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With the new year comes new diet fads, and any drastic change in diet can inevitably affect your digestive tract. On a basic level, we know we need nutrient-rich food in our diets to fuel a healthy lifestyle. But how do we maximize the nutrient absorption in any kind of food we eat—whether raw veggies or processed Burgerville patties—as effectively as possible?

First, there are naturally occurring digestive enzymes in our bodies—such as the saliva pooling in our mouths as we anticipate devouring a juicy (veggie) burger. Then there’s mastication, aka chewing, a physical process some may argue is the most important part of digestion. 

Next, there’s the hydrochloric acid in our stomachs, which continues the chemical breakdown of food to allow for absorption of nutrients. According to Dr. Natasha Kassam, ND at Zoom+ Performance, this is where people start having issues with gas, bloating, and indigestion. These symptoms can be triggered by certain foods, or even insufficient digestive enzymes, which, along with stomach acid, decline as we age. That’s right—our guts have a vibrant, fickle ecology that changes over time. 

To remedy the unsettling sensation of food sitting dormant in your belly, Dr. Kassam first suggests natural methods. “Drinking a little lemon juice or diluted apple cider vinegar before a meal can stimulate stomach acid and digestive enzymes to break down food,” she notes. “Bitters have been used in Europe for a long period of time, triggering the digestive system to prepare it for food to come.”

The speed at which we eat also affects our ability to digest effectively. Scarfing down that burger means your body has less time to prepare for the digestive process, so mindful eating can be very helpful. Regarding what to eat, Dr. Kassam suggests a low-sugar diet with an emphasis on fermented, non-dairy foods such as sauerkraut.

On the supplemental front, probiotics are your friend. These microorganisms can stimulate gut flora to help with all manner of uncomfortable symptoms. Choose wisely, though—the market is saturated with choices. You want probiotics that are refrigerated, third-party tested for quality, and contain at least 25 billion active cultures with a wide spectrum of strains. (For what it’s worth, we love these Portland-made probiotic beverages and fermented foods.)

Digestive enzyme supplements can also help people with insufficient naturally occurring enzymes. Enzymedica produces the top selling digestive enzyme in the natural products industry, Digest Gold, which boasts an organic, gluten-free, and non-GMO formula. Browse the supplement section of your nearest New Seasons for a host of enzyme options—after you’ve exhausted the natural options, of course.

The bottom line: whatever ails you this winter—be it indigestion or a nutrient deficiency—consider chewing more slowly, taking a shot of apple cider vinegar before your meal, or even downing a high-quality digestive supplement to ease your pain.

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