Digestive issues can range from mildly annoying to downright painful. And while oftentimes they’re the expected outcome of a late-night pizza and ice cream binge, GI woes can also signal (and contribute to) larger health concerns.
“Digestion plays a really important role in breaking down nutrients for absorption,” says dietitian Amber Pankonin, R.D., creator of the food blog Stirlist. “The process of digestion begins in the stomach and ends in the colon, involving many organs, hormones, and enzymes that all play important roles. If something goes wrong along the way, it could impact the absorption of nutrients and have long-term health consequences.”
If your gut hasn’t been on its game, it’s important to figure out the root of the problem. Here are eight potential reasons your digestion is off.
1. You eat too fast
Simple as it may seem, how you nosh has a major impact on your digestive system. “Eating too fast might not allow your teeth to properly begin the digestive process, which might cause stomach upset later on,” says Pankonin. (Fast eaters have been shown to be at an increased risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome.)
To fix this, slow down your eating by taking smaller bites, says Pankonin. “Then, take time to chew and taste your food and enjoy the conversation around you without rushing through your meal.”
2. You’re not eating enough fiber
Falling short on fiber can be a big cause of digestive issues. “Fiber helps food move through your digestive tract. But if your diet only contains simple carbohydrates, there is no bulk to slow down digestion, which can also lead to high blood sugar,” says Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., dietitian for Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You see, simple carbs (which are found in candy, dairy, and fruit juice) are broken down quickly by your body. Complex carbs (which include grains and rice) are broken down more slowly.
To increase your fiber intake, Valdez suggests adding whole wheat bread, brown rice, fruits, and vegetables (which are packed with nutrients and fiber) to your diet. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, women should aim for 25 grams of fiber per day, while men should aim for 38 grams.
3. You lack certain digestive enzymes
There are many important enzymes that play a role in digestion. One example: lactase, which breaks down lactose, the main sugar in milk. Those who lack lactase cannot properly break down lactose and often experience gas and bloating after eating dairy, says Pankonin.
If you are lactose intolerant, Pankonin suggests choosing lactose-free food options or consuming lactose in small amounts to test how much you can tolerate.
That’s not the only enzyme to think about, though. Other digestive enzymes include lipase (which breaks down fats), amylase (which breaks down carbohydrates), and proteases and peptidases (which break down proteins). People with certain health conditions like chronic pancreatitis or cystic fibrosis may not be able to make enough digestive enzymes, so talk to your doctor if you’re curious about whether your health concerns impact enzyme production.
4. You don’t hydrate Properly
Not drinking enough water or increasing fluid intake through other foods or drinks is a factor in digestive issues, particularly constipation.
“Water is essential for the body to move nutrients to where they need to go and to help toxins the kidneys remove toxins,” says Valdez. “Without it, you will have the same issues as you would on a low-fiber diet, plus other symptoms like fatigue.”
The solution? Water, water, water. Men should aim to get in 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids a day, while women should try to drink about 11.5 cups (2.7 liters), according to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
“Keep a water bottle with you at all times,” says Valdez. “Even if you’re eating a high fiber diet, not having enough fluids to keep the fibrous product moving through the body may make constipation worse.”
5. You’re eating a lot of acidic foods
If you experience heartburn after eating, it’s possible you’re going overboard on acidic foods.
“When contents enter the stomach for digestion, the digestive juices mix with food in order to form chyme that later travels to the small intestine,” says Pankonin. “However, sometimes stomach contents flow back up the esophagus, which is known as acid reflux or heartburn.”
Common acidic foods that can trigger heartburn include tomatoes, garlic, coffee, soda, and even chocolate, per Harvard Health.
If you’re prone to getting this discomfort, Pankonin recommends limiting these foods as much as possible. Wearing looser clothing and avoiding laying down after meals can also help.
6. You’re drinking a lot of alcohol
Although alcohol is technically fluid, it doesn’t work the same way that water does when it comes to digestion.
Going overboard on alcohol (which the CDC characterizes as more than five and four drinks in two hours for men and women, respectively) can affect stomach acid production, allowing harmful bacteria to enter your intestines, says Valdez. It also affects the lining of your stomach, which could lead to ulcers.
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Plus, “large amounts of alcohol can also either speed up your digestive tract, causing diarrhea or just the opposite, causing constipation,” he adds.
To avoid this, follow the latest recommendations from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which suggests men stick to two drinks or less per day and women stick to one.
7. You’re not moving much throughout the day
Lack of movement can be a huge cause of digestive issues, especially constipation, since moving promotes healthy muscle contractions in your bowel walls, says Pankonin. If you’re not a fan of working out, even just taking a 20-minute brisk walk each day will help to get your bowels moving, according to Harvard Medical School.
8. You need a probiotic boost
Probiotics are healthy microorganisms (think bacteria and yeast) that live in our guts. “They promote immune function, digestion, and more,” says Valdez.
If you don’t maintain the right amount and balance of these probiotics, it can result in digestive issues, immune struggles, sleep issues, fatigue, and more. To support your probiotic population, Valdez suggests eating probiotic-rich foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, and miso regularly, or considering a probiotic supplement.