If you have occasional digestive upset or indigestion (think heartburn, gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort, burping, nausea, or loss of appetite), you are far from alone. Digestive issues have become all too commonplace, with many people moving through the day feeling less than their best.
Fortunately, there are a number of diet and lifestyle tweaks you can make that go a long way in supporting your digestion. Here, I’ll share some of the easiest to implement so you can get your gut functioning at its highest level.
Upgrade Your Diet
Unsurprisingly, your diet is foundational for your digestion. Here are some tips for how to tweak some of your shopping and eating routines for better digestion.
Limit Processed Foods
An alarming 73 percent of the food supply in the U.S. is ultra-processed and Americans—including adults and children—are eating more ultra-processed foods than ever. Consuming ultra-processed foods can impact health in a variety of unwanted ways.
First of all, it negatively impacts gut health (which directly affects digestion) by compromising the integrity of the gut lining (contributing to a condition known as “leaky gut”) and detrimentally impacting the gut microbiota balance. It also promotes low-grade systemic inflammation and contributes to weight gain, negative shifts in blood sugar, and issues with kidney health and function.
If you want to promote healthy digestion, the more you can avoid highly processed foods (e.g. frozen pizza, soda, fast food, sweets, salty snacks, canned soups, and most breakfast cereals) the better.
You’ll also want to limit processed meats, which usually have unwanted amounts of sodium, unhealthy fats, and nitrates that have been linked to a higher risk of colorectal cancer. Some good meat choices include organic, free-range chicken, grass-fed beef, and wild-caught fish such as salmon.
Stick to whole foods as much as possible. Fruits and veggies, in particular, can provide both soluble and insoluble fiber, which are important for healthy digestion. Soluble fiber absorbs water and helps bulk up the stool, while insoluble fiber helps sweep the digestive tract to help keep everything moving along as it should.
Lower-sugar, higher-fiber fruits like strawberries, blueberries, avocados, raspberries, grapefruit, apples, peaches, and oranges are great options. The same goes for a variety of starchy and non-starchy vegetables, which provide fiber and other gut-friendly nutrients. (An array of colors—think spinach, eggplant, and carrots—is always a good idea.) Steam, broil, or bake certain veggies, such as broccoli, kale, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts, to make them easier to digest.
Consume Whole Grains
Another way to get your fiber fill: whole grains. While the refining process used to make white flour, white bread, white crackers, and pastries strips grains of their dietary fiber, iron, antioxidants, and other beneficial nutrients, whole grains retain all of this goodness.
Of course, fiber helps keep you regular, while other whole grains help support your friendly gut bacteria (a.k.a. probiotics), which play a role in overall healthy digestion. Brown rice, oatmeal, and barley are all good choices.
By eating your fruits and veggies and opting for whole grains, you’ll be more likely to reach the daily fiber recommendations (25 grams for females aged 19 to 50 and 38 grams per day for males 19 to 50). Most people in the United States consume only half this much fiber.
Cut Back on Excess Sugar
Likewise, you’ll want to limit added sugar intake as consuming too much sugar can negatively impact good gut bacteria. It also causes over-the-top inflammation, negatively impacting blood sugar and causing weight gain.
Many processed products contain added sugar. The obvious ones include baked goods, ice cream, and other desserts—but you’ll also find excess sugar lurking in pasta sauces, salad dressings, and even soups.
Choose your Fats Wisely
Not all fats are bad! In fact, consuming the right fats can help support digestion. In addition to supporting the absorption of nutrients like vitamins A, D, E, and K, they’re also important because they can help you feel satiated following a meal, helping to ward off overeating. As we know, overeating can lead to digestive discomfort and put extra stress on the digestion process.
Omega-3 fatty acids are some of those healthy fats you will want to add to your diet. Foods with omega-3s include wild-caught salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines, as well as walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds.
Meanwhile, avoid fried foods and the fats used in processed foods, which are hard to digest and can lead to stomach discomfort, indigestion, and heartburn. They also wreak havoc on your gut health, cardiovascular system, weight, and more.
Likewise, most of us have heard of trans fats, which are a type of fat that raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol. Trans fats are no longer recognized as safe in foods, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is why they are no longer used in U.S. food production. However, they’re still around. In fact, products that contain fewer than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can be labeled as having 0 grams of trans fat. Some of those products include margarine spreads, peanut butter, chips, crackers, cookies, non-dairy creamers, pre-made frosting, and pre-made pie crusts, pizza doughs, and cookie doughs. Many fast foods are also fried in oils that contain trans fats.
Upgrade Your Eating Approaches
How you eat is just as important as what you eat when it comes to supporting healthy digestion—and making some changes to your mealtimes can help keep things humming along.
Chew Your Food Well
Digestion doesn’t start in your stomach; it starts in your mouth. Chewing your food well breaks down your food into smaller parts so that digestive enzymes in your digestive tract can better break it down for digestion. Chewing well also produces saliva, and the longer you chew, the more saliva you make, kickstarting the digestive process in your mouth by breaking down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
Saliva also mixes with the food in your stomach so that it can pass smoothly into your intestines, which can help you avoid indigestion or heartburn. So, when you chew your food well, the stomach doesn’t have to work as hard to turn solid food into the liquid food mixture your small intestine needs.
I recommend chewing each bite of food for about 30 seconds or so before swallowing, so take your time!
Avoid Eating Late at Night
The body also requires time to digest food, and gravity helps to keep the food you eat going in the right direction for full digestion. However, if you tend to eat later in the evening or at night and then lie down to try to sleep, your stomach contents may rise and you might experience heartburn, indigestion, or some sort of other digestive distress. Plus, although your digestive system still works when you’re sleeping, it does so at a slower rate.
A good rule of thumb is to eat a smaller meal at dinnertime and try to maintain a three- to four-hour window between your last bite and going to bed. This gives your food the time it needs to go from your stomach to your small intestine.
Upgrade Your Lifestyle
Obviously, digestion has much to do with food—but supporting your system doesn’t end at the kitchen table. Other aspects of your day have a significant impact on your digestive health.
Drink More Water and Less Alcohol
Low fluid intake is a common cause of digestive issues, particularly constipation. Drinking enough water and other fluids ensures things keep moving along digestion-wise.
Starting your day off with a large glass of water is a good practice, as is drinking frequently throughout the day. Many times, we just get too busy to remember to drink water, but prepping your water amount ahead of time and consuming the measured water throughout the day can help. (Schedule a reminder on your phone, if necessary.)
Recommended water intake can vary from person to person based on age, activity levels, climate, and more, but a general amount to aim for is 10 cups or eight large glasses per day. That said, you may need more water than usual if you’re in a warm climate or exercise strenuously often.
Water doesn’t have to be your only go-to beverage for fluid intake; you can also drink herbal teas and other non-caffeinated beverages. Likewise, you can include fruits or vegetables that are higher in water, such as cucumbers, peppers, strawberries, apples, and oranges.
You’ll also want to avoid excess alcohol, since it is not hydrating and can have some unwanted effects. Generally, alcohol can boost stomach acid production, which can lead to heartburn, acid reflux, and more. In the long run, it can contribute to stomach ulcers and gastrointestinal tract bleeding. Additionally, overuse of alcohol has been associated with increased gut permeability and unhealthy changes in the levels of “good guy” gut bacteria.
Manage Your Stress Levels
Everyone experiences some degree of stress at some point. You simply can’t avoid it. However, you can manage your stress levels, which can benefit your overall health and your digestive health.
The truth is that stress hormones can directly impact your digestion. When your body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode, it informs your digestive system that now is not the time to rest and digest food. Blood and energy are then directed away from digestion and toward managing your way out of the stressful or threatening situation. The contractions of digestive muscles slow, as do secretions of various substances (like enzymes) needed for proper digestion.
Read More: 6 Ways Stress Affects Your Long-Term Health
If stress is occasional, the body recovers and continues to function (and digest!) normally; however, if it becomes habitual or continual, limited recovery time contributes to digestive unrest (among other issues). Case in point: Unmanaged stress has been associated with stomach ulcers, occasional diarrhea or constipation, and more.
That’s why managing stress is huge for supporting digestion. A few recommendations:
- Practice yoga
- Do deep breathing
- Get a massage
- Go for a relaxing walk in nature.
- Say no to unnecessary activities that put extra stress on you
- Create distance between yourself and people who drain you
- Set practical and reasonable limits on your working hours
- Schedule downtime and activities you enjoy
- Limit phone use and other screen time
- Spend time with family and friends
- Take a warm bath and add relaxing essential oils, such as lavender
- Engage your favorite hobbies regularly
Move Your Body
Practicing regular exercise five or more days a week for at least 30 to 45 minutes per day is a great way to improve your overall health as well as your digestion.
Earlier, I mentioned that gravity helps food pass through the digestive system, and so does exercise. In fact, short periods of low- to moderate-intensity exercise can help speed up your digestion and help to reduce occasional constipation. (Longer and more intense workouts may actually slow your digestion down a bit.)
So, after eating a meal, it may be best to practice some lower-to-moderate exercise, such as taking a walk, to support healthy digestion. (Just save those longer, more intense workouts for a different time of day, when you’ve not just eaten a meal.)
Take A Daily Probiotic
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can help support healthy digestion and more. They are present in fermented foods and beverages, such as kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, kombucha, yogurts with active cultures, and kefir.
They’re also available as dietary supplements, such as Ancient Nutrition’s SBO Probiotics Once Daily for men and SBO Probiotics Once Daily for women. These soil-based organism (SBO) probiotics not only help support healthy digestion, but can also reduce occasional constipation, gas, and bloating while promoting regular bowel movements and a healthy immune system (70 percent to 80 percent of the immune system is housed in the gut.)
Consider Enlisting Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes are substances the body requires to break down and digest food. The body makes some of them, but we can sometimes benefit from an extra boost, since we can lose digestive enzymes because of factors like the standard American diet, stress, frequent air travel, aging, and even sweat.
Some foods that contain digestive enzymes include pineapple and papaya, which feature digestive enzymes called bromelain and papain, respectively. They are enzymes known as proteases, which help to break down protein for digestion. Kiwis and bananas are other fruits that contain digestive enzymes. Plus, in addition to probiotics, some fermented foods—such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir—also contain digestive enzymes.
If you want to incorporate a digestive enzyme supplement, there are plenty to choose from. You’ll find a handful of digestive enzymes (including cellulase, amylase, xylanase, lipase, phytase, pectinase, protease, lactase, hemicellulose, and invertase) in Ancient Nutrition’s Organic SuperGreens powder.
Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, author, and co-founder of Ancient Nutrition. Dr. Axe operates one of the world’s largest natural health websites, sharing healthy recipes, herbal remedies, nutrition and fitness advice, and information on essential oils and natural supplements. Dr. Axe founded one of the largest functional medicine clinics in the world and has served as a physician for many professional athletes.