Before the Doctor's Visit: A Digestive Health Checklist

Through my years of practice, I have frequently supported patients with digestive concerns. One might say that's a primary focus for my current practice, and certainly was a primary focus for my own health from the age of 13 into my late twenties. I've done all the things. I've seen a lot of digestive care fads come and go. There certainly are intricacies to digestive care that benefit from a doctors eye and guidance. But, like a lot of chronic health issues, individualized gut health can be best addressed when we establish a few key self-care habits on our own. Generally, it is the most simple actions, done regularly, that make any doctor's recommendation that much more effective. Of course, no one should feel intimidated by asking a professional for help, but if there was ever an opportunity to put together a "before you come see me" self-care course, these (seemingly simply) digestive care habits would be on the checklist. Consistency is key, but even in cases where there is exceptional bowel disease, these regimens can greatly reduce symptomatic picture.

1) Slow down the pace of eating: This is one I have to be very mindful about myself. Lunch breaks fly by fast and sometimes work creeps in past my designated time. For people that have families or other pressing obligations, that may crunch the clock further. But particularly with the larger meals of the day, it can be incredibly valuable to slow down the process of eating. Taking time with your food gives your body to adapt to the act of digesting. Being able to smell your food, really taste it, and visualize it reflexively assists with the production of more stomach acid, saliva, bile release, etc. Rather than invite patients to take supplemental enzymes or stomach acid, I ask them to try getting into this habit as often as they are able, so their body can practice doing what it's designed to do.

2) Chew Your Food: Slowing down can improve the likelihood that you are chewing your food well. Breaking down food well in the mouth takes a lot of burden off the rest of the digestive tract. I've seen this frequently be a singular and most effective aid in reducing painful gas and bloating, because the food is broken down well enough that it doesn't sit in larger chunks as fodder for your gut bacteria. If there are dentition or mobility issues that make chewing difficult, I often recommend asking for assistance with preparing purees, smoothies, and soups you can readily eat with the aid of a straw.

3) Water Consumption Considerations: Making sure you have enough water throughout the day can determine whether many have regular bowel movements, as dehydration can set you up for painful constipation. However, it is generally wise to not drink excessive amounts of water during your meals, as it dilutes stomach acid and can reduce that chemical breakdown process. One way to prepare your gut for the day is to drink 1 glass of water in the morning (preferably at least a 1/2 hour before you eat a solid breakfast).

4) If you can't eat fully relaxed, at least eat without electronic distraction: Life is busy. And meals traditionally have been a way to come together socially. So it wouldn't make much sense to expect all meals to be quite and focused solely on the process of eating. However, I've been convinced over the years that electronic distractions like tv, computers, tablets, and phones contribute to a lot of irritable bowel symptoms. I think they have a directly stimulating and/or stymying effect on our enteric nervous system, and we seem to just barely understand the longterm effects of it.

Again, while I would never suggest a person experiencing digestive discomfort or symptoms doesn't ask for professional support, I would consider the above recommendations as take-home work for all individuals (regardless of digestive health status). Our gut, acting as a core system for longterm health, functions best when we support it in little ways regularly. And if you need professional help now, I recommend taking these to heart, as integrating them in consistently will be foundational for any other specific recommendations your provider might have for you.


PS: If you are interested in improving your herbal prep and foraging skills this year, do check out the community classes (starting in February) and Herbal Apprenticeship (starting in May). Right now I have classes listed on evergreen tree medicine, using herbal water preparations as medicine, foraging class, and herbal based first aid!I'd love to support you in connecting with the plants and your local landscape!

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