If gas, bloating, heartburn, nausea, constipation or diarrhea are part of your everyday life, you’re not alone.
In our modern day society digestive problems have become a part of our daily routine. Albeit often an inconvenient, painful or embarrassing one.
We don’t talk about digestive disorders and we rarely seek advice to help such a common problem. The most common problems associated with the digestive tract are diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and heartburn. These can be caused by many things, such as an unhealthy lifestyle, poor nutrition, a food sensitivity or even an infection. And just as there are many causes, there are many ways to help your digestive system work smoothly.
As dietitians we believe that real food (and a healthy lifestyle) is powerful medicine and that with just a few adjustments to what you eat, when you eat and how you eat you can noticeably improve your digestion.
Here are our top 5 ways to improve your digestion naturally:
1. Add probiotics to your life
Probiotics are strains of beneficial bacteria that live in your digestive system. These bacteria are microorganisms called “probiotics” which means ‘for life’. These microscopic ‘bugs’ live in your intestines where they produce vitamins and short-chain fatty acids that feed and nurture other beneficial bacteria , are nonpathogenic (non-disease causing) and directly contribute to a healthy gut flora (the community of bacteria in your gut). These bacteria aid in digestion (breaking down the foods you eat), help prevent infection and reduce chronic inflammation. You can get more probiotics by taking a supplement or eating raw fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha.
2. Change your eating habits
The way you eat has a large impact on how your digestive system works. By changing a few of your eating habits you may be able to improve your digestion dramatically.
These are some of our favorite non-food digestion hacks:
- Eat in a relaxed environment and focus on eating. Just eating.
- Turn off the television and phone so you can fully focus on the food you are eating and the act of eating. Notice how your food looks, tastes, smells and feels in your mouth. This is called being mindful..
- Try not to eat when you are upset or in a bad mood. Your brain and your digestive tract are interconnected so these feelings can impact the effectiveness of your digestive system.
- Be sure to chew each mouthful of food thoroughly before swallowing it to lessen the impact on your digestive system. Chewing your food into smaller particles is an essential, but often overlooked, step in digestion. The more you chew your food, the better it will be broken down which will help with the digestive process. This is because breaking down your food mechanically is actually considered to be the first phase of digestion. The smaller the particles the easier the food travels down the esophagus. As you chew your food, saliva is released from glands in your mouth and which then begins the chemical digestion of the food before it even reaches your stomach. Additionally, the presence of saliva triggers the stomach to produce acid and its own digestive enzymes in preparation for the arrival of your meal.
- The act of chewing is often the most overlooked step in the digestive process but not one to be taken lightly.
3. Stay hydrated
Water is important for digestion! We need water to digest solid food and absorb nutrients properly. Without water, the entire body’s performance decreases which can lead to dehydration and decrease blood pressure which can cause constipation.
- Drink enough water each day. The average person should aim to consume approximately 80 ounces of water (or other non-caffeinated fluids) each day.
- But…..you need to drink this water between meals rather than with meals to avoid diluting stomach acid which is vital for optimal digestion.
4. Rejuvenate with a REAL Food Reboot
Excess toxins can be a cause of digestive problems for many people, causing either diarrhea, constipation or in the case of many with IBS – both! Eliminating the foods that create inflammation in your body while replacing them with whole, nourishing and nutrient-dense foods is one of the best ways to reset your digestive and help you troubleshoot what’s really going on in there.
- Ditch the artificial sweeteners. These have been shown to drastically alter gut bacteria which we already know is a very important part of healthy digestion and overall health.
- Eat fewer processed foods. These foods tend to be empty calories with little to no nutrient value and are often full of refined sugars, artificial flavors, colors and preservatives that cause harm to your kidneys and liver and are addictive.
- Eliminate gluten from your diet. Gluten is a common allergen and gut irritant (even for those without gluten allergies like celiac disease).
- Avoid processed soy. Soy interferes with the absorption of nutrients and causes a hormone imbalance in the body when consumed in large quantities (i.e. as soy protein isolates in processed foods and beverages).
5. Boost your stomach acid
That’s right. Boost it. The truth is that high levels of hydrochloric acid, or ‘stomach acid’, are often not the cause of heartburn as we’ve been lead to believe. In fact, it’s often too little stomach acid that’s to blame. In order for food to be released from the stomach into the small intestine where most of the digestion and absorption of nutrients occurs, food needs to be in a liquid state. So if you don’t chew each mouthful thoroughly and you have low stomach acid that means your stomach needs to do more ‘mechanical’ digesting – or more churning and squeezing, to break the food down. This mechanical digestion takes more time which means food is left in the stomach longer where it can start to ferment, causing pressure to build (read: gas and bloating). What you now have is the perfect storm with regards to heartburn because the increased pressure exerts force on the esophageal sphincter (the muscle that closes the esophagus off from the stomach) making the acid you do have more likely to splash back up into the esophagus.
Here are three simple ways to boost stomach acid naturally:
- Add freshly squeezed lemon juice to the water you drink between meals.
- Drink 1-2 teaspoons of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar in a small amount of water before each meal.
- Chew your food. Chew each mouthful until it is nearly impossible to discern what was in the bite you took. This may mean upwards of 15-20 chews per bite.
The ‘Take Away”
You are not alone. We’ve all experienced digestive problems at one time or another. Some digestive issues are harder than others to troubleshoot and fix, but many of them can be fixed with some simple adjustments to how you eat, when you eat and of course, what you eat.