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How are you chewing?

Thought digestion was a stomach thing? Think again.

It’s a little-known fact that digestion actually begins not in the stomach but in the mouth – as you chew. That’s why it’s common on the Indian subcontinent to be offered an aromatic mixture to chew after meals. Known as mukhwas, this is usually based on fennel seeds, known for their stomach- soothing properties – and a key part of its effectiveness in aiding digestion is its role in stimulating more chewing.

Here’s Looking at Chew

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So what’s so important about chewing? Firstly, chewing stimulates the brain, and through it your whole digestive system. The better you chew, the more satisfying your food will be: chewing properly sends more signals to the brain that you’re eating, helping you to register when your stomach is full and helping to prevent over-eating.

As you chew, saliva is created, which helps to relax a muscle in your lower stomach called the pylorus. Relaxing this muscle enables food to leave your stomach and pass into your small intestine. Proper chewing thus helps food to move smoothly through your system, helping guard against indigestion and blockages.

Chewing also increases the contact of your food with saliva. Saliva helps to lubricate the mouthful, transforming it from your forkful into a soft paste or ‘bolus’ ready to be swallowed. And because saliva contains enzymes that contribute to the digestive process, the work of absorbing your dinner has in fact already started before you have even swallowed! The enzyme alpha-aylase breaks down some of the chemical bonds that connect the simple sugars in carbohydrate. Meanwhile glands under your tongue secrete lingual lipase, an enzyme that kick-starts the first stage of fat digestion.

As well as stimulating saliva and other digestive activities, chewing starts the process of breaking down your foodstuffs so you can absorb the nutrients. As you chew food into small pieces, more surface area is available for enzymes to work on, meaning it’s easier for the acids in your stomach to get to work on making those nutrients available for your body.

Three Signs you’re Chewing it Wrong

In our hurried, on-the-go culture, it’s common for people to chew their food as little as three or four times before swallowing – and one sign of this can be poor digestion. If you don’t chew enough, you may swallow food fragments that are still too big for your stomach to break down. As well as inhibiting your ability to absorb nutrition from your meal, this can result in undigested food finding its way into your intestine, where – instead of being food for you – it can become food for bacterial overgrowth, leading to flatulence and other digestive disorders.

Another sign of poor chewing can be heartburn. The oesophageal sphincter is a band of muscle that separates the oesophagus from the stomach, preventing stomach contents from being pushed upward into the throat. Chewing exercises the oesophageal sphincter, increasing its strength and helping to guard against acid reflux. Poor chewing can leave you with a weakened oesophogeal sphincter, leading to GERD – gastro-oesophogeal reflux disease, more commonly known as ‘heartburn’. The burning sensation of heartburn is caused when this muscle is too weak to prevent stomach acids from entering the throat.

Weight gain can also be a sign that you’re not chewing properly. If you chew your food thoroughly, your stomach and brain have plenty of time to communicate feelings of fullness and there’s less danger of over-eating.

What to chew about it?

If you’re suffering from heartburn, indigestion or other digestive disorders, the first thing you can do is listen to what your grandmother would say and chew every mouthful at least 25 times!

Take time over your food. Try to allow space for meals, put your fork down between mouthfuls, and eat mindfully. If you often read, watch TV, check emails or surf the internet as you eat, try putting these distractions down and focusing on your food. Simply by making more space in your life for the rituals and processes of eating can help stimulate your digestion; and combined with proper chewing this can go a long way towards alleviating the symptoms of poor digestion.

For more information, visit http://www.consciousfood.co.uk.