5 Ways to Improve Digestive Health
Edited by Jasmin, Maria Quinney, Eng
The health of our digestive systems is directly related to our overall wellbeing. All the food and liquid we take in on a daily basis must be assimilated and then distributed amongst every cell in the body for suitable nourishment. If nutrients aren't properly absorbed, or if the body isn't getting the right nutrients, to begin with, our other bodily systems aren't supported in their daily growth and maintenance processes. Making healthier food choices is certainly a key component to improving digestive function, but ensuring the body is well equipped to handle these foods is even more essential. Next time you hear the old saying "you are what you eat" you can politely respond, "technically, you are what you absorb."
Gas, bloating, heartburn, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and cramping are good indicators of a digestive system that isn't functioning optimally. Digestive insufficiencies lead to more than just these obvious signs, though. You may also experience migraines, depression, joint pain, skin problems, fatigue, infection, and a whole host of other issues. As you can see, achieving peak digestive function is fundamental to life. Outlined below are 5 steps you can take to start improving your digestion right now. They're based on the 5 R's system used by many nutritional experts: Remove, Replace, Repopulate, Repair, and Rebalance. It's best to utilize them in the order presented, though many of the suggestions in step 5 can be implemented in tandem with others.
Remove Digestive Stressors
- 1Reduce intake of nutrient deficient foods. Anything that's high in calories but low in nutrients, or any food that puts additional strain on your body to digest or that doesn't supply any worthwhile nutrients should only be a very, very small part of your diet. For example, refined grains like white rice will take the vitamins and minerals it's missing from your body's stores to be properly digested. Similarly, many products that have been made with less fat contain more sugar and protein making them highly acidic. Your body is forced to strip alkaline minerals like calcium from your bones in order to assimilate these foods. Steer clear of deep fried foods with hydrogenated fats and oils, highly processed packaged foods, and anything with more preservatives than actual food.Advertisement
- 2Consider an Elimination Diet. Sometimes there are specific foods wreaking havoc on our gut and the only way to truly single them out is to undertake a diet that removes all common allergens. Since roughly 70% of our immune systems are in the digestive system, it's vital that we remove these foods so our immune responses can be healthy and focus on other areas that may need assistance. It commonly involves removing a wide variety of foods from nuts and seeds, to dairy and soy, and gluten. There are plenty of online resources and books that can help you get through this, but you may want to consult a nutritionist as well.Advertisement
- 3Eradicate yeast. In small amounts, yeast is beneficial to digestion. When an overgrowth occurs, however, it can permeate the intestinal lining and lead to a plethora of digestive and other health issues. It typically causes a constant desire for sugary foods and bread, which the yeast thrives on, and leads to an endless cycle of overeating and continual feeding of the problem. Like the Elimination Diet, there is a wealth of available information on how to rid yourself of problematic yeast but consulting a nutritionist for guidance is a good option as well.
Focus on Whole Foods
- 1Replace nutrient deficient foods with nutrient rich foods. A whole food is anything that has all its naturally occurring nutrients still intact. It hasn't been refined, processed, or overly altered. Fresh fruits and vegetables (emphasis on the vegetables) should make up a large portion of your diet. They are completely unadulterated and provide the best calorie to nutrient ratios. Whole grains, lean proteins, and raw nuts and seeds are also great additions. Though buying everything organic isn't possible for everyone due to cost factors, certain foods are sprayed with more chemicals than others so you may want to purchase only those in the organic option. The Environmental Working Group keeps an updated list of what's best to buy organic.Advertisement
- 2Consume sufficient fiber. This nutrient is the cleanup crew of the digestive process. It scrubs the walls of the intestines where it binds and removes toxins. It digests slightly slower than other food components, regulating blood sugar and leaving you feeling fuller longer. And it adds bulk to the stool for easier movement. Be sure to get both kinds, soluble and insoluble, to ensure all of these processes are occurring. Soluble can be found in nuts, seeds, legumes, and certain fruits and grains. Insoluble is obtained from vegetables, whole grains, and the skin of fruit.
Repopulate Healthy Gut Bacteria
- 1Probiotics. As you work to improve your digestion, ensuring an adequate population of healthy bacteria is essential for keeping things on the right track. There should be approximately 3.5 to 4.5 pounds of beneficial bacteria in our gut, which manage metabolic functions, help synthesize vitamins, protect against infection, and much more. If you suffer from bloating, gas, or constipation, a lack of probiotics could be the issue.
Repair Digestive Function
Even once you've removed the bad and replaced it with the good, and you've begun to repopulate good bacteria, your body may still need an extra boost in certain areas.
- 1Apple Cider Vinegar. Low stomach acid affects the rest of the chain in the digestive process. Not only does it impact what's happening in the stomach, but a lack of acid means other organs won't get their signal to start preparing themselves for their specific jobs. Apple cider vinegar is a natural way to increase acid levels. You can use it in smoothies or salad dressings, or take small doses before and after meals.
- 2Enzymes. The pancreas is responsible for releasing three vital enzymes to help break down carbs, fats, and proteins. It can become overwhelmed and sluggish due to excess sugar intake and may need some aid in producing those digestive juices. There are many different supplement options available but, on top of being excellent whole food choices, pineapple and papaya contain natural enzymes.
- 3Liver-friendly foods. Your liver plays a larger role in digestion than you may have guessed. In addition to filtering toxins, the liver also produces bile for the emulsification of fats and helps regulate energy from the intake of carbs and proteins. Foods like beets, lemons, garlic, onion, and greens keep your liver happy.
- 4Exercises. Walking and jogging, sit-ups and other core-focused exercises, deep breathing and yoga are all excellent ways to strengthen your digestive muscles. If nothing else, try to just get up a move for at least 30 minutes per day and practice deep, stomach breathing while you do so.
- 5Detox. To get the closest thing to a fresh start on your digestive system, you may want to consider a form of detox. There are many different methods of approach but a 3-7 day juice cleanse is the easiest for most. While giving your digestive organs a break from processing solid food, you're also taking in a ton of nutrients from fruits, vegetables, and added supplements to heal those organs and deliver nutrients rapidly to the rest of your body.
Change Your Eating Habits
- 1Give your digestive system a chance to wake up slowly every day. Start by drinking water in the morning to gently alert your stomach that it's time to start moving. Warm water with fresh lemon juice will help kick start your digestive juices and metabolism in general. When you're ready to eat something have fruit, as this is the easiest of all foods to digest. A smoothie is also a great option because the food is already partially broken down, making it even easier for your stomach to assimilate.
- 2Eat only when you're hungry. This may seem like common sense but you'd be surprised by how many people listen to the clock instead of their body. Just because it's "lunch time" doesn't mean you have to eat. In fact, if you take in a meal when your body isn't ready it's going to take much longer to digest and put a strain on your organs in forcing them to create the proper acids and enzymes when it wasn't prepared.
- 3Stop eating when you're full. Again, this seems like a no brainer but overeating is a very common problem. Consistent overeating taxes your digestive system and may eventually cause it to permanently slow down all its processes. It also causes discomfort due to bloating, gas, and heartburn. Try eating until you are about 80% full and then waiting 15-20 minutes before eating anything more.
- 4Be conscious of how you eat meals. Everyone's been told at least once to chew their food properly, but it's sage advice that eases the workload on your stomach. Try your best to eat free of distractions, perhaps with the exception of light conversation. Even something as calm as reading a book takes us away from the activity at hand, and we tend to ignore things like chewing or simply being appreciative of the food we have. Lastly, it's highly important to eat in a relaxed state. When we feel stressed our nervous system sends a particular response to the body to handle the anxiety and this causes a suspension of digestive function.
- 5Other things to keep in mind:
- Eat your biggest meal in the middle of the day so you have plenty of time to digest before sleeping.
- Stop eating at least 2 hours, if not more, before going to bed; once you lie down your body stops digesting properly.
- Avoid fruits and desserts immediately after meals. They break down quicker than proteins, fats, and other carbs so they tend to just sit on top of the food that still needs digesting, causing them to ferment and increase your chances of gas and bloating.
When left unchecked, mild digestive issues can lead to serious complications. Hopefully, the tips above are enough to help you get your digestion in perfect working order but it's possible you may need a more focused program. Start by seeking out a registered Nutritionist or Naturopathic doctor as these individuals go through training dedicated in large part to digestive health. Should your situation become more severe you may also want to speak with your doctor. And always remember: we should eat to live, not live to eat.