The first article in this series, The Art + Importance of Relaxation part 1, looked at the many forms of stress we experience - physical, emotional and environmental. It also looked at the consequences for our physical and mental health when we experience too much stress for too long - when we begin to live in the stress response, aka fight or flight.
Because stress contributes to many physical, mental and emotional health problems, we need to practise the art of relaxation if we wish to support our health and thrive. We must practise the art of being a human being, rather than a human doing.
This means making relaxation a priority, to activate the opposite of the stress response - the rest, repair and digest state. This is where our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) division takes the driver's seat and the metaphorical foot has been taken off the gas pedal. It is the state we are designed to live in most of the time, and one conducive to relaxation, digestion, healthy immune function, heart health, healing, sleep and mental and physical and wellness. Regular relaxation and self care are just as important as eating nourishing food, and one doesn't tend to give us the maximum benefits without the other also being part of our lives.
We live in an increasingly frantic world. We are overloaded with information online and increasingly disconnected from each other as we communicate electronically more than face to face. We juggle work, study, family, care-giving and household tasks. Most of us worry about money to varying degrees. We worry about the future, and replay events from the past that distressed us and feel unresolved.
Many of us have a habit of speaking harshly to ourselves....a savage inner critic. Many of us are constantly rushing from one thing to the next. We feel exhausted so we reach for coffee to give us a 'lift', then alcohol in the evenings to 'wind down'. Then there's email. Social media. The doom and gloom of the news. Worrying social and environmental issues. Commuting. Finding time to exercise. Realizing you haven't seen your best friends in months.
And in addition to all this, many of us are living with health issues that affect us physically and emotionally, which may be present most days or may come and go every few weeks or months. For example, PMS, endometriosis, depression, anxiety, fatigue, migraines, skin problems, digestive distress, recurrent respiratory infections, insomnia, panic attacks.
Everyone can benefit from taking steps to support their digestion. To support our health, the digestive system needs to be able to properly break down food in the mouth, stomach and small intestine. It also needs to be able to absorb vitamins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates and proteins in the small intestine. If your digestion is impaired in some way, even a highly nutritious diet won't be sufficient to support optimum health.
Here are some tips on how you can support good digestion, naturally.
Avoid drinking for 30 minutes before meals, during meals, and for 45 minutes after meals. Drinking liquids with a meal increases the volume of contents inside your stomach, leading to slower gastric emptying (emptying of churned up, semi-digested food into the small intestine), which can leave you feeling bloated. In addition, drinking with meals raises the pH of the gastric juices produced by your stomach (i.e., makes them less acidic), reducing their ability to break down food inside our stomachs and hampering digestion.
I recommend aiming not to drink with meals 30% of the time, and increase from there. On special occasions like birthdays, family celebrations, and when dining out, don't stress - you can drink with your meal. It's what we do 90% of the time that determines our health.
Smell your food before you dig in! This activates the first phase of digestion, cephalic digestion, which initiates secretion of that all-important hydrochloric acid in the stomach. Cephalic digestion is triggered purely by sights, smells, and our feelings/thoughts about eating. Think of when you arrive home or at a friend's, smell something delicious being cooked, and your mouth starts to water and your tummy rumbles. This is cephalic digestion kicking in!
Eat while sitting down and feeling as relaxed as possible, without distractions (no phone, tablet, computer or tv). Avoid eating on the run, while standing up, and when feeling stressed. If you are stressed and need to eat, take ten deep breaths while seated, inhaling all the way down to your belly and slowly exhaling, before you begin eating. Good company and conversation also enhances digestion.
Think of trains when you eat: choo, choo, chew!
Try bone broths. Bone broth is very healing for the gut. You simmer beef, chicken or fish bones in water and then simmer these for several hours, adding herbs, spices and vegetables if you wish. The glutamine (an amino acid) in bone broths repairs the absorbing cells in the small intestine (enterocytes), which can be affected by stress, allergens, and parasites, and by overuse of antibiotics and the dysbiosis (bacterial imbalance) this creates in the gut.
Ideally, you want to use bones from an organically raised or wild animal to make your bone broth. If you have a local organic butcher, they may be happy to sell you organic chicken carcasses.
Bone broths are recommended if you are experiencing depression or an anxiety disorder, and if you are recovering from the effects of a food allergy or gut infection/food poisoning. People who want to support their immune health can also benefit from bone broth’s gut-healing properties because the gastrointestinal tract is the largest immune-reactive surface in the human body.
Eat fruit on an empty stomach. The reason is because fruit passes through the digestive system much more quickly than other foods. Avoid eating fruit right before a meal and for two to three hours after meals. That said, bananas and apples are ok eaten with oats, muesli or millet for breakfast because these fruits do not ferment as readily as other fruits.
Drink enough water (away from meals) because protein, carbohydrates, minerals and some vitamins require water to be absorbed. A guideline to follow is, drink 30ml of water per kilo of your body weight each day, and more if you are sweating.
30ml x your weight in kilos = minimum amount of plain water you need each day (black tea and coffee don’t count as water because these are diuretics and dehydrate you.)
Support your stomach acid. In the modern world, it is common for people to show signs of having insufficient stomach acid (hydrochloric (HCl) acid), which makes it harder to digest and absorb protein. Protein is so important for mental health, calm and sleep because it builds neurotransmitters. People who have experienced significant stress and the elderly often have low stomach acid, and vegans and vegetarians too. This is because these groups are at higher risk of zinc deficiency, and zinc is needed to make stomach acid.
You can support stomach acid production by not drinking near or with meals, taking a few drops of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar with a few sips of water before meals (to increase the pH of your stomach), and eating in a relaxed state.
Finally, having regular bowel motions is another important aspect of digestion. If you aren't having a bowel motion every day, metabolic wastes such as hormones can return to the blood, where they can circulate and cause problems like acne, PMS and even eventually contribute to cancers.
Getting plenty of fibre in your meals supports regular bowel motions. Fibre is found in all green vegetables, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, oats, wholegrain bread, apples, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, figs and prunes.