Everyone experiences digestive issues every once in a while. Gas, heartburn, bloating, indigestion – it’s all completely normal. What’s incredibly frustrating, however, is when these symptoms occur frequently for unexplained reasons, wreaking havoc on your daily schedule. Not only that, but there is also no blanket solution that everyone swears by meaning that interventions span and interweave across different avenues from medical to holistic to natural and so on. This blog post aims to provide a good starting point by looking at a number of simple but effective approaches that you can try immediately. Read on to learn about five natural ways to improve your digestion.
Five Natural Ways to Improve your Digestion
Chew your food
You might not realise but there’s a lot of pieces to your overall digestive health. In fact, eating food is only one small step. Your body then has to initiate a number of processes, both mechanical and chemical, to ensure that food is fully broken down, digested, assimilated and key nutrients absorbed. Chewing falls into the mechanical element of digestion and is a key early step.
Poor chewing has been linked to poor absorption of nutrients (source). As a start, chewing food helps to produce saliva which begins the process of digestion. Yep, in fact, carbohydrates and fats begin their digestion in the mouth! Chewing also helps to break down food into smaller units to create a broad surface area enzymes to coat and slows down how fast food begins moving down to the next stages i.e. the stomach etc. This essentially makes the rest of the digestive process more efficient.
Ideally, we should try to chew every bite of food from 20-50 times, putting down your fork and knife as you do so. Give it a try!
Eat real food
It might seem obvious but eating real, whole food that is as close to nature as possible is key to good digestion. This section and the idea of eating real food has two levels.
At a general level, the aim is to remove all processed food (meaning essentially anything with more than 5 ingredients) from your diet in favour of whole, natural foods (i.e. what you find around the perimeter of the grocery store). The reasoning behind this is very straight forward; it’s food we are designed to eat and recognise meaning it’s ideal for our digestive system to handle. On the other hand, processed foods contain multiple extra ingredients and processing which can be taxing on our body and contribute to unexplained or repeated digestive issues.
At the more specific level, certain foods are known as potentially irritating when someone has a compromised gut. For example, people often find they are intolerant to ingredients like eggs, gluten, dairy and nuts. There’s a multitude of diets that you can try which all fall under the category of an elimination diet – paleo, SCD, FODMAP, keto, gluten free etc. No one works better than the other so it’s about finding an approach you feel best fits your lifestyle. But the idea behind an elimination diet is that it’s done for a short period of time, usually 30-90 days, after which foods that were previously avoided are slowly introduced back into the diet. The break from these potentially irritable foods allows the gut to repair and restore. Check out our recent post on the 4R approach for more.
While fibre plays an important role in keeping things moving, water too is a huge component to help avoid constipation (source). Standard guidelines recommend drinking around 2 litres of water per day. However, if you exercise frequently or live in a warm climate this need may go up.
But while it’s important to get adequate water intake daily, be careful not to drink too much with meals. This can actually have a negative effect on digestion by diluting the stomach acid and preventing it from doing its job which then also affects the other stages that follow.
Listen to your body
Do you actually listen to your body? It’s a funny thought but one that most of us actually would answer no to. Your body’s only way to communicate is to send you signals. Some of these are extremely obvious while others can take time to figure out. When you eat something your body doesn’t like, it can signal in a number of different ways e.g. indigestion, headache, acne, fatigue to name just a few. What’s worse is that sometimes these symptoms will present almost immediately and sometimes they can take 4-16 hours to manifest.
Learning to listen can take a bit of time. One simple method is keeping a food diary. In this diary note down your daily food intake as well as some comments to questions like:
- How hungry were you before/after the meal?
- Did you notice any signs of indigestion? How soon after the meal?
- Where do you feel the symptoms (e.g. is bloating in upper or lower gut)?
- Do you notice the symptom reappear after a certain food?
- Can you see any patterns appear over the week?
This is an incredibly valuable lesson for anyone to try. Don’t stress over the calories/macros but rather just note the actual foods and rough quantities. Here at the IINH student clinic, a food diary is a core first step that all new clients must complete.
The health and function of your digestive system depends significantly on the health of the bacteria in your gut. On average, about 100 trillion bacteria (both good and bad) live inside your digestive system. We have a symbiotic relationship with these bacteria but inevitably certain things can offset the ratio of good to bad, creating some unwanted digestive issues. This is because these microbes interact with our DNA and help us regulate our appetite, facilitate in the digestion of nutrients, control our weight, and keep our immune system running.
One of the easiest ways to help support your gut is to include beneficial bacteria in the diet. Enter fermented foods. In short, these foods are naturally rich in a variety of bacterial strains which can support overall balance. Check out this blog post we wrote about fermentation and all the benefits.
In summary, include more fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kvass, kombucha, kefir, yogurt, tempeh etc.
The bottom line is that simple changes can have a big impact on your overall digestive health and wellness. Eating a whole food diet high in fiber, healthy fat and nutrients is the first step toward good digestion.