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Digestion processes start before you even place a piece of food in your mouth! This is because the sight, smell and anticipation of food start a cascade of chemical releases that prepare your body to receive food. Genuine hunger is the best stimulus for creating a strong digestion. It means that you have rested for long enough to feel hungry and it is less likely you will have an overloaded system.
In the mouth is where digestive problems start for many. We have a jaw and teeth designed to tear at food, chew it into softness and swallow it only when it is really soft and saturated with digestive enzymes. The enzymes in saliva are alkaline and they begin to digest carbohydrate-rich foods such as potatoes, rice, pasta and beans. Although protein-dominant foods such as meat, fish, and eggs need to come into contact with the acid in the stomach to begin the process of chemical digestion, these still need to be thoroughly chewed so that the stomach is not overwhelmed with huge pieces of food and so that the particles are more easily attacked by the digestive juices. Instead, too many meals are gulped down with haste, eaten on the run and food is accompanied by volumes of fluid – often gassy sugar drinks that play havoc with your sensitive enzyme production. If food has been bolted down into the stomach then the acids there will quickly neutralise the alkaline enzymes in saliva. This means that hardly any initial carbohydrate digestion has taken place. Stomach acid production is also very sensitive to stress. This is where the second digestive problem exists and why prescription and over-the-counter medications for indigestion are worth billions of pounds. Instead of taking time to balance our life and eating habits and eat well, we self-medicate and suppress our digestion.
Eventually food will leave the stomach and enter the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine) where enzymes from the pancreas and liver will interact with the partly digested food. Bile from the liver will break down fats and oils by a simple process that makes globules of fat smaller. These are easily absorbed from the small intestine and move directly into the lymphatic system. The lymph circulates minute fat globules around the body. Excess fats are taken to the liver for processing into desirable products such as healthy cholesterol. Unhealthy fats can become unhealthy cholesterol and can eventually settle into the walks of arteries to contribute to heart and circulatory disease.
In the meantime, back at the duodenum, the pancreas is pouring out various enzymes to digest the carbohydrate and protein molecules. In the small intestine your food is very liquid and most digestive processes are completed here. The liquid is highly corrosive and alkaline. This eventually flows through to the large intestine or colon, where most of the water is absorbed along with the remaining nutrients, and waste products are accumulated and eliminated.
In many ways the digestive system is the focal point of the body; it is our earthy centre. Whatever we eat, we must have the ability to absorb and make use of. Most illnesses, from chronic disease such as cancer to many modern food allergies, arise out of gastrointestinal debility. Poor digestion is frequently responsible for a wide range of illnesses. But in turn ill health often creates poor digestion and this can hamper recovery after any illness or surgery.
Digestive enzymes must be encouraged otherwise food will not be properly processed. Poor digestion is greatly helped by herbs with a predominantly bitter/sour flavour, but also natural sweet flavours, which can promote release of enzymes and help them to work more efficiently. Also, don't forget that poor digestion indicates the pancreas, spleen and liver may need attention – these are all digestive components as well as the gut itself.
- Eating little and often can be helpful for some people who find digestion particularly difficult, or who have low blood sugar levels.
- Common food irritants include wheat and/or dairy products, so avoid these for a period of time to see if this has adversely affected you. Pork is another common irritant.
- Avoid known irritant drinks such as coffee and alcohol. Instead use Meadowsweet Herbal Tea that soothes a fragile stomach or Chamomile Herbal Tea which can give overall support to the entire digestive tract.
- Superfood Plus makes a gentle and easily digested meal, either as a meal replacement or as a between-meal snack. It can be extremely useful for those who have short or long-term digestive difficulties as it provides easily absorbed protein, vitamins and minerals.
- Cinnamon is a warming herb used as a traditional remedy for supporting and strengthening weak digestion. It also supports unbalanced blood sugar levels by nourishing the pancreas. It is lovely added to porridge, apple puree, mashed fruit etc. – use it freely.
- Spices such as fennel seed, caraway, star anise and cardamom are wonderful to ease gas and bloating. In particular fennel seed used in cooking has the ability to ease wind and bloating caused by ineffective, weak and hampered digestion. Add to foods that are especially difficult to digest, e.g. cabbage or beans (which are good sources of fibre and other nutrients). Fennel can additionally stimulate appetite and relieve stomach pain. (It is famous for being the main component in many colic formulae for babies.) Make a tea with 2 teaspoons of the seed; it combines well with ginger tea.
- Ginger root is helpful for digestion, nausea, wind, bloating and colic. Anything that can be amiss with a struggling digestive system is calmed and soothed by ginger. It is warming, anti-nausea and relaxing to an irritated or tense gut. So make fresh ginger tea on a daily basis – grate 1 tablespoon of fresh root, add it to a cup of hot water, leave to sit for 10 minutes, strain and drink with or without honey, cinnamon and fennel seeds.
- Plant foods that can help a weak gut which may be overgrown with candida and/or have poor general gut flora will include cloves, olive leaves, coriander, cinnamon, garlic, thyme and basil.
- The kitchen herb turmeric is a prime digestive, stimulating enzyme production and soothing the stomach due to its powerful anti-inflammatory components. It does this by protecting the stomach itself from its own acidity excesses and any invasive and destructive microbes, e.g. bacterial, fungal or viral. Add by the teaspoon to meals or take 2 teaspoons in a little water each day (start with 1 teaspoon if you are not used to taking it).
- Liquorice is a very sweet herb that also helps the stomach produce mucus. This protects the stomach lining from the corrosive effect of the acids it must produce to digest protein foods. We combine this with mucilaginous herbs in our Slippery Elm Plus Powder.
- Other culinary herbs can be very effective as they slowly but surely support digestion. Not only do they instigate digestive enzyme production through complex essential oil chemistry, but they offer some immune support in the process. Experiment with fresh oregano, thyme, rosemary, bay, coriander and mint.
- Use black and white pepper and cayenne pepper – they can stimulate digestion. These are best taken uncooked so add them to dishes at the end of cooking. Once your stomach is stronger you can use cooked chilli but always add black pepper uncooked.
- Good digestion starts with proper chewing in the mouth. The process of breaking the food down with saliva in the mouth is a vital first step towards better digestion. Even with juices, swill them around the mouth before swallowing.
- Stress slows down and limits the digestive process. Any relaxation techniques will help such as belly breathing, and listening to music as you relax for 15 minutes after eating (or before and after if you experience high levels of stress).
- Bowel and liver cleansing will be fundamental. Please look at our "Cleansing & Detoxification" section for more information. We also offer products on our website to assist you.
Our herbal formulae are strong flavoured and effective. Our herbs enjoy a long history of use. A large proportion of them are grown in English soils, harvested using bio-chemistry analysis and many of them are processed fresh, which heightens their remedial properties. The majority are grown organically and are sustainable and wild-crafted. All manufacturing is carried out using licensed good manufacturing practice.