Updated: Nov 26, 2020
Gut health is one of my favourite topics to research and read about. There is still so much we do not know, with new research that emerges every day revealing the connections between the gut and overall health.
Digestive disorders and diseases affect millions of people worldwide, and the reasons can vary from person to person based on diet, lifestyle, stress and/or environmental factors. Bloating, gases, constipation, cramps, diarrhoea, and acid reflux are all examples of digestive distress. These symptoms have become so common and people consider it a regular occurrence in their day and just part of their normal digestion process. However, they are not ‘normal’ and should be considered as a sign of digestive issues.
This article will discuss simple and practical ways that can help improve your digestion.
It is imperative to have a healthy gut as it is required for proper digestion and nutrient absorption.
Healthy gut = healthy digestion = healthy absorption = optimal health!
So what can we do? Here are some simple things to consider that can really help you with how to improve your digestion:
1. Monitor any foods you know to be problematic for you
Food intolerance or sensitivities can contribute to gut disturbances. A growing body of evidence shows that food sensitivities can cause a wide range of unwanted symptoms (1 - 3).
Some common symptoms of food intolerances are (1 - 8):
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
There are dozens of different foods people can be sensitive to. Some of the most common foods include dairy, eggs, wheat, and gluten.
If you suspect that you might be sensitive to a certain food the easiest thing to do is to remove it entirely from your diet and keep a food diary to see if there is improvement in doing so. You can then reintroduce it to see how your body reacts. Note: If you are still not seeing an improvement you should speak to a healthcare practitioner.
2. Eat nutrient-dense foods (+ avoid refined and processed foods)
Limit processed food and refined sugars as they can cause inflammation in the gut and are low in nutrients, fibre, and water. This has a negative effect on digestion, impairs absorption and slows transit time; which can cause constipation and bloating.
3. Consume prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods
Our gut microbiome is critical for normal gut development and health. They are a beneficial colony of one hundred trillion bacterial cells residing in our large intestine which directly impacts our health.
When there is a disruption to the balance of the microbiome; be it from poor diet, stress or low stomach acid or a combination, issues can arise. An unbalanced gut microbiome is one of the major common causes of bloating, gas, constipation, and inflammation of the digestive tract (10, 11).
Prebiotics-rich food such as in artichoke, onions, garlic, leeks, and oats; can fuel the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and help support any gut disturbances.
Probiotic-rich food such as yogurt (plain, organic and natural) and fermented foods such as pickled vegetables, tempeh, miso, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi. They contain the ‘good’ bacteria that help nourish the intestinal flora in our gut and reduce the ability of harmful bacteria to survive (12).
4. Eat slower + chew your food
A simple but overlooked way to support good digestion and reduce digestive issues is by thoroughly chewing your food. The action of chewing helps to pre-digest food by mechanically breaking it down, and by chemically breaking it down with the help of an enzyme found in your saliva called salivary amylase.
Chewing your food signals to trigger your stomach to begin producing stomach acid to further break down your food and continue the digestive process. When you don’t chew your food enough, your body may not produce enough of the enzymes needed to fully break down your food. This could lead to digestive problems including bloating.
Be mindful and take your time to fully chew your food when you eat. When you eat, sit down, and slow down. The more mindful you can be when you eat, the more it will support digestion and reduce potential bloating.
5. Manage stress levels
Since the gut is intricately connected to the nervous system; sleep, stress management (which could be done through prayer, meditation, and yoga) and exercise are necessary for the renewal of the body and controlling inflammation; therefore improving these areas may improve any potential digestive distress.
When you are stressed, blood supply is directed to your muscles, away from your digestive system, to help you move faster, which can harm the process of digestion. Additionally, digestive enzyme production slows, and the contractions in your intestines that help break food and move it along can also be affected negatively (9, 13).
To simplify: When you are stressed you can’t digest optimally.
A major component of a healthy lifestyle should include stress reduction techniques such as prayer, meditation (using apps such as Headspace or Calm for guided meditation), yoga, Tai Chi, deep breathing, walking and spending time in nature.
6. Physical activity
Physical activity helps support digestion by supporting the peristalsis motion of the digestive system. It also increases blood flow to organs and stimulates the digestive tract, helping it work more effectively. In addition, research has indicated that moderate exercise boosts beneficial gut bacteria, thus inhibiting gut inflammation (14).
Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes per day; walking, running, biking or anything that suits your lifestyle best!
7. Stay hydrated
Keeping the body hydrated has multiple health benefits, but is especially beneficial to the digestive system as it helps promote good elimination. As a rule of thumb, you should consume between 1.5 L to 2 L per day.
Best practice is to ensure that you are drinking water throughout the day and not all at once. It is best to consume water between meals and limit liquids with meals as it can hinder the digestive process.
Our digestive health is influenced by many factors: diet, exercise, stress, age, medication, illness, environment, and exposures during early life (e.g. being breastfed or not). It is important to remember that not all bodies are created equal; not everyone reacts to foods in the same way. Identifying what is affecting you can take time, as causes could have arisen in conjunction with one another.
Hopefully, these tips and strategies are something that you can implement into your everyday life to help you improve your digestion.
If you are truly struggling with regular or severe digestive symptoms you should seek suitable advice from a healthcare practitioner.
1) Guo H, Jiang T, Wang J, Chang Y, Guo H, et al. (2012) The value of eliminating foods according to food-specific immunoglobulin G antibodies in irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhoea. J Int Med Res 40(1): 204-210
2) Atkinson W, Sheldon TA, Shaath N, Whorwell PJ (2004) Food elimination based on IgG antibodies in irritable bowel syndrome: a randomised controlled trial. Gut 53(10): 1459-1464
3) Karakuła-Juchnowicz H, Szachta P, Opolska A, MorylowskaTopolska J, Galecka M, et al. (2017) The role of IgG hypersensitivity in the pathogenesis and therapy of depressive disorders. Nutr Neurosci 20(2): 110-118
4) Hvatum, M., Kanerud, L., Hällgren, R., & Brandtzaeg, P. (2006). The gut-joint axis: cross reactive food antibodies in rheumatoid arthritis. Gut, 55(9), 1240–1247.
5) Kostic-Vucicevic M, Marinkovic D, Dikic N, Stojmenovic T, Andjelkovic M, et al. (2016) Is there connection between food intolerance and sports performance in athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine 50.
6) Dickerson F. et al: Markers of gluten sensitivity in acute mania: A longitudinal study. Psychiatry Res, 196:68-71; 2012
7) Bastard JP et al: Recent advances in the relationship between obesity, inflammation, and insulin resistance. Eur Cytokine Netw, 17(1):4-12; 2006
8) Salem, I., Ramser, A., Isham, N., & Ghannoum, M. A. (2018). The Gut Microbiome as a Major Regulator of the Gut-Skin Axis. Frontiers in microbiology, 9, 1459.
9) P.c. Konturek, T. Brzozowski, S.J. Konturek. (2011). Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. Journal of physiology and pharmacology. 62, 6, 591-599.
10) Menees, S., & Chey, W. (2018). The gut microbiome and irritable bowel syndrome. F1000Research, 7, F1000 Faculty Rev-1029. doi:10.12688/f1000research.14592.1
11) Ohman L, Simrén M. (2010). Pathogenesis of IBS: role of inflammation, immunity and neuroimmune interactions. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. Mar; 7(3):163-73.
12) Sanches et al. (2016) “Probiotics, gut microbiota, and their influence on host health and disease”. Gut Microbiota, Diet and Health.
13) Househam AM, Peterson CT, Mills PJ, Chopra D. (2017). The Effects of Stress and Meditation on the Immune System, Human Microbiota, and Epigenetics. Adv Mind Body Med. 31(4):10-25
14) Monda, V., Villano, I., Messina, A., Valenzano, A., Esposito, T., Moscatelli, F. Messina, G. (2017). Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity. 3831972.