When people are looking to heal their digestion, the first place they tend to look is food. Don't get me wrong, I am constantly recommending fermented foods and broth and prebiotic-rich veggies and digestive bitters to my clients, but there so many ways to help your gut that are not nutrition-based. This can be a relief to many who find the gut-healing journey making them too focused on food or limited in their dietary choices, as there are other ways they can help themselves. The digestive tract is an extremely complex system, and of course we are only beginning to learn just how it affects our bodies, but here are some simple ways to start sending your gut a little love. Enjoy!
1. Relax your abdomen!
For my gut-healing process, this has been one of the most important things I've done to help improve my symptoms such as bloating and constipation. It is also one of the hardest. Due to our culture of aesthetics, usually for women but men experience this also, having a "flat" stomach is something many of us feel we need to have. So, we suck in our stomachs or flex our abdominal muscles at all times to keep up a certain appearance, when in reality we are actually harming ourselves. Sucking in or keeping our muscles tight all the time puts pressure on our abdominal cavity, which can impair digestion. This may take some practice and some discomfort around appearance, but relaxing your abdominal muscles and letting the abdominal cavity function with its normal amount of pressure and force will help improve digestive symptoms. While there are times to engage these muscles, such as during certain exercises or movements, there is no need for your "core" to be engaged and flexed constantly throughout the day. It may take some un-learning mentally and physically to get this down, but it will be worth it. You can try practicing at home while positioned on your hands and knees, or while standing. Start to get more comfortable letting it all hang out. Here is a link to some more information from biomechanist Katy Bowman on the effect of abdominal tightness and increased pressure.
2. Release Your Psoas
Another part of your body that can be too tight and cause digestive problems is the psoas. The elusive muscles that are connected to multiple parts of your body, including the hips and spine, can get too tight from sitting too often, poor alignment, stress, and more, but doing a psoas release regularly can help to lengthen and lessen the tension in these muscles, digestive function can also be improved. Try to spend a few minutes each day releasing (which is different than stretching) your psoas, especially if you sit a lot during your day. There are some short videos on the Heart and Bones Yoga page here that you can check out for free for more ideas, or look for other videos showing psoas release on YouTube. Pictured above is my favorite tool for assisting in psoas release poses, my yoga bolster.
3. Use A Squat Toilet
Toilets that we use in the Westernized world were not designed with digestion in mind. Weird, right?Sitting with your torso and legs in an "L" shape is not the most optimal way to eliminate, and can actually make constipation worse. In the squatting position, which is the more natural position to be in for humans for elimination, the colon can be in its proper shape and length for better functioning, and less pressure is put on the abdomen. This can reduce the need for straining, which can, among other things, lead to hemorrhoids. You can purchase a squat stool like the Squatty Potty for your toilet, or make your own. Believe it or not, a homemade stool (made of reclaimed pallet wood) was my Christmas gift from my guy last year, and it may be my favorite present I ever received!
4. Get An Abdominal Massage
Another remedy along the lines of abdominal and psoas release is the abdominal massage. By releasing tension in the abdominal muscles, which there are many more of than what we think of as the "abs," you will be improving the functioning of the organs in the abdomen. With massage, the digestive organs are stimulated and can have better circulation, and the lymphatic system is also stimulated through this massage, which is helpful in eliminating waste in the body, as well as decreased inflammation. You can ask your massage therapist to give your abdomen some attention next time you have a treatment, if they have had proper training, or you can find a Mayan Abdominal Massage practitioner near you. If you find that helpful, your practitioner will likely be able to give you some techniques you can use on yourself at home on an ongoing basis.
5. Take An Epsom Salt Bath
Magnesium is great for improving digestive function, especially as a remedy for constipation. But, you do not have to only rely on food and supplements for getting your magnesium--you can take an epsom salt bath. Not only is warm water relaxing, which in itself is beneficial for digestion, but soaking in epsom salts can actually supply your body with magnesium, which is one of the few minerals that can be absorbed through the skin. You may need to check with your doctor first if you have diabetes or other conditions that affect circulation. Try adding some to your next bath or foot soak to see if it helps your symptoms. Here are some tips on how much to use from functional medicine doctor Dr. Joshua Axe. Alternatively, you could find a mineral-rich hot spring near you and soak in that instead...that would be even better!
6. Move More
Massage isn't the only way to increase circulation to your abdomen...you could also get moving! Walking is a pretty well-known remedy for constipation, and other exercises such as weight lifting, running, yoga, and natural-movement exercises can also be beneficial. Movements such as spinal twists, side stretches, lunges and squats stretch out many of the muscles that support the abdomen and hips, so include them frequently. Katy Bowman, who I mentioned above (and yes I am really, really into her work) also has a DVD you can purchase called "Smart Digestion" as well as a few short "Alignment Snack" videos that deal with this and other related areas. And, much like sucking in your stomach, frequent chair sitting or poor posture/alignment also put excess pressure on your abdominal cavity, so using a standing desk or taking movement breaks during bouts of work can help relieve some of that pressure. Also, if you are increasing your outdoor walking, you are getting your vitamin D and the benefits of sunlight and exercise on mood and stress as well! I've added it all together in the picture above, walking outside on a dirt path...taken at the Seed Savers Exchange where I taught a sourdough bread workshop last weekend...
7. Get into rest and digest
I almost think that if you had to pick between adding in certain foods or taking out all stress in order to heal your digestion that the stress piece would be the one to pick. When our body is in fight-or-flight mode (aka stressed), blood and energy are diverted away from the digestive organs and to other parts of the body. When our body is calm and relaxed, in rest-and-digest mode, blood and energy can be used by the digestive system, and the vagus nerve is stimulated, which is crucial in the innervation and function of the digestive organs. In general, de-stressing your life, having healthy relationships, getting plenty of sleep (and I mean plenty. More than you think!), and possibly even participating in counseling or therapy can help to get you into that mode more of the time. If you are suffering from chronic digestive issues, this may be a piece of the puzzle in your healing journey, as well as looking at possible HPA axis dysfunction, what some call adrenal fatigue or burnout. As far as what you can do as a regular practice, taking several deep breaths and some quiet time or having a moment of gratitude before eating is a good place to start, so your body can transition into that important rest-and-digest mode.
8. Look For New Ways To Boost Your Microbiome
Fermented foods and probiotic supplements can be great for restoring your microbiome, but there is more you can do. If you have dysbiosis and feel like your diet isn't working enough to heal you, there may be other ways you are sabotaging your body's flora. Chlorine, which is in municipal water supplies, is anti-microbial, which will affect even the good bacteria. Obviously, this is needed in city water systems, but filtering it out is important for your health. Drinking filtered water and also using a chlorine filter for your bathing is one way to start. The skin has a huge microbiome itself, and a protective mucosal layer, so in addition to removing chlorine from shower or bath water, avoiding anti-bacterial soaps and hand sanitizers can have a benefit as well. Cleaning with vinegar, lemon, and natural soaps and other products at home, instead of disinfectants and bleach, is also important to keep the body's bacteria in balance. And of course, introducing good bacteria can add to the microbiome, too, especially in the form of getting dirty. Soil-based probiotics are becoming more popular as supplements, so you can do yourself and fun and free favor by getting out and planting vegetables, walking barefoot in natural settings (bonus benefit of earthing!) , or just plain playing in the dirt. Petting animals, swimming in natural waters and kissing your sweetheart are also great ways to increase the diversity in your microbiome...all in the name of wellness, of course.
9. Take Your Time and Chew, Chew, Chew
This tip does have to do with eating, but I am talking about how you eat rather than what you eat to promote gut health. Chew your food, more than you think you need to. This is by far the hardest one for me currently. Chew, chew and chew some more. Not only is it better to have food that is more chewed enter your stomach from a physical standpoint, but chemical as well. When you chew, salivary amylase, an enzyme, is released in your mouth to begin the enzymatic digestive process. This is one of the reasons I am a fan of foods that are minimally processed (physically), instead of foods that don't need any chewing, like smoothies. Also, if there are bitter components to your food, which bitters are so beneficial for digestion themselves, having more contact time with the bitter receptors on your tongue will also stimulate the digestive juices and get things moving. Of course, take your time eating, too. This plays into the whole "rest-and-digest" piece, but taking your time to eat will allow your digestion to move at an appropriate pace. I know we are all in a hurry sometimes, but taking at least 20 minutes, more if possible, is a good marker to aim for, to help your body process your food like it should. So try to stretch out meal times like a European and chew a whole lot more. I am talking to myself here, for sure!
10. Avoid Tight Clothing
This ties into the importance of allowing normal pressure in the abdomen, instead of it pushing up, down, or out. Tight, restrictive clothing, particularly in the midsection, puts extra pressure on your abdominal (see: digestive) organs. This includes shirts, waistlines in pants or skirts, as well as belts and undergarments. Wearing clothing that fits well and also that isn't designed with restrictive parts that are worn over the abdomen can help the pressure stay as it should and circulation to flow. Also, if clothes are more loose-fitting over the midsection, the tendency to suck in may start to lessen, especially as you are practicing relaxing your abdomen more and more. Get a bra that fits, un-tighten your belt, look for clothes you can move and stretch in, and avoid clothes that rub you the wrong way...in your abdomen.
Brine & Broth
I am a nutritionist in Southwest Wisconsin, focused on traditional, nutrient-dense foods. My goal is to provide you with simple and delicious recipes that fit into real life, and information for choosing healthful real foods. Enjoy!