How to Improve Your Digestion

10 Tips to Implement Now for Better Gut Health

woman holding her stomach with digestion problems like gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, or ulcers due to stress
Digestion Problems Can Crop Up Due to Stress

A good digestion turneth all to health.” George Herbert

Good digestion is essential to our health and our mood. When it’s all working smoothly, we tend to take it for granted. It’s not until things go awry that digestion moves to the forefront of our minds.

If you suffer from digestion issues such as constipation, heartbuurn, abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating, gas, or nausea, you know that it can quickly become all-consuming, affecting some of your mental bandwidth every moment of the day. The discomfort is only the tip of the iceberg. If we’re not digesting food properly, we’re at risk for nutritional deficiencies. That’s because the digestive system is our central “distribution center”, breaking down what we eat and shipping nutrients out to the cells that need them.

Like any supply chain, a broken link has extensive consequences. In addition to the many far-reaching effects of nutrition deficiencies, poor digestion creates emotional stress, and even depression due in part to the gut’s role in producing serotonin (our happy neurotransmitter).

It’s Increasingly Common to Have Digestion Problems

The incidence of digestive disorders has risen dramatically in recent years. This increased frequency is likely because our fast-paced lifestyles contain many elements that contribute to problems. These factors include high stress levels, too much time sitting, and poor quality sleep. The good news is that it’s possible to get your digestion back on track.

By getting to know your own digestive system and experimenting with different lifestyle habits that are known to make a difference, you can figure out how to fix what’s wrong, reclaim your social life, and feel confident that what you eat is truly nourishing your body.

10 Proven Ways to Improve Your Digestion

Eat whole foods

Choosing whole foods means opting for the least-processed version of real food whenever possible. Choose an apple over apple pie, for example, or whole grains over refined flour products. Not only is this the best way to get all of your essential nutrients, but it helps to remove the additives and excess sugar in processed foods that disrupt your gut microbiome and contribute to gut irritation, bloating, and cramps. Artificial sweeteners are another culprit of poor digestion, since even the so-called “healthy” sweeteners like xylitol have been linked to bloating and diarrhea.

Stay well-hydrated

One of the most common culprits for constipation is dehydration. Water helps move things along through your digestive tract in a wave-like muscle movement called peristalsis. However, if your body senses that you need more water elsewhere in the body that takes priority. The large intestine draws water from your stools to redirect it to other parts of your body such as your muscles or brain, making your stools harder to pass if you don’t drink enough.

Choose your fluids wisely. Sipping on water and herbal teas throughout the day are great options to keep you hydrated. Avoid alcohol, which acts as a diuretic and further dehydrates, as well as sweetened beverages. The jury is still out regarding coffee’s effects on digestion. Some people find it irritates their digestive tract and leads to heartburn, but scientists haven’t found a direct causal effect. Coffee does have a laxative effect for many people, and is best consumed in moderation.

Focus on soluble and insoluble fiber

To understand the myriad of ways fiber promotes digestive health, it’s helpful to distinguish between the two types of fiber:

Soluble fiber

As the name suggests, soluble fiber dissolves in water. When it passes through your digestive tract, it provides prebiotic fiber that feeds the good bacteria in your gut. Good sources of soluble fiber include beans, apples, oats, and strawberries.

Insoluble fiber

Because insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve, it helps provide bulk to stools. Stool volume stimulates your gut wall to propel bowel movements along your digestive tract more easily. This contributes to regularity and that sometimes elusive feeling of complete elimination. Good sources include vegetables like cauliflower and green beans, nuts, and many unprocessed grains.

Your diet should contain both types of fiber to promote good digestion, a healthy gut, a robust microbiome, and bowel regularity. To increase your overall fiber intake, increase your consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. There are numerous ways to sneak more fiber into your diet, like leaving the peel on potatoes, adding a handful of nuts to a salad, and sprinkling a little freshly ground flaxseed on yogurt. However, if you currently eat a low-fiber diet, be careful not to ramp up your intake too quickly, which can lead to gas and discomfort. As you introduce increasing amounts of fiber, make sure you’re also drinking more water as the fibre itself absorbs a lot.

Choose healthy omega-3 fats

Toss a fiber-rich salad with a bit of olive oil and lemon juice or apple cider vinegar, these are much healthier options than packaged dressings. Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, and nuts actually help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, so don’t be afraid to add them to a meal. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent inflammatory bowel disorders like Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis. Foods high in omega-3 include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and nuts.

Eat slowly and mindfully

Part of making mealtimes less stressful can simply mean slowing down. Avoid eating on-the-go and try to make a policy of eating while sitting down at a table, instead of in your car or while running to another activity. Turn off the TV and pay attention to the pleasure of a good meal.

Use your senses throughout a meal. The look, taste, smell, and texture of food helps to prepare your gut for digestion. Food should be enjoyed after all. Savour every bite instead of absent-mindedly snacking while looking at your phone. You’ll improve digestion by preventing overeating to the point of overloading your stomach and being too full to digest properly.

Reduce your stress

Yes, this is easier said than done. But consider this: Your gut has millions of neurons receiving messages from your brain and sending messages back. When you’re under chronic stress, you’re more vulnerable to stomach ulcers and other upsets. Plus, when you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release more of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol, which can lead to cramping as the body redirects resources from your intestines to your running and fighting mucles in your arms and legs.

Try to create a calm atmosphere for meals, and keep dinner conversation light. Tackle long-term stress by introducing more stress-busting, mindfuless activities such as meditation, yoga or, long walks outdoors.

Chew your food well

What’s the rush? When you chew your food, you’re starting the digestive process, so it follows that more chewing breaks down your food more thoroughly. Plus, chewing mixes the food with saliva which contains enzymes that start digesting. Aim to chew your food 20 – 30 times before swallowing to aid the digestive process. You want the food to become a liquid in your mouth.

Get moving

It’s simple: When you move, your digestive system moves. That might sound overly simplistic, but scientists have found that exercise can improve the rate at which you digest food. The peristalsis process speeds up with the increase in blood flow and the triggering of various movement receptors in your colon, pushing food through the digestive tract at a regular pace. Exercise also reduces stress, boosts energy, improves mood and heart health. If you’re doing some sort of impact activity, like jogging, gravity also helps to move food through your gut. Moving stool through your gut faster, holds more water in the stool which keeps it softer and easier to pass, rather than hard and dry stool that is more difficult to pass.

Clean up your habits

You can add “better digestion” to the many reasons to quit smoking and cut down on alcohol consumption. Some smokers feel that smoking helps them stay regular, but like caffeine, that is due to a stimulant effect that can be irritating to your gut. Smoking also greatly increases the risk of acid reflux, peptic ulcers, Crohn’s disease, and cancer of the colon. If this is you, I can work with you to create a health plan to help you cut out smoking – while practicing other good digestion habits – so you won’t feel the need to rely on cigarettes.

Maintain your microbiome

Your digestive tract contains trillions of healthy gut bacteria known as your microbiome. In fact, the bacteria in your gut outnumber the cells of your body. Maintaining that microbiome is essential for avoiding digestive problems like gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. A healthy gut microbiome is also essential for mental health, as your gut is the main site for the production of your happy brain chemical or neurotransmitter, serotonin.

Follow these tips to maintain balanced levels of the right kinds of gut bugs:

  • Because your microbiome contains many different types of bacteria, be sure to eat a wide variety of foods to help sustain them.
  • Fermented foods help replenish good bacteria, so choose foods like unsweetened yogurt, kimchi, kefir, tempeh, and sauerkraut when possible.
  • Good bacteria help digest some types of fibers, so following a high-fiber diet stimulates their growth. Research has found that those who consume a low-fiber diet, starve off some of their good microbes. Once these bacteria are gone, even if you switch to a high-fiber diet, they don’t necessarily come back.
  • Probiotic supplements help to maintain a good balance in your gut. Research suggests they’re an effective supplement to reduce the symptoms of existing digestive problems, although they may be less effective at preventing problems.

Don’t let digestive problems hold you back from enjoying life. If you’d like to talk about testing for digestion problems, further strategies to treat gut issues naturally, or want help creating a plan to implement these tips, give me a call!

Digestion References:

Anderson JW, Baird P, Davis RH Jr, Ferreri S, Knudtson M, Koraym A, Waters V, Williams CL. Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutr Rev. 2009 Apr;67(4):188-205. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x. PMID: 19335713.

Everhart JE, editor. The burden of digestive diseases in the United States. US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2008; NIH Publication No. 09-6443.

Boekema PJ, Samsom M, van Berge Henegouwen GP, Smout AJ. Coffee and gastrointestinal function: facts and fiction. A review. Scand J Gastroenterol Suppl. 1999;230:35-9. doi: 10.1080/003655299750025525. PMID: 10499460.

Oettlé GJ. Effect of moderate exercise on bowel habit. Gut. 1991 Aug;32(8):941-4. doi: 10.1136/gut.32.8.941. PMID: 1885077; PMCID: PMC1378967.

McFarland LV. Use of probiotics to correct dysbiosis of normal microbiota following disease or disruptive events: a systematic review. BMJ Open. 2014 Aug 25;4(8):e005047. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005047. PMID: 25157183; PMCID: PMC4156804.

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