Chewing Series Entry #4

Something to Chew On.

So, to recap what we’ve learned so far in this Chewing Series…we now know that chewing can help us lose weight, reduce stress, and improve bone health. All of these factors also contribute to this week’s topic: how proper chewing can reduce heartburn and prevent small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). For example, having less stress at a meal allows for the digestive process to function fully instead of being turned off or stopped. Eating to a point of moderate fullness versus a point of over fullness also gives the stomach space for proper grinding and mixing of food.

How does chewing help with heartburn?

Many of us know all too well the symptoms of heartburn or gastrointestinal reflux (GERD), namely, burning or tightness in our chest, nausea, sour regurgitation of food in the back of our throats and even shortness of breath. Some of you with SIBO may even have experienced similar symptoms along with abdominal bloating and distention.

Instead of taking anti-acid medications to relieve your symptoms of GERD, why not just try chewing your food well? Chewing is an incredibly important first step in the process of digestion, triggering the secretion of saliva, which contains digestive enzymes (amylase for carbohydrate digestion and lingual lipase for fat digestion). These enzymes start the whole digestive process right in your mouth, breaking down food into smaller particles. The more you chew, the more your salivary enzymes can do their job. Dr. Gerard Mullin of Johns Hopkins writes, these digestive enzymes “are only properly integrated into the foods you eat when you chew enough (1).”

How does chewing prevent SIBO?

It’s much easier and faster for your stomach enzymes to digest food that has already been pre-digested; smaller food particles have a much larger surface area for enzymes to act on. Tougher, more fibrous foods like whole grains and proteins in meat need a lot more chewing than softer foods. Your stomach has to work harder and secrete more acid to break down large food particles. Ever get an under-chewed hunk of food lodged in your esophagus? OUCH! Chewing also tells the rest of the digestive organs that the party’s on! The stomach secretes its gastric juices and the pancreas readies to secrete its digestive enzymes. Well, that’s if you actually chew your food well.

If you don’t chew well or long enough, the enzymes that break down carbohydrates cannot do their job and you could end up poorly digesting these foods resulting in gas and bloating. The same is true for fat digestion. When we chew our food well, saliva is produced, and you swallow more frequently, washing any acid down your esophagus. When saliva is being consistently swallowed, it acts as a buffer to neutralize acidity in the esophagus and relieve the burn. Research has shown that chewing gum for thirty minutes after a meal can also have this effect (2).

A big chunk of gulped, poorly chewed food can become a dinner banquet for bacteria or yeast, both in the stomach and small intestine. When these bacteria and yeast munch on the food in your gut, the end result is what you might find in your compost bin, and it will make you feel bloated, gassy, belchy, and farty — a.k.a. the perfect storm for reflux and SIBO.

Better Gut Tip: Chew slowly and carefully. Put down your utensil or food and breathe between bites.