Late night again, last night? More pizza, beer, then overload on carbs this morning? No worries, happens to the best of us. But when it happens often, then your gut becomes unhappy and it starts to hurt and bother you.
Digestion is a complex system, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist (or even a GI) to make it work quite well. Instead of trying to change your habits wholesale overnight (unlikely), there's a set of small, quick things that you can do to get yourself into a rhythm.
When you set up digestive habits on an auto-pilot, you will notice quality of life goes up, across the board. But first, you have to tweak your mindset to begin to notice patterns and then problems - to prevent them.
Keep track of your bowel movements, note the frequency and quality and color. Note the reaction of your gut to certain foods. Begin to listen to your body and you'll start to care.
When I was young, I started having acid sensitivity. As a result, I had to listen to my body early - or to suffer when I didn't. This forced me to keep careful track of food I ate, my regularity. Over the years, I've learned what to avoid and what to add, when it is best to eat and when to fast, what are my limits of digestion and how far to test them.
Here are the mostly quick and easy tips I've found to make a world of difference for me.
1) Get 7-8 hours of sleep a night.
It seems quite obvious, but few of us actually get enough sleep each day. Here's another great reason to try again and again. Sleeping well is easily the simplest thing to do for your digestive health.
When you don't sleep enough - or well - your stomach growls, you're not well-rested and more stressed from little and big things. Stress makes things even worse for your digestion. It's a vicious cycle.
2) Drink lukewarm water with a few drops of fresh lemon juice and a spoon of good honey first thing in the morning.
This is a very easy and effective (Ayurvedic) way to start your digestion off right in the morning. It helps clean out the toxins from the night in your organism and lets your gut focus on its main task.
3) To lower stomach acidity in the morning, eat a banana and drink kefir or eat high-quality (ideally, unflavored) yogurt with natural pro-biotic cultures to replenish your gut bacteria.
Your gut flora is a central and critical actor in your digestion. If it's decimated by antibiotics or harmful foods, it will make digestion much less efficient - and painful for you. Keep your gut bacteria plentiful and healthy and you'll find yourself regular as a train whistle.
4) Walk/move/run throughout the day.
Physical activity stimulates peristalsis (the movement of digesting food through the large and small intestines). Sitting is good while eating to let your body concentrate on digesting in the stomach. However, when you sit for hours and allow the food to digest further down in the intestines, the process takes longer and is less efficient. Simply getting up to stretch and walk around the office - or during a break - can keep things moving along.
5) Cut out baked goods and simple carbs as much as possible - especially for breakfast each morning.
Eating yeasty baked goods regularly spikes your glucose and can lead to pre-diabetes, plus causes a strong spike in stomach acid each morning in anticipation (and increases your sense of hunger, causing you to overeat), if you do nothing else to take it down a notch (see #3 above). These goodies also reliably cause weight gain. It may be a tasty treat now, but its ill effects built up quickly.
6) Hydrate your body throughout the day, but intelligently.
Hydration is a science that can be easily perfected to facilitate, improve and regulate digestion. Each body is different, so don't worry too much about government recommendations. Just keep a water bottle with fresh water at your desk and take a gulp or two at least every 45-60 minutes.
NEVER drink water during the meal, since this will dilute your stomach's acidity and power to digest the food, leading to bloating, burping and inefficient digestion.
The ideal time to drink (ideally lukewarm, lemon-juice-and-honey-flavored) water is within 30 minutes BEFORE a meal and at least 30 minutes AFTER a meal, to allow for the best effects.
7) Eat a large breakfast, smaller lunch and a small dinner.
Your digestive capacity is most efficient and energetic in the morning, less so in the afternoon for lunch and least so for dinner, after a day of activity, stress and hard work.
For this reason, don't eat past 7 PM. At this point, your digestive system's efficiency is ebbing toward its lowest during sleep. Overloading your gut with food - especially heavy, oily food - is a sure recipe for digestive problems like bloating, constipation and heartburn.
8) Eat the same circumscribed set of things from day to day.
When you get your gut used to the same relatively small variety of nutritionally valuable foods (accounting for a balance of protein, fiber and grains) that your system handles well, you minimize the strain (and energy spent, plus any associated problems) on your digestive tract to deal with harsh or unfamiliar foods.
For example, throughout the week for lunch, I rotate the side dish, but keep the staples always at hand. I usually have baked chicken or salmon each day for lunch with either quinoa, brown rice or buckwheat. This keeps it manageable and gives enough variety, without giving my gut something unfamiliar and harsh to deal with on a daily basis. This means fewer system resources (metabolic energy) spent to digest - and more energy left over for everything else.
Keeping this rhythm also allows me to "cheat" once or twice a week on the Sabbath, when I eat two large meals with family and friends, plus a big brunch on Sunday. That's because I know that I'm back to the same steady rhythm on Monday until Friday night.
9) Take your meals at the same times each day.
Your body - like everyone else's - has particular circadian rhythms that regulate wakefulness, hormonal balance, mood - and digestion, among other things. If you take your meals at the times when you generally get hungry - and keep those times the same each day, then you will see that your digestive system and your eating habits will align closely. Try as much as you can to avoid taking meals at strange times and minimize late-night feasts, skipping breakfast and postponing lunch.
10) Don't eat at your desk or when in a rush.
Don't stress yourself with work and other concerns. Turn off your phone for a few minutes and step outside. Sit in a park and truly relax.
Don't eat when stressed. It only makes your digestion worse and adds to misery. Calm down, then eat in peace.
11) If having trouble digesting, eat pineapple/melon/watermelon/papaya after your meal.
Each of these fruits contain enzymes to help cut apart the proteins you just ate into smaller pieces, making it easier to digest. Cultures around the world (from Japan to Turkmenistan to Cuba) serve these to help digestion.
Alternatively, drink tea (anything warm or hot without too much caffeine helps) after the meal. Take coffee sparingly to avoid diarrhea, depending on your sensitivity to caffeine.
12) Control portion size and keep it consistent from day to day.
Eating too much or too little - and changing this all the time, as in when on a diet - is damaging to the feedback between your mind and gut. Your body hoards sugars and fats, so if you eat less of it one day, you will more likely compensate with more, the next day. Instead of trying to fool yourself and your body, just keep your portions sufficient to fill you (and not more) and manage them carefully.
One easy way to control portion sizes is to take your food from home in a pre-determined container that's the same from day to day. When eating a meal at home, simply choose a smaller plate if you're trying to control your portions. You will see this trick alone will make you feel fuller.
13) Remove yourself from the context where you overload on carbs, coffee, booze and other unhealthy foods.
Avoid hanging out with the people who have those unhealthy habits and you'll start losing those habits yourself.
Don't go for those free bagels at breakfast or cupcakes 4 PM. Take a walk, instead. Don't go near that break room. Have your own healthy snacks ready at your desk.
14) Snack on healthy foods throughout the day and don't let yourself get too hungry (for too much acid to be secreted before you eat).
Fresh fruit and veggies work well (dried, as well, depending on sugar and salt content). Almonds are a great snack and help suppress appetite.
The less unhealthy commercial snacks include PopChips and veggie sticks, although beware of the oils used to make them (also bad for digestion). Simple and healthy snacks can be in the form of a Wasa or other flat Scandinavian cracker with cream cheese or jam. Any of these are preferable to drizzled popcorn, potato chips, soda, fruit juice, baked goods and the other usual suspects.
15) Don't go shopping when hungry.
It's an oldie, but a goodie (even while seemingly obvious). You know best when you're hungry. Go shopping AFTER eating, NEVER before.
Stick to your list and set a short time to finish your shopping to avoid grabbing a ton of junk.
16) Take periodic, day-long fasts to reset your digestive system and clear out the toxins.
Use excuses like Lent, fast days or other religious or social reasons to fast periodically throughout the year, without going overboard. Your body will only benefit, as long as you're not pregnant or breast-feeding at the same time.
17) If digesting your food bothers you beyond once-in-a-while, do an elimination diet to see if taking something out prevents certain problems.
Look for allergies leading to heartburn, constipation, bloating, diarrhea, etc. This may instantly improve how you feel when digesting.
18) Avoid drinking coffee at the wrong time during the day.
This can put your digestion our of commission for a while.
We all know the cliches of being exactly what we eat. But science shows quite well that this is true. Digestion holds the key to our longevity and health.
And thus, go forth, digest in peace! Your body - and your productivity and mood - will thank you.
I'll be rooting for your success, as always!
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Yuri Kruman is a healthcare entrepreneur, published author and blogger at BlueprintToThrive.com, based in New York.