Why is digestion the “head of the dog”? What does that even mean? Basically, it all starts with digestion. Today, we’ll take a look at why many chronic health issues develop over time as the result of poor digestion. And then I’ll offer nuggets (no, not chicken nuggets) for how you can improve your digestive system. Because a balanced digestive system is great preventative medicine!
While I was at the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition, we learned A LOT about the digestive system (obvs). We also focused on how and why it impacts the other body systems with time. One of our main instructors would repeat to us over and over that “it all starts with digestion because it’s the head of the dog.” She said it many times in many different ways until she felt we got the message.
This makes sense. To over simplify it, if we aren’t properly digesting the foods we consume (which can be due to a host of reasons, some explained below), we’re not getting the key nutrients our other body systems need for optimal function. Also, without good digestion, there will be an imbalance in our gut bacteria, leading to many other issues down the road. Scientific research is discovering new links every day to the human microbiome (i.e. the microorganisms living in our gut) and various illnesses and conditions. This gut microbiota dysbiosis (or imbalance), so far, has proven associations with localized gastrointestinal (GI) disorders (such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome), along with neurological, cardiovascular, metabolic, hepatic (liver), and respiratory illnesses. Quite the list already!
It’s insidious because these other big health concerns don’t show up right away. So, it’s hard for us to connect the dots between problems we’re experiencing in our immune or urinary systems, for example, to issues with our digestion. It all happens slowly over the years and decades.
What are three of the main causes of weak digestion?
All forms of stress. Mental, emotional, physical, chemical, etc. When the sympathetic nervous system switches on during periods of stress, it shunts blood away from the entire digestive tract. This means that the stomach and intestines stop functioning. Dealing with the stressor always comes first.
Not drinking enough water and overeating are two types of physical stress you may unknowingly be putting your body through. These are common things I see with my clients and others.
If you’re feeling stressed at a particular moment, it’s better not to force yourself to eat at that time. I know if I’m stressed, eating is the last thing I want to do. Focus on finding ways to manage this stress instead.
Poor Eating Mechanics
The entire digestive process starts with chewing. And it’s not just about the mechanics of breaking down the food into smaller parts. As we chew, saliva starts to form and mix in with the food. Saliva contains an enzyme, ptyalin (or salivary amylase), that begins the chemical breakdown of carbohydrates. Saliva is also needed to lubricate the chewed food as you swallow.
All this to say that chewing your food well is super important. If the food isn’t in your mouth long enough, the burden of breaking it all down will fall to the other sections along the GI tract. In time, these parts will be overworked and won’t be up to the task any longer.
Immediate signs that you aren’t chewing enough are feelings of bloating/gas and general discomfort.
Going hand-in-hand with not chewing enough is eating in a rush. This is both habitually eating too fast and eating on the go. Learning to eat mindful and slow is a habit you can build with practice.
Some call it “grazing”. I don’t like that term for the obvious connotation. But, yes, the human body isn’t equipped to be eating too frequently.
Here, in North America, the snacking industry is huge. Thanks in large part to the food marketing industry push. It’s become a cultural norm to snack. According to a study done by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, 24% of all meals in Canada are snacks. And the average number of snacks per capita is growing, increasing significantly since 2000.
Many of the processed snack foods are low in nutritional quality and engineered to have us wanting more (see my blog post on Taste Training). But besides that, it takes a lot of digestive power to be breaking down food all day. Many of us don’t have that kind of power. We need to give this system a break throughout the day by spacing out our eating. To put it in perspective, it takes about 4 to 6 hours for the stomach to empty out from a meal.
Also, developing the habit of eating when not hungry can easily turn into emotional eating. Bored or tired? Why not go grab a snack?
Good news is that our bodies are always seeking balance and healing. Survival instincts working at the cellular level as I like to think of it. Thus, we have the ability to improve digestive function. It’s never too late to start! It’s our job to support our digestive system with nutritious food (a big one!) and proper eating habits.
What are some additional tips to aid digestion?
Do the opposite of the top three things I mentioned that weaken digestion. So, that’s minimize stress (eating in a relaxed state), eat mindfully, and don’t snack as often.
Get ample amounts and good sleep (see my post 5 Lesser Known Benefits of a Good Snooze for reasons why).
Ensure you’re doing enough physical activity, which gets the blood flowing through the digestive system making it all move well. Hence why walking after a meal aids digestion.
Don’t drink beverages with your meals. This dilutes the digestive juices.
Check in and ask yourself the W5 of eating – Who am I eating with? What am I eating? Where am I eating? When am I eating? Why am I eating? These are all important questions in determining if the stage is set right to allow for good digestion.
Here’s a link to an excellent mindbodygreen.com blog post 10 Simple Ideas To Heal Your Digestion Naturally for some more ideas on what you can do to heal your gut.
As always, I offer one-on-one guidance to overcome any digestive issues you may be experiencing. And even if you don’t have digestive issues, we can tailor a plan to optimize its function (there’s always room for improvement, right?!) and to achieve your main health goals too. Click HERE for more info about my services. Or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Question for you – are you surprised to find out how vital good digestion is to your health? Why or why not? Please leave your answer in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you!
References (and my many thanks to):
Colbin, A. Food and Healing. Tenth Anniversary ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 1986. 140-41. Print.
“Consumer Corner: Snacking in Canada”. (2014, March 31). Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. Retrieved September 29, 2017, from http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/sis13895.
Lessard-Rhead, B. Nutritional Pathology. Third ed. Richmond Hill: CSNN, 2015. 149-52. Print.
Lynch, S.V., and Pedersen, O. (2016, December 15). “The Human Intestinal Microbiome in Health and Disease”. New England Journal of Medicine. Retrieved September 29, 2017, from www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMra1600266.