Of course, as a nutritionist, I believe that the foods you choose to eat and the quality of those foods are going to play an important role in your health. But what’s even more important than your food choices is the health of your digestive system. Even if the foods you choose are great – a variety of nutrient-dense whole foods – you are not going to be able to get the nutrition out of them if your digestive system is not working efficiently.
It’s easy to think digestive health doesn’t apply to you if you don’t have bloating, gas or stomach aches. Don’t get me wrong, these are definitely symptoms of an under functioning digestive system, but so is every other symptom under the sun because they are all related to the digestive system. This includes skin issues such as acne, eczema or dandruff. It includes mental health symptoms of depression, anxiety and general mood. It includes PMS and sugar cravings. It includes insomnia and fatigue. And most near and dear to my heart, it includes chronic headaches or migraines.
When the digestive system is not functioning efficiently, it has been affected by inflammation. You are likely familiar with inflammation from any issues you see ending in “itis” such as gastritis or arthritis. In fact, it is most common to connect inflammation with joint issues and joint issues only. But inflammation has much more widespread effects in the body.
Many natural health practitioners will say that all symptoms and diseases stem from inflammation. While I don’t disagree, I’d like to clarify that it can all be tied to inflammation in the gut, in the digestive system.
Whether we call the efficiency of the digestive system digestive vitality, power or fire, I want you to have a strong digestive system. In today’s post, I am sharing the importance of the digestive system and a couple tips on how to can restore that fire.
When something’s inflamed you think of it as heat, like a fire. My favourite analogy for digestive strength uses fire. Consider if we have a small fire – in order to build this fire, we want to put on some kindling, wood or some high quality fuel in order to build it up to a nice, big fire, right? But if we have already built up a nice, big fire we can stand to throw on a wet log or two and that fire is still going to be nice and big. On the other hand, if we throw a wet log on to a small, little flame, it’s going to put it right out.
In this analogy the fire represents your digestive strength and the wood represents your food. What we put on the fire will determine if we build it up, dampen it or put it right out. When it comes to keeping the fire strong, problems arise when we have either a little flame that struggles to build or a big flame that we keep throwing wet logs on (poor quality food) that puts the fire out and creates a lot of smoke (symptoms) in our bodies.
This analogy makes two things clear: food choices are incredibly important in building a strong fire (digestive strength) but can only get you so far if you haven’t got a flame going. On the flip side, a strong fire can withstand some poorer quality wood (food choices) now and again. Perfection is not required.
Adding in some key whole foods that you’ve read are good for headaches or other symptoms is sure to help and bring a lot of health benefits. But if at the root, poor digestive health still exists, you haven’t fully solved the problem.
Poor digestion goes hand in hand with an imbalanced microbiome or dysbiosis. Dysbiosis is an imbalance of gut flora – too much bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria. Focus on feeding the good guys by eating more fiber, which is going to come from plant based foods.
The bad guys love sugar and anything artificial. They feed off of that. Do your best to avoid those foods – especially when building up your digestive fire. Too many bad bacteria create poor digestion.
Feeding the bad guys slows down the digestive system. When it slows down, it’s not as efficient, which in turn creates more bad bacteria and then you’re looped back to the beginning of having bad bacteria, which slows digestion down. It’s basically like this cycle of digestive doom that I don’t want you stuck in that cycle.
If your digestive system isn’t working properly, any food (even healthy food) can become problematic. However if your digestive system is working optimally (the absence of any physical and mental symptoms), it will be able to break the food down to a molecular level. And when food is digested down to this level it’s actually rendered non-allergenic.
This is super exciting so let me say it again. If your digestive system is working optimally no food is allergenic.
At this point nothing is allergenic because at this level the body recognizes food as molecules rather than larger compounds, which are seen as foreign invaders. When these food particles are larger, it continues to weaken the intestinal lining, creating more problems. This drives home the importance of keeping or creating a strong digestive fire.
What I normally see in women following detoxes to get rid of their pain such as headaches is the random removal of some foods and little focus on the foods eaten. Depending on which foods are eliminated, this may help you to feel better but it is only part of the problem. Because if you remove food but don’t focus on strengthening your digestive fire, you have really only accomplished a band-aid solution – albeit a natural band-aid.
When we eliminate foods but don’t work on strengthening the digestive system, those foods are likely to still pose a problem when you add them back to your plate. Or, another case I see is women who are only left with fewer and fewer things they can eat. This happens when the digestive system is not worked on.
Now you probably want to know what to do to work on the dang digestive fire, right? I was kind of hesitant to share suggestions because I don’t want you to think of this as a guaranteed protocol when health is best achieved on a personalized basis. The amount of time required to achieve restored strength will be different for everyone. But I wanted to give you a guideline because I know I need tangible steps to follow to take action or I don’t really get anything from the advice.
Here are a few suggestions:
Avoid specific food sensitivities.
This ensures the stomach is able to make the digestive juices it needs to digest food and allows the inflammation to calm down. You can get started on this by following a detox that avoids some of the more common sensitivities (like my 21-Day Headache Relief Detox) or by following a full elimination diet (details here and here). I believe this is a crucial first step to restoring digestive health as it cuts to the root of your problems.
The foods that are going to be eliminated for everybody (at least until digestive strength is restored) are caffeine, white sugar, artificial anything, alcohol, added salts and tobacco. Those are the worst logs we can throw on our fire so I wouldn’t even really suggest reintroducing them. I know. I hate being the bearer of bad news, but it’s true. You owe it to yourself to find better options and this blog is full of them.
These steps are not forever. If you truly restore digestive health, you can have most foods here and there as long as you make sure to choose the best quality when you do choose to have potentially problematic foods. If you are going to drink coffee, make it Fair Trade organic coffee and aim to have it now and again. The artificial stuff and the refined things are not even food so we really don’t need them. There are really great options for snack foods and treat options that you can have and really enjoy. They are full of flavour, I promise.
I don’t have caffeine but chocolate is my weakness. Depending on the state of my digestive system, some days it’s much easier for me to have a little bit of organic Fair Trade chocolate here and there and some days it’s hard to go a day without a full bar. That’s when my fire has too many wet logs stifling its flame. I am a human being too.
Food combining and timing.
As you restore your digestive health its ideal to properly combine your foods. This is another step that is not necessarily permanent. To best combine your foods, eat starchy carbs and proteins separately, eat fruit on its own on an empty stomach and eat protein with low starchy vegetables or carbs. Eating food in these specific combinations avoids slowing down your digestion. For example, when you eat starchy carbs and proteins together it doubles your digestion time.
The proper combination of food makes your digestive system stronger and more efficient. It also gives less chance for the gut flora to support the growth of bad guys who create toxins they release in your body. When digestion slows down, food begins to putrefy which means that it rots in the gut. When digestion becomes weak, food may also end up fermenting. Both of these scenarios mean a process other than digestion is breaking down food in a manner that is much less efficient.
I also suggest avoiding a big breakfast but this does not mean avoiding breakfast completely. I know there is a lot of talk about intermittent fasting and while I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, I do believe there are two categories of people: those who can avoid breakfast and feel really great and those who feel horrible without breakfast. I know for myself, I don’t feel good at all if I avoid breakfast, feeling extremely tired and headache-y. But a big, heavy breakfast is best avoided.
A better option for digestive restoration is a liquid meal such as a smoothie. This does not mean you have to starve yourself – smoothies can be filling if made properly with quality fats. This does confuse the fruit rule mentioned above. But there are always exceptions to the rule and everyone’s body reacts a bit differently. Some more acidic and less starchy fruits do better in smoothies.
When you start the day with a smoothie or pureed soup, you don’t expend a ton of digestive energy before 9am. This gives you some energy for the day as well as helps clear up accumulated toxins in the body.
Meal timing or how often you should eat is essentially different for everyone so it is important that you begin to tune in to how your body feels. If you have blood sugar issues, you probably find yourself eating every 2 hours with smaller meals. As you strengthen your digestive system, you stabilize your blood sugar levels and you will notice your meal times naturally begin to stretch out to every 3-5 hours.
You can do this through the consumption of higher amounts of good quality fats as well as switching to better protein sources. These options will help keep your blood sugar stable to avoid spikes that turn into crashes that make it harder to last 3-5 hours, leaving you reaching for things in between meals.
Probiotics may be included as a supplement or fermented foods. Some examples of fermented foods include kombucha, which is fermented tea; tempeh, which is fermented soy; miso, which is fermented barley, soy or rice; sauerkraut, which is fermented cabbage and kimchi, which is fermented mixed spicy vegetables. If taking a probiotic, I still strongly encourage you also include fermented foods, especially fermented vegetables, as they are absorbed and assimilated so well by the body.
Adding probiotics increases good bacteria to combat dysbiosis. This bacterial imbalance is very common especially when eating a standard diet with too much sugar, too much caffeine or too much of any other food I mentioned you eliminate above.
Finally, you need to support your elimination organs and in order to do that you have to move. Movement is not reserved for exercising in the only way we are told – by going to the gym. Move however you most enjoy moving your body, whether that’s working out at a CrossFit box or doing some yoga or going for a nice walk or dancing in your room.
Including more movement into your daily life helps to strengthen your digestive system and I find that switching the mindset from “intensive exercise” to “daily enjoyable movement” makes it more likely to happen consistently.
Ultimately it all comes back to digestion. The number one thing women don’t know is that their health is rooted in their digestive strength. Only when the focus is shifted from symptomatic protocols to plans rooted in the improvement and restoration of digestive strength do symptoms such as headaches truly disappear.
The result of a strong digestive system is dietary freedom. This is the end goal that I hold space for you to reach. Through this blog I hope to motivate you to want to protect and restore this precious resource, your digestive system. And I hope that it will educate you on how to do so.