Digestion issues? Chew on this!

Written by: Laura Flanagan, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Do you experience any of these signs and symptoms of digestive dysfunction?

  1. Heartburn

  2. Constipation

  3. Bloating

  4. Gas

  5. Diarrhea

  6. IBS

  7. Crohn’s

  8. Colitis

  9. Candida

  10. Leaky Gut

There are many more, but these are the top issues many adults face when the digestive system is impaired.

Did you know that the first step in the process of digestion is chewing? Actually, we can dial that back a step further. Before you take your first bite of food, if your digestion system is working optimally, you are already beginning the process of digestion simply by thinking about what you are going to eat! This action releases hormones to induce salivation. Three different pairs of salivary glands release saliva into the mouth.

There are two processes of digestion that happen in the mouth as the first step in proper digestion. They are chemical (the enzymes in your saliva) and mechanical (the act of chewing). The saliva released from the salivary glands lubricates the food as we chew. Saliva also aids in swallowing the ‘bolus’, which is a term used for the mixture of food and saliva. The enzyme in the saliva that begins the digestive process is called amylase. It begins the chemical breakdown of carbohydrates.

Two things we can do to significantly enhance our digestion are:

1. Activate our salivary glands

2. Chew our food thoroughly

How do you activate your salivary glands? Well, the simple act of thinking about the food you are going to eat just before you eat it will send signals from the brain to release hormones to induce salivation. Other ways to boost your salivary glands' action include practicing Yamuna Body Rolling face work. While this is an entire body of work that releases all muscles, there is a specialty practice for the face. As a certified Yamuna Body Rolling instructor, I teach both the full bodywork and the face ball work. (Check my website for details). In addition, consuming pungent and tart foods helps increase the activity of our salivary glands.

Fermented foods are great for this. Kimchi and umeboshi plums are some examples. Maybe you have noticed that elderly folks often have decreased appetites and become very particular about what they will and will not eat. One of the significant reasons is that their salivary glands are not working as efficiently as they did when they were younger. Even chewing gum can help stimulate salivary activity – though it is difficult to do this often enough to improve saliva production.

On to the topic of chewing. My teacher at the Functional Nutrition Alliance, Andrea Nakayama says, 'we're not just what we eat, but how our body processes what we eat'. In essence, what we digest, absorb, and utilize is critically important for how we feel. In fact, the optimal function of these processes is critical for every organ system in our body. Digestion is a cascade of actions that are significantly interrelated. Much like the efficient action of a conveyor belt in a factory, each event in the process is considerably dependent on the completion of the prior action. Some of the initial steps involved in digestion are chemical, but one of the steps that we have control over is mechanical. It is chewing!

When we chew, our food breaks down and this signals hormones, enzymes, and gastric juices to begin the process of digestion. The longer our food remains in this stage of dissolving, the easier digestion is on the rest of our body. The food is not only broken down into smaller pieces by the teeth, but our saliva produces the enzymes that further decompose the molecules of the food. Saliva contains softening agents that allow the food to be 'molded' into a ball – the bolus I mentioned earlier. This allows for ease in swallowing. The longer the food remains in these stages in the mouth, the more time we allow for the rest of our digestive system to rev up its engine!

Well-chewed food moves easily through our esophagus and into the stomach. Dried and improperly chewed food has a more challenging journey through our entire digestive and metabolic factory.

Chewing our food properly can eliminate bloating, gas and abdominal pain. It is cheap and easy way to improve the health and efficiency of our digestive system, thereby improving our overall health. When we free up the digestive system's energy, imagine how much energy we have to accomplish other goals!

Here are some practices you might consider the next time you sit down for a meal. And, did I just write 'sit down' for a meal? It is important to begin there. Many of us are so busy that we do not actually sit down to eat. We grab our food on the go, eat in our car on the way to the office or to pick up the kids, or eat over the kitchen sink without even having the civility to use a plate. When we become more mindful about our eating practices, beginning with where we are eating, we begin to set positive motions in action. There is something about physically sitting at a dining room table, without distractions or noise, that makes us really focus on the eating experience. An unexpected bonus? We take the time to connect with our loved ones if we can encourage them to join us in these new eating practices. Connecting and communicating over a meal is something our ancestors were accustomed to. It forces us to slow down and take breaks between bites to speak.

  • Think about the food that you will be eating 30 min before the meal. This helps stimulate the salivary glands thereby initiating the digestion process.

  • Have gratitude for your food; say a prayer or mantra before you begin eating. This also initiates the release of hormones to activate the salivary glands.

  • Learning to chew well involves the tongue. The tongue has the important role of keeping the food in the mouth. Observe the action of your tongue when you eat.

  • Once the tongue is trained to discourage swallowing large chunks of food, take 7 days of counting anywhere between 5 and 50 chews for each bite. You might wonder why such a broad range. For for some foods (like yogurt for instance) it is not necessary to chew 50 times. That said, it is still important to ‘chew’ yogurt and other soft foods. Other foods, such as meats or certain carbohydrates, may require more chewing.

  • If the task feels too challenging, try this for only one meal of the day. Make a conscious effort to enjoy the food – even if you still have to eat on the run.

  • After three weeks (21 days), if you adhere to these practices, you will have developed a new, healthy habit. Tune in to the feel of the fully chewed food in your mouth and how it corresponds to your overall feeling after your meals.

  • After 90 days this habit becomes a lifestyle and while you will still want to be mindful at every meal, you have now habituated to new chewing patterns.

If you are interested in some recipes that will keep you salivating like Pavlov’s dog, check these links:

Easy Kimchi:

Umeboshi plum recipe:

For more information about Yamuna Body Rolling and Face work, click the link below and check my website for virtual class offerings:

Happy chewing!

Follow me on Instagram, YouTube and visit my website for more info!

Read more from Laura!

Laura Flanagan MS, RYT, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Laura Flanagan is a Scientist by education and career, but she recently left her corporate job and moved to Costa Rica with her horse to open an Equine Therapy Center. Concurrently with her career as a scientist, she has been teaching Yoga and Meditation for over 18 years. Laura is a Yoga Instructor, YamunaÒBody Rolling Instructor, Meditation Teacher, and Director of the Socrates Center in Perez Zeledon, Costa Rica. She has helped thousands of clients with physical pain through her certification with Yamuna who uses a form of small ball therapy. She has used her Yoga, Body Rolling, and Meditation practices to assist in her own recovery from breast cancer. She is also enrolled in the Functional Nutrition Counselor program through the Functional Nutrition Alliance.



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