You are not what you eat. You are what you digest. There’s a difference between the two! Factors including diet, lifestyle, unique constitution, and even the season can all affect how well your body can digest your food.As digestive issues are becoming more common, a question that I receive regularly from my clients is, “How can I improve my digestion?” Watch the video below for my strategies for optimizing digestion or continue reading for my tips.
Five Strategies for Optimizing Digestion
Stop Snacking Between Meals
Most snacking isn't done because you're hungry, but because you're feeling an emotion that isn't comfortable. It could be boredom, fear, stress, or even excitement (an excuse to celebrate a win with a treat). Pay attention and ask yourself if you are really experiencing emotional eating or true hunger. Remember that it takes six to eight hours for a meal to fully digest, so if you eat within three hours of your last meal, you can easily overload your system and make it sluggish.
According to yoga and Ayurveda, we do our best work when our stomachs are empty, so start to make friends with the cleansing and energizing feeling of hunger before a meal. If you want to learn more about time-restricted eating, check out the book The Circadian Code by Dr. Satchin Panda, PhD.
Use Bowls Instead of Plates
According to Ayurveda, for optimal digestion and health, you should eat a small breakfast, a large lunch, and a small dinner. To help with portion control, I choose to eat out of bowls instead of plates for my meals, as shown above. I use the small sea turtle bowl (from my favorite Caribbean island, Barbados) as my breakfast and dinner bowl. And I use the larger blue bowl for my lunch. I've learned over the years that the portions that fit in these bowls work for me, even when I'm doing more intensive exercises like whitewater kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, skiing, and mountain biking. Using these bowls helps me follow the Ayurvedic principle of eating until you’re 75% full, and feeling satisfied but not heavy.
Practice Mindful Eating
Take the time to smell your food, be with your food, and CHEW your food. You should not be multitasking during meals! You may be surprised to learn that digestion actually starts in the mouth with the release of the enzyme amylase. This enzyme is responsible for the breaking of the bonds in starches, polysaccharides, and complex carbohydrates into easier to absorb simple sugars.
Don't cheat yourself out of important nutrients by swallowing big chunks of food without chewing enough, as your body cannot digest big chunks effectively. Another bonus when you slow down is that you'll notice you feel full quicker with less food. You'll also enjoy the taste of your food more, and your body will be able to more effectively absorb the nutrients that you’re eating.
Sip Warm Water with Meals
Think of your digestion as a campfire. If you douse the fire with a bunch of water, the fire weakens and can’t burn the wood. The stomach acids that break down our food are like a fire. If we dilute them with too much liquid, they can’t effectively process the food that we’ve consumed. To optimize your digestion at meals, sip warm water in small quantities while eating, and do not drink a lot of liquid within 20 minutes before a meal, or any sooner than 20 minutes after a meal.
Keep Stress Under Control
The parasympathetic nervous system is nicknamed the "rest and digest" system. You may eat the most nutritious food in the world, but if you’re stressed while eating, or feeling stressed in general, your body won’t be able to absorb that nutrition. When a person becomes stressed, the sympathetic nervous system is engaged (a.k.a. the fight-or-flight response). Even low levels of stress can initiate the fight-or-flight response, and when this happens, digestion slows or even stops so that the body can divert all its internal energy to facing a perceived threat.
The next time you are feeling stressed, try one of these ideas to help prevent your body from initiating the fight-or-flight response:
- Go for a walk: Spending time in Nature can help relieve stress.
- Do a short meditation: Even one to five minutes can help reduce feelings of anxiousness.
- Find time for a short relaxation exercise: Try the legs-up-the-wall pose to get started.
- Prepare and enjoy a soothing cup of herbal tea.
Improve Your Digestion Naturally
Try incorporating these five strategies into your daily routine for more effective digestion. There’s no downside to trying these — and on top of better digestion, you’ll experience the additional benefits of increased energy and a greater sense of overall health and well-being. Bon Appétit!
Plant-Based Herbal Supplements to Support Digestion
If you’ve tried Anna’s tips for optimal digestion and are still experiencing digestive issues, consider adding herbal support to your routine. Here are some of our favorite herbal formulas to help you maintain digestive health and get your gut back in balance.*
GI Feel Good
The stressors of daily life can leave you feeling anxious and with an upset stomach. GI Feel Good is a great-tasting formula that soothes occasional digestive discomfort and calms an unsettled stomach caused by occasional stress.* This formula was developed using traditional herbal wisdom and contains a blend of soothing herbs including Chamomile, Fennel seed, Spearmint, Catnip, Ginger, and Gaia-grown® Lemon Balm.*
Microbiome Cleanse helps maintain a balanced microbiome and supports the body’s natural cleansing process.* This formula combines herbs traditionally used to balance the GI tract including Sweet Wormwood, Black Walnut, Peppermint, and Oregon Grape.* Microbiome Cleanse is a great product to use in preparation for a prebiotic like our Microbiome Food.
Gut health is the foundation for overall wellness.* Support your digestive system with the comforting Cinnamon flavor of Microbiome Food, a plant-based prebiotic powder made with Acacia and Larch gum, Marshmallow, and Fenugreek, to support digestive health, function, and regularity.* Made without added fillers, flavors, or sweeteners, this powder is convenient to use and mixes easily in water.
Anna is the author of Yoga for Paddling, and an internationally celebrated paddling, yoga and Ayurveda health coach. She creates empowering experiences that help women build courage and confidence through mind, body and adventure. Anna has been featured in mainstream publications such as Outside Magazine, Time, Shape and Self, and was named one of the most inspirational paddlers alive by Canoe and Kayak Magazine. Anna lives in Asheville, NC, with her husband Andrew and adventure schnoodle, Ceiba.