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Digestion and Performance: The Link

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Have you hit a wall?

You’re doing everything “right”: eating healthy, getting enough rest, getting enough calories, moderately pushing yourself during your workouts … and your performance is stagnating.

Or, perhaps you feel you’re doing everything right, and you still suffer from low energy levels.

What gives?

We wanted to dive into something that’s not mentioned often when it comes to food (ironically), and that’s proper digestion.

The truth is, just because you’re eating food doesn’t mean you’re digesting it fully … and this can seriously impact your energy and performance.

Below, we break down why this could be happening, and what you can do about it.

You Are What You Digest

Digestion is an intricate process, to say the least. And, unless there’s something undeniably wrong in our gut region, we tend to not give it much thought.

However, the link between our guts and the rest of our body and its processes is undeniable: for one, our gut contains so many neurotransmitters (that’s right, like the ones in your brain and nervous system), it has actually been called our “second brain.” The vagus nerve also provides a direct link from our brain to our gut, causing what happens in the gut to have an influence on emotions, mood, and our nervous system, and vice versa.

Not to mention, the gut is where our bodies extract and synthesize the energy and nutrients we need to … well, live. And this is what we really want to focus on here.

In order for your body to break down the food you eat, it has to produce digestive enzymes and HCL (hydrochloric, or stomach acid). Each macronutrient that you eat (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) needs a specific enzyme to help break it down inside your gut.

If these enzymes and HCL are present in adequate amounts, your protein will be efficiently broken down into amino acids needed to fuel muscle growth, your carbs will be efficiently broken down into glucose for energy, and your fats will be broken down into various molecules for energy and hormone production. This will (provided there are no other issues) likely leave you feeling energized enough to tackle each day, plus your workout.

However, if you aren’t producing adequate amounts of digestive enzymes or HCL, you could be only partially digesting your food … which can lead to a lack of nutrients.

And what happens when we lack nutrients? We begin to lack energy, which then impacts our performance.

In fact, studies have shown that supplementing with digestive enzymes can increase athletic performance in stressed athletes, likely due to an improved ability to break down and utilize carbs and proteins for energy and recovery.

Unfortunately, there are many reasons we may not be producing what we need to digest our food optimally, including: stress (physical and psychological), age, and gastrointestinal issues like bad bacterial overgrowth, IBS, etc …

Below we walk through what you can do to optimize your digestion and root out if it’s the cause of low energy and performance.

Tips To Improve Digestion

Luckily, there are several steps you can take to help optimize digestion.

  1. Digestive Bitters and/or Enzymes

As we mentioned earlier, digestive enzymes are crucial in the process of breaking down food into usable energy for your body. However, there are several reasons we may be lacking in enzymes, with two of the major being stress and age. However, certain gut-related conditions can also result in low enzyme production.

A great way to encourage your body to produce more of its own enzymes is to either 1. Eat more bitter-tasting foods, or 2. Supplement with a digestive bitter spray.

“Bitter” is one of the flavors we commonly avoid as a society, yet it is the flavor that heavily influences enzyme production! The signal for your body to produce specific enzymes begins when a food connects with your taste buds, so consuming bitter foods and greens like kale, spinach, collard, dandelion, mustard greens, and even ginger and turmeric can help kick start the process.

Alternatively, you can also grab a digestive bitters supplement, which allows you to spray a blend of bitter herbs on your tongue before a meal to enhance your enzyme production.

If you feel like you need a stronger enzyme boost (or if you’ve been under heavy stress), consider supplementing with digestive enzymes themselves. You can typically find these in any health food store for a reasonable price, and you’ll want to simply take one or two (depending on the instructions) 15-30 minutes before each meal.

  1. Fermented Foods

Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, unsweetened yogurt or non-dairy unsweetened yogurt, apple cider vinegar, water kefir, and coconut kefir contain natural, beneficial bacteria that can also help digest food in your gut. They also help increase the amount of good bacteria in your gut, which can help reduce any bad bacteria overgrowth you may have that could interfere with normal digestion.

  1. HCL

Like enzymes, HCL, or stomach acid, is crucial for breaking down fat and protein. Stress, age, and gastrointestinal issues can reduce your production of HCL … and as we saw earlier, can reduce your ability to digest protein.

Many digestive enzyme supplements contain HCL, but you can also find it as a standalone. Follow the instructions on the manufacturer label and start with a low dose.

  1. Avoid Processed Foods

If you’re feeling low energy or your performance has taken a dive, also consider whether you’re eating any processed foods. Many foods in a box, as well as breads, muffins, flours, cereals, bars, etc … contain high amounts of processed carbs and sugars, which not only send your blood sugar out for a roller coaster ride, but also feed bad bacteria in your gut. These can lead to immediate drowsiness, as well as impaired digestion (and thus less absorption of nutrients) in the long run.

Stick to whole, fresh foods, and make sure your carbs are coming from natural sources like sweet potato, quinoa, beans, and squashes.

  1. Don’t Forget To Chew

Enzyme production starts with our saliva. Try slowing down your chewing speed, making sure you’ve chewed thoroughly before swallowing. This takes a lot of work off of your gut having to break down large pieces of semi-solid pieces of food.

  1. Reduce Stress

Enzyme and HCL production can grind to a halt when we’re under stress. If this stress is constant or chronic, we could be seriously lacking in the compounds needed to break down food and nutrients, which could lead to deficiencies.

Try getting outside in nature for at least 10 minutes a day, which has been shown to lower stress hormones. In addition, consider supplementing with adaptogen herbs, which help your body become more resilient to the effects of stress.

Common adaptogens include:

    • Ashwagandha
    • Rhodiola Rosea
    • Schizandra
    • Siberian Ginseng
    • Astragalus
    • Chaga mushroom

The Bottom Line

Making sure you’re properly digesting and absorbing nutrients is crucial, even if you aren’t an athlete. Without the ability to break down foods, we can be eating extremely healthy and still not get the amount of nutrients we need, which can lead to low energy levels and stunted performance. Follow the tips above to give your digestion a boost.

If you’re looking for a nutrition guide for your specific diet needs, we recently launched our comprehensive meal plans! Ranging from Vegan, to Paleo, to Autoimmune, and even a children’s plan, each guide contains recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, so you’re never left wondering what to eat! Check them out here.

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