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Posted by Dr. Ben Kim on Jan 05, 2015
If you've taken tennis lessons, you may have the experience of having a coach take you through a checklist of steps to create a technically sound stroke that is capable of blistering 80 mph forehands deep to the corners.
In watching my 9-year old son and his peers struggle through all of the mental cues of perfecting their technique, I wondered if there might be another way that doesn't involve so much analysis. I discussed this issue with a former Davis Cup player and tour level coach, who had this to say:
"Sometimes, it's best to put talk of technique aside and focus on where you want the ball to go and the quality of that ball - how heavy or flat it is, what type of spin it has. When you simplify things in this way and just put your efforts into doing whatever it takes to get the ball to your target with the right quality, technique can sort itself out."
I think there's wisdom in the simplicity of this advice. As with most things in life, performance tends to improve when we think less and feel more. Steffi Graf once said, it's not about trying to feel more; rather, it's about allowing ourselves to feel more of what we are experiencing.
This is precisely the guidance that I tend to share with people looking to address specific health issues. Often, health improvement is most efficiently achieved by simplifying our daily choices and being more in tune with how we are feeling.
The other day, I received a phone call from a physician who wanted to discuss a patient of ours who has been struggling with ulcerative colitis and intermittent hives. I was amazed at how deeply immersed this fellow was in what felt like a mission to show how intelligent he is. He spent a full ten minutes discussing what he described as cutting edge immunological therapies that he combines with acupuncture techniques to modify the body's immune system response to various antigens. Not once did he attempt to discuss the person we have been looking to help and her daily dietary and lifestyle choices; he seemed far more interested in discussing how he could modify what was happening to her on a cellular level and how she would make a great case study for a journal article.
Not to my surprise, when I next spoke to our client, she told me that she didn't understand 90 percent of what this physician had been telling her, and that she was hesitant to try his treatments because her gut feeling was that he was trying to intimidate her by using obscure medical jargon. In reviewing her diet and life circumstances, she agreed to begin with a few simple changes, namely cutting out all dairy, reducing gluten intake, taking a probiotic, being more mindful of how her abdomen felt after meals and the quality of her stools, and making appropriate modifications to her daily choices if necessary.
Put another way, we decided to do away with excessive talk of technique and put her energy into observing her body's response to a few simple changes. The goals are very clear: we want her to feel comfortable after every meal, we want minimal gas production, and we want well-formed stools.
Why the focus on simplicity in her and most other cases?
The body's self-healing mechanisms are profoundly simple. Our design really serves one purpose, which is to heal damaged areas until we can't. The best course of action with almost every health challenge is to improve digestive tract health because aside from our thoughts and emotions, our health begins in our digestive tract.
When we don't chew well, when we eat foods that our bodies are not equipped to break down and utilize, when we eat more than we need, when we eat while emotionally upset, our bodies suffer damage to the walls of the gastrointestinal tract, which allows some waste materials - mostly toxic gases and incompletely digested protein components - to enter our bloodstream, where they circulate and eventually cause injury to our cells.
But there's no easy and non-invasive way for us to measure this. We all suffer from some toxin production in our gastrointestinal tracts from sub-optimal digestion on a daily basis, so none of us are immune to experiencing some level of endogenous toxemia (production of toxins within our bodies from incomplete digestion, which leads to some of these toxins seeping into our bloodstream).
We can minimize endogenous toxemia and its effects by observing how our bellies feel after meals. How comfortable are we? How much gas do we produce? What is our energy level like after meals?
The goal is to choose foods and eat them in circumstances that leave us feeling well. And when we do experience some gas production, we need to release it rather than hold it in, which decreases the amount that stresses our gastrointestinal walls and gets into our bloodstream. Chewing our foods until liquid shouldn't be overlooked as a means of promoting efficient digestion.
Just like anyone looking to improve their forehand technique can let go of excessive instruction and choose instead to focus on where they want the ball to go, we can monitor the quality of our stools and comfort level in passing them to assess how healthy our digestive tracts are.
Well-formed stools that pass easily are arguably the most reliable indicator of positive gastrointestinal and overall health status. A while back, I had a patient tell me that he was once stunned to find a very large stool in a toilet in his house, and certain that it couldn't have come from him, his wife, or any of his pre-teenage children, he actually suspected that a burglar had come into their house and used their bathroom while they were away. His 8-year old eventually confessed that he had forgotten to flush after going, but the father didn't believe his son. He couldn't imagine such a large stool - much larger than anything that he, a grownup could produce - could come out of a young child. But the next time his 8-year old son went to the bathroom, he saved the evidence and showed his dad, debunking the burglar-leaving-a-poop-behind theory.
We had a solid laugh over this story, but it was a good opportunity for me to explain that stools of healthy young children are often larger than that of adults, as over time, the lumen of the gastrointestinal tract can shrink, be it from developing polyps or general waste accumulation over years. Shrinkage in lumen and stool diameter is very gradual, so many adults don't realize that their stools are losing size over time.
Sadly, the extreme end of this degenerative process can be full obstruction, often by a cancerous mass. This should serve as a powerful reminder to stay aware of the quality and size of our stools. We want our food and lifestyle choices to lead to well formed stools that pass comfortably. When our stools are not well formed or when we have difficulty passing them, we need to make changes in what we eat and do until things improve. Simple.
So just as the developing tennis player can often benefit from obsessing less about technique and focusing more on their desired ball location and quality, we can all enhance our health by being more in tune with the quality of our digestion and bowel movements and how we are feeling on a moment to moment basis, and modify our daily choices when necessary.
For general guidance on foods that are typically well digested by the masses, please feel free to have a look at our healthy eating primer here:
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