“What is healthy digestion?” The answer to this question is slightly different for each of us, but there are some common things to look for. Eastern medicine views our digestive function as the foundation of good health and wellbeing. Western research into gut microbiota supports this principle too.
The digestive system
When I refer to digestive function I mean everything that happens from mouth to anus. We generally know, or at least have the ability to know, what we put in our mouth and what ends up in the toilet…
But what happens in between?
Digestion starts here, with the chewing of our food and the release of saliva. Saliva contains an enzyme called amylase, which starts the breakdown of carbohydrate in foods.
The highly acidic environment starts the digestion of protein and fats. Our stomach can only contain a small volume of food, so it is important to chew our food well and eat slowly.
From the stomach, the partially digested food moves into the small intestine. Bile from the gall bladder, as well as enzymes and other secretions from the pancreas aid digestion. The surface area of the small intestine is the size of a tennis court and facilitates the absorption of nutrients.
The remaining undigested food and fibres are fermented by bacteria and other micro-organisms. These micro-organisms have a number of roles in supporting our mental and physical health, as outlined in my article on the gut microbiota. Food residues and remaining bacteria form a stool, also called faeces, and this is passed from the body via the rectum and anus.
What is healthy digestion?
The Eastern description of healthy digestion includes:
- Well formed, easy to pass stools
- Pleasant smelling breath
- Predictable appetite
- Clear pink coloured tongue, without a white coating
Western medicine also encourages well formed, easy to pass stools, which are related to intestinal transit time. Transit time is the time between eating and passing a stool. Research led to the development of the Bristol Stool Chart.
If a stool takes too long to pass it can become dry and hard and lead to constipation. If transit time is too fast, then nutrient and water absorption is decreased. You could also have diarrhoea.
Other characteristics include:
- No excess bloating or pain
- No excess gas, or smelly gas
- Feeling replenishment after eating—sustained physical energy and concentration
The features of poor digestion
Poor digestion is associated with a number of symptoms:
- Abdominal pain,
- Excessive bloating, your clothes feel too tight
- Excess gas and possibly smelly
- Unpleasant smelling breath
If you experience any of the symptoms of poor digestion, or notice a change in your digestive function then I recommend seeking a full examination with your doctor to identify the cause.
Gastrointestinal disorders are difficult to diagnose because a range of factors influence the function of our digestive system.
Your digestive system may be reacting to food intolerances or allergies, or you may have a digestive disorder such as gastro-oesophageal reflux or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Mindful eating supports digestion
Mindful eating includes being aware of why, what and how we are eating. Our digestive function is affected by different foods, as well as the quantity of food.
The quality of our eating experience and digestive function is also influence by how fast we eat. Eat slowly and chew your food well.
Eat slowly and chew your food well.
Mindful eating encourages us to connect with our appetite and our intuitive sense of what we feel like eating. It builds our confidence in knowing how to nourish ourselves.
The Eating for You book provides a step-by-step guide to healthy digestion