You are not what you eat.

You are what you can do with what you eat.

In other words, you are what you can digest, absorb and utilize.

The truth is that you can eat the most impeccable diet in the world and still be unable to extract all the valuable nutrients from it.

Because, if your digestive system isn’t doing its job well, foods don’t get fully broken down and absorbed, and your body simply cannot use them.

All those healthy nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that could actually help your body heal go instead quite literally down the toilet.

Such a waste.

But how can you tell you’re not getting all the nutrients from your food?

There are signs and symptoms to look out for.

Such as undigested food particles in your stool, loose stools, diarrhea, and heart burn. But also having an autoimmune condition, like Graves’ disease.

 

Loose stools and diarrhea

In Graves’ disease, it’s common to experience loose stools or even diarrhea. An overactive thyroid gland may be (partly) to blame for this.

An increase in thyroid hormones in your blood may result in a faster metabolism. And result in reduced transit time, or the time it takes for food to travel from your mouth through your digestive tract until the point of exit.

Your food is rushed through your digestive system.

This may give your body too little time to effectively break down and absorb all the nutrients from your food.

The opposite may also be true. Malabsorption of nutrients, specifically fats, can result in loose stools or diarrhea.

 

Heartburn

Heartburn is another symptom that may tell you that you’re not absorbing and using all of your nutrients.

Contrary to what you may think, 90% of heartburn cases is due to too little stomach acid. And not due to too much stomach acid.

Stomach acid is seen as your first line of defense when it comes to destroying any bad bacteria and parasites that may have entered your body.

It also indirectly helps to break down protein such as meat. It does this by activating an enzyme called pepsin, which is key to protein digestion.

In fact, having low stomach acid may cause people to avoid meat. Because it simply doesn’t feel good to eat.

Also, low levels of stomach acid can cause deficiency in vitamin b12, iron, calcium, folic acid, vitamin b12, zinc and more.

As a side note, the use of stomach acid blockers (proton pump inhibitors; PPIs) is common for heartburn. These aren’t helpful if you have in fact low stomach acid. So make sure to take a Heidelberg stomach acid test to check your levels before considering taking these acid blockers.

 

Having an autoimmune condition

Even if you don’t notice any digestive symptoms like heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea, loose stools, bloating, belching, gassiness, cramping, constipation and so on, you could still experience poor digestion and nutrient malabsorption.

Because having an autoimmune condition, like Graves’ disease makes you a suspect of having a compromised digestive system.

Alessio Fasano, MD, researcher of Celiac disease and other autoimmune conditions, found that everyone with an autoimmune disease experiences some extent of damage to their small intestinal lining [1].

The small intestine is the main entry point of nutrition into your bloodstream. Damage to it may lead to malabsorption issues.

For example, if the part of your small intestine responsible for iron absorption is damaged, you may have anemia. Or if the part responsible for calcium absorption gets damaged, you may end up with osteoporosis.

This is particularly the case in people with Celiac disease. An autoimmune disease in which the ingestion of gluten resulted in severe damage to the small intestine.

[Read more about the strong link between Graves’ disease and gluten here.]

If you’d like to know for sure whether your digestion is compromised, consider taking a functional lab test. Either through a functional medicine practitioner or a functional health coach, like me.

 

In short, strong digestion should be a top priority if you’re serious about reclaiming your health.

These are a few easy ways to start working on your digestion now.

 

Take a moment before you eat

This can be through praying for your meal, expressing gratitude for the foods in front of you or simply taking a couple of deep breaths before putting fork to mouth.

These all help you to slow down. Relax from all the other things that were keeping you preoccupied. They help you focus on the foods you’re about to eat. And this helps with digestion.

By slowing down, you’ll put your body in a parasympathetic state. A state in which the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system gets activated.

This state is also known as the “rest and digest” state. Your body undergoes a couple of responses in this state. Your muscles relax and your heart rate drops. You’ll increase saliva production to help you break down food and secrete stomach acid. And you’ll increase pancreatic secretions or enzymes.

All essential ingredients to digestion of your foods.

Unfortunately, many people eat while being in the opposite state, the sympathetic state. A state in which the sympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system gets activated. Also known as the “fight or flight” (or freeze) state.

If you’re in a “fight or flight” (or freeze) mode, eating is considered unimportant. It’s all about surviving. You become more alert, your heartbeat accelerates, your body inhibits salivation and shuts down its digestive process.

This makes eating under stress or on the go a bad idea.

 

Chewing Thoroughly

We have teeth for a reason. They have a huge role in the mechanical breakdown of the foods you eat. They’re designed to do a lot of the hard digestive work.

Many people, however, swallow or gobble down their food as fast as they can.

Although it may seem like lot of work, thoroughly chewing is actually very efficient. Digestion is considered one of the biggest stressors on your body. And the simple act of chewing, chewing and chewing can save you a ton of energy. Your teeth were specifically designed for this mechanical breakdown. Your stomach wasn’t.

Chewing also increases the amount of saliva and helps expel air from your food. Simply by chewing your food well, you can reduce or eliminate bloating, gas and abdominal pain.

So how many times do you need to chew on your food?

That depends of course per food. General rules state that you should chew 5-10 times before swallowing soft foods like fruit. And you should chew about 30 times before swallowing on harder foods such as meat.

In general, I like to remember this rule: “drink your food and eat your drink”.

 

Start your meal with something bitter

Bitter foods activate bitter receptors in your main digestive organs:  the tongue, stomach, pancreas and gallbladder. This promotes digestive juices like saliva, stomach acid, bile, and enzymes.

So, starting your meal with something bitter can help improve your digestion.

Bitter is not a common flavor in most of the western world. Yet, you may be familiar with the Italian tradition of starting meals with a bitter aperitivo? That’s a bitter liqueur. Or an arugula salad.

Other foods you can include in your appetizers are dandelions, fennel, dill, bitter melon, Jerusalem artichokes, and kale.

Or you can opt for a digestive bitter before your meal. Digestive bitters are herbal tinctures containing a combination of bitter herbs to help improve digestion.

 

Take supplemental digestive enzymes

Especially when your health is compromised, the use of a broad spectrum digestive enzyme supplement can be useful. Broad spectrum digestive enzymes supplements contain different enzymes to break down all three macronutrients; carbohydrates, fats, and protein.

These enzymes will support your digestive system to break down food and make them available for your body to use them.

Take them with your food and snacks to get most out of the nutrients and reduce the burden of digestion on your body.

If you are low in stomach acid and to aid protein digestion, I recommend to also take a hydrochloric acid (HCL) supplement with pepsin.

Important: make sure you don’t have a Helicobacter Pylori (H. Pylori) infection. As HCL with pepsin will make this bacterial stomach infection worse. Your doctor, health care practitioner or a functional health coach, like me, can test you for this infection.

 

Drink plenty clean water

Drinking plenty of water is also vital for digestion. Yet, many people seem to be chronically dehydrated.

Water is needed for many digestive functions and digestive juices. Water helps dissolve fats and soluble fibers. It’s also needed to help improve the flow through the entire digestive system.

Try to aim for 8 to 10 8oz. glasses of water per day. An easy way to incorporate this into your daily routine is by drinking 2 glasses of water before each meal and 2 times 2 glasses in between. You may need to drink more if you’re experiencing loose stools or diarrhea as that’ll make you lose a lot of water.

Note that drinks like coffee and tea (and soda drinks) are diuretics. This means they remove more fluids from your body then they bring in. If you drink these, you would need to make up for the loss of water. Of course, if you’re experiencing hyperthyroid symptoms such as heart palpitations, consider skipping the coffee.

I already mentioned in earlier posts that it’s best to use filtered water. Preferably use a filter that removes fluoride, chlorine, and other contaminants.

 

Digestive health is at the heart of many different conditions. And Graves’ disease is no exception.

Eating a healthier diet is an important first step. And improving your digestive function will help you reap the most benefits of that.

Improving your digestive function can help you absorb more of the nourishing foods you eat, reduce (digestive) stress on your body, and help your body heal.

These 5 ways are a great place to start.

Yet, even though they are easy to perform, you may need to remind yourself again and again.

For instance, taking time for my meal remains challenging for me. Two demanding little girls at my dinner table can make it extremely hard to stay in a parasympathetic “rest and digest” relaxed state.

But, you know, every action you take counts.

So, which one will you try first?

 

Book resources:

[1] Fasano, MD, Alessio, “Gluten Freedom” (New York; Wiley General Trade, 2014), pp. 55.