Eating is fun. Digestion is work. Helping your digestive system to work efficiently is a worthwhile task. It’s worthwhile because its opposite—inefficient digestion—is a culprit. Inefficient digestion causes physical, mental, and emotional havoc.
Recently I visited with Ashley, young woman who had an interesting tale to tell. Ashley said she felt terrible the last few weeks of her final term at college. After coming home her symptoms worsened.
Ashley’s symptoms were all over the place. She had a constant headache. The pain in her head was, she said, “Like a narrow tense bar that extended over my eyes.” The headache would become more intense after she ate.
Ashley was tired. Sleep did not rest her body and she felt more tired after eating. She had inertia and wanted to do nothing but lie on the sofa and watch reruns of Gilmore Girls!
Parents aren’t happy when their teenage kids don’t want to rise off the sofa and so her family relationships began to suffer. Her parents wanted her to see a therapist because she seemed depressed. Ashley did not deny feeling down in the dumps but she adamantly insisted that something else was wrong. Not only were her emotions in disarray, she felt terrible physically. Ashley said she was a total mess. Her worried parents reluctantly agreed!
Ashley arranged a meeting with an Ayurvedic practitioner. She learned that the underlying issue for the depression, the headache, the lethargy and inertia were—you guessed it—digestive problems.
THE STANDARD AMERICAN DIET
Clinical experience informs us that the standard American diet, with its heavy protein, sugar and fat content can be hard on the digestive tract. Ashely had been consuming burgers, pizza, chips, lots of cola, fries, and big sandwiches full of processed meats and cheese. She was burdening her digestive system with difficult to process foods.
But here is the clincher. Ashley’s digestive system was in such poor shape that even if she immediately began eating foods full of nutrients, her physiology would be left unnourished.
Ashley had made a mess of digestion and now her mind-body was clogged with toxins. For several reasons the food consumed had not been digested properly. When food isn’t digested properly toxins clog the channels in the body and give rise to discomfort and eventually to disease. Toxins, clogging her energy flow, were the primary cause of Ashley’s symptoms.
THE ROLE OF OXYGEN IN DIGESTION
What advice did Ashley’s Ayurvedic practitioner give her? Where, pray tell, is help for poor miserable Ashley?
Yes, Ashley needs to stop eating junk and begin to eat healthy foods. She should stop emotional eating and begin to eat when she is relaxed, not stressed. She also must eat at regular times of the day. Eating at 3 a.m. when the body, an aspect of the natural world, is meant to be asleep is far from helpful. She is advised to eat her meals when the digestive system is primed to work efficiently. But, Ashley told me that the most interesting information she received from her Ayurvedic expert was regarding the role of oxygen in digestion.
Ashley learned that when it comes to consuming oxygen the more breaths, the merrier. She was asked to consider the following facts about the role that oxygen plays in promoting digestive efficient.
- Certain parts of the stomach lining consume more oxygen than other tissues in the body. The intestinal villi, the site where nutrients are absorbed in the gut, have organelles (mitochondria) that also require large quantities of oxygen in order to function properly. When the blood lacks oxygen, the absorption and assimilation of nutrients by the villi is hampered.
- The more you eat, the more the body needs to breathe. After you eat a meal, your parasympathetic nervous system reroutes circulation to the organs of digestion and causes our body to breathe more deeply and fully in order to increase oxygen intake—unless you interrupt this process. So vital to the digestive process is oxygen that your brain automatically increases air intake to accommodate the need for more oxygen. This is, in part, what causes you to yawn after eating a big meal.
- Oxygen is the power that drives your digestive engine. Ninety-five percent of the energy generated by your body comes from the process of combustion: oxygen+food=energy. Calories are a measure of the energy that is derived from the combustion of food. It is oxygen that allows you to burn the calories in the food you’ve consumed. By increasing the amount of oxygen available to the body, you are therefore better able to burn the food you consume. Oxygen is indispensable in burning fat, the body’s fuel reserve.
- Exercise is a way to help your body breathe better. The long-term benefit of a regular exercise regimen is twofold: 1.Breating helps your body to take in more oxygen, and 2. It teaches your body how to use the oxygen more efficiently.
SOLUTIONS FOR OXYGEN ENHANCEMENT
If your body is hungry for oxygen, go for a short walk before you eat. Besides relaxing your body and clearing your mind, this helps to ignite your digestive fire so you can be better prepared to ingest and break down the food. By treating yourself to a gentle walk after your meal, you give your body the opportunity to enhance assimilation and elimination. However, vigorous exercise—the kind that causes you to break a sweat—is not recommended either right before or immediately after a meal. This could induce a stress response. Breathing techniques that are discussed at length in Healing Depression the Mind-Body Way can be helpful. There are also yoga poses that enhance oxygen and work as digestive aids. Finally, it is always important to breathe deeply and to be relaxed when eating.
ASHLEY’S REACTION TO THIS INFORMATION
Ashley told me that she knew she was eating badly and expected to be reprimanded for eating junk. She was also aware that eating late at night was a problem. Basically she knew that “eating was a major issue for me.” But, she said, she was surprised that abuse of the digestive system could cause such a plethora of problems. She was surprised that poor digestion triggered not only physical but also emotional and mental problems. She was surprised but also excited. I questioned her on her statement that she felt excited to learn that problems stemming from inefficient digestion could spread to the entirety of the mind-body. Ashely answered my query quickly, “I felt lousy but now I realize that I am in control. If I eat differently and use my breath efficiently I will digest well and feel good again. How easy is this!” After all, Ashley and I agreed—“What is easier than breathing?”
Food is the courier of our life force. Food is matter that conveys energy to body, mind, and spirit. Good food becomes us. At the same time, nourishing the body also calls for becoming cognizant of the many mechanisms at play when we eat. We must gain an increased awareness of not only what we eat but also how we eat, why we eat, when we eat, and how we feel after we eat. We must learn to optimize our digestive abilities. Oxygen is an enormous aid in the digestive process and can be enhanced. If we enhance delivery of oxygen we give ourselves “the cleanse without a hassle.” After all, let’s remember what Ashely said, “What is easier than breathing?”