By Miriam O' Shea, Nutritionist
You will be aware that the content of your diet influences your wellbeing, but in most cases equal benefit will be gained by improving the health of the digestive system itself. Arguably, the important thing is not what a person eats, but what they absorb.
1. Eating Habits
Sitting down, relaxing and chewing properly will have a profound influence on how much goodness we can obtain from the content of our meal. It sounds obvious but it is important to remind ourselves that chewing is necessary to break down food. Not chewing properly causes many problems further down the digestive line. Good dental hygiene is thus interwoven with good digestion. The stomach also needs room – the stomach walls need to move in order to mix food up with the digestive juices. If we eat hunched over, watching TV, or with poor posture, this mixing will be impeded. Drinking large volumes of liquid with a meal should also be avoided as it may lead to the dilution of digestive juices.
2. Mindful Eating
Understandably, Covid 19 has brought raised stress levels far above the regular range in Irish households but there are still things we can do to consciously protect our digestive system and day to day nourishment. Digestive health and immune health are inextricably linked and thus all the more reason to be motivated to eat in a more mindful manner. Stress shuts down the digestive system ―so if in a particularly stressful part of the day, try opting for lighter foods such as soups, stewed fruit, casseroles and sip on warm water to calm the digestive tract. Rushing around whilst eating diverts blood away from the digestive system so if at all possible; try to set aside periods in the day you can eat in a more composed manner, free of multitasking or any extraneous stressors. Guard mealtimes as sacrosanct as this is key to maintaining a strong and resilient body mind. Undue quantities of black tea and moreover coffee can raise stress levels and interfere with the absorption of nutrients. The impact can be lessened however if caffeine is consumed early on in the day only and away from supplements that an individual might be using to bolster health.
3. Gut microbiome
Researchers estimate that there are more bacteria in our intestinal tract than cells in our body and that these play a vital role in our immune health. It is thought that up to 70% of our immune system is located within the gastrointestinal tract. Thus, if the gut microcosm is unhealthy, we will wind up with poor immune function, suffer from nervous irritation and feel dull and exhausted. Many health enthusiasts like to include prebiotic drinks into the diet on a daily basis. One such prebiotics is a fermented whey drink known commercially as Molkosan from A.Vogel. This drink establishes an environment high in lactic acid, within which friendly bacteria can flourish and unfriendly can’t. Once friendly bacteria have established themselves, they produce more lactic acid which helps to keep the numbers of unfriendly bacteria low. This can have a profound impact on many commonplace gut problems such as bloating, discomfort and poor bowel function and can be taken either on its own or alongside a probiotic supplement if an individual prefers. The lactic acid in Molkosan establishes the right environment for friendly bacteria in the large intestine where it should be slightly acidic. This then means that unfriendly bacteria can’t get above themselves and start flooding up into the small intestine. Thus, the small intestine stays at its correct pH (slightly alkaline). This in turn allows the stomach to stay at its proper pH (slightly acidic). When the whole digestive system is properly balanced in this way, (with some parts more acidic and other parts more alkaline, to allow the correct digestive processes to take place), the rest of the body’s tissues retain the correct pH too. For most of the body, a slightly alkaline pH is what we are after in order to feel relaxed, centred and physically and mentally strong.
So, though the composition of our diet influences our health and wellbeing, it is important to consider health of the digestive system itself. This will help us to extract the maximum amount of benefit from each meal. Nourishing the microbiome of beneficial microorganisms in the gut, practically paying more attention to our eating habits and slowing down to eat in a more mindful manner are key. This will stand us in good stead for the weeks and months ahead.