and think for a moment: How long do you chew your food?
Digestion in the Stomach
When you swallow, food passes down your esophagus and past the lower esophageal sphincter into your stomach. When you are stressed, this sphincter can stay open, which can cause acid reflux, or heartburn.
The stomach contains hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes, which mixes with the food you have chewed and begins to break it down into smaller parts (primarily carbohydrates and proteins) to make it ready to move into the small intestines. It usually takes about four hours for the stomach to empty, depending on what you’ve eaten. Simple carbohydrates empty faster, whereas meals with fiber, protein or fat empty more slowly.
The stomach works best when it’s only about 80 percent full, giving plenty of room to mix everything up effectively. If there’s not enough room, some food in the stomach may travel into the small intestines partially undigested, causing gas and bloating. This means eating until you are about 80 percent full—satisfied but not stuffed.
The stomach also works best when it has enough stomach acid. Digestion can be slowed by acid-reducing medications, such as proton pump inhibitors, that stop stomach acid production. Reduced stomach acid can actually cause IBS and other digestive conditions.
The Small Intestines: Where Nourishment Happens
The small intestine is the powerhouse of digestion. Here, the digested food from the stomach (called chyme) are mixed with digestive enzymes (like lactase) or other secretions (like bile) which further break them down for absorption into the body.
The lining of the small intestines are covered in villi—little fingerlike projections which grab nutrients from the food and pull them toward the surface of the small intestines for absorption into the bloodstream. The lining of the small intestines also keep potentially harmful organisms—like bacteria—out of the bloodstream. Approximately 70 percent of your immune system is located in your gut, protecting you from toxins. Like the rest of your body, your gut immune system works best with a whole foods diet and balanced lifestyle.
If you have larger food particles that have escaped into the small intestine (from not chewing enough, not enough stomach acid, or eating too much) the food may move slowly through the small intestines undigested and become a breeding ground for bacteria. While bacteria mostly live in the large intestines, when they move in to the small intestines it’s called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), causing gas, bloating and discomfort.
The Last Stop: The Large Intestine
All of the undigested food—what’s left of it, anyway—passes from the small intestine to the large intestine. In the large intestine, this undigested food is consumed by bacteria—most of them friendly flora that live in your body and are beneficial to you. These good bacteria break down carbohydrates that we don’t have the enzymes to digest (like cellulose), producing biotin, vitamin K, short chain fatty acids, and other nutrients.
We can increase these good bacteria in our gut by eating probiotic-rich foods (like yogurt, cheese, fermented foods) or taking a probiotic supplement.
It takes approximately 32 hours for digested food to move through your large intestines before it’s eliminated. In the meantime, the large intestine absorbs nutrients produced by the bacteria and reabsorbs water into the body, before the byproduct is excreted.
The Bottom Line on Digestion & Feeling Great
- Take a few deep breaths and a moment of silence before you eat. Give yourself time to see and smell your meal so your body becomes ready for nourishment and digestion.
- Chew slowly and completely, giving yourself time to really taste and appreciate your food. Make your meal last at least 20 minutes.
- Eat until you are 80 percent full, satisfied but not stuffed. This gives your stomach enough room to effectively digest your meal.
- If you notice that you have symptoms of gas, bloating or acid reflux, think about these different stages of digestion. Can you pinpoint the cause? For example, too much stress, eating too quickly, eating too much, taking acid-reducing medications, too much sugar in your diet, no probiotic-rich foods? Make small changes and see if your symptoms improve.