Everyone experiences occasional digestive symptoms such as upset stomach, gas, heartburn, nausea, constipation or diarrhea. However, when these symptoms occur frequently, they can cause major disruptions to your life. vFortunately, diet and lifestyle changes can have a positive impact on your gut health. Here are 11 evidence-based ways to improve your digestion naturally.
Eat Real Food
The typical Western diet — high in refined carbs, saturated fat and food additives — has been linked to an increased risk of developing digestive disorders. Food additives, including glucose, salt and other chemicals, have been suggested to contribute to increased gut inflammation, leading to a condition called leaky gut.
Trans fats are found in many processed foods. They’re well-known for their negative effects on heart health but have also been associated with an increased risk of developing ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. What’s more, processed foods like low-calorie drinks and ice creams often contain artificial sweeteners, which may cause digestive problems.
One study found that eating 50 grams of the artificial sweetener xylitol led to bloating and diarrhea in 70% of people, while 75 grams of the sweetener erythritol caused the same symptoms in 60% of people. Studies also suggest that artificial sweeteners may increase your number of harmful gut bacteria .
Gut bacteria imbalances have been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Fortunately, scientific evidence suggests that diets high in nutrients protect against digestive diseases. Therefore, eating a diet based on whole foods and limiting the intake of processed foods may be best for optimal digestion.
Get Plenty of Fiber
It’s common knowledge that fiber is beneficial for good digestion. Soluble fiber absorbs water and helps add bulk to your stool. Insoluble fiber acts like a giant toothbrush, helping your digestive tract keep everything moving along.
Soluble fiber is found in oat bran, legumes, nuts and seeds, while vegetables, whole grains and wheat bran are good sources of insoluble fiber. A high-fiber diet has been linked to a reduced risk of digestive conditions, including ulcers, reflux, hemorrhoids, diverticulitis and IBS. Prebiotics are another type of fiber that feed your healthy gut bacteria. Diets high in this fiber have been shown to reduce the risk of inflammatory bowel conditions. Prebiotics are found in many fruits, vegetables and grains.
Add Healthy Fats to Your Diet
Good digestion may require eating enough fat. Fat helps you feel satisfied after a meal and is often needed for proper nutrient absorption. Additionally, studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids may decrease your risk of developing inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis. Foods high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseeds, chia seeds, nuts (especially walnuts), as well as fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines.
Low fluid intake is a common cause of constipation. Experts recommend drinking 50–66 ounces (1.5–2 liters) of non-caffeinated fluids per day to prevent constipation. However, you may need more if you live in a warm climate or exercise strenuously.
In addition to water, you can also meet your fluid intake with herbal teas and other non-caffeinated beverages such as seltzer water. Another way to help meet your fluid intake needs is to include fruits and vegetables that are high in water, such as cucumber, zucchini, celery, tomatoes, melons, strawberries, grapefruit and peaches.
Manage Your Stress
Stress can wreak havoc on your digestive system. It has been associated with stomach ulcers, diarrhea, constipation and IBS. Stress hormones directly affect your digestion. When your body is in fight-or-flight mode, it thinks you don’t have time to rest and digest. During periods of stress, blood and energy are diverted away from your digestive system.
Additionally, your gut and brain are intricately connected — what affects your brain may also impact your digestion. Stress management, meditation and relaxation training have all been shown to improve symptoms in people with IBS.
Other studies have found that cognitive behavioral therapy, acupuncture and yoga have improved digestive symptoms . Therefore, incorporating stress management techniques, such as deep belly breathing, meditation or yoga, may improve not only your mindset but also your digestion.
It’s easy to eat too much too quickly if you’re not paying attention, which can lead to bloating, gas and indigestion. Mindful eating is the practice of paying attention to all aspects of your food and the process of eating. Studies have shown that mindfulness may reduce digestive symptoms in people with ulcerative colitis and IBS.
To eat mindfully:
• Eat slowly.
• Focus on your food by turning off your TV and putting away your phone.
• Notice how your food looks on your plate and how it smells.
• Select each bite of food consciously.
• Pay attention to the texture, temperature and taste of your food
Chew Your Food
Digestion starts in your mouth. Your teeth break down the food into smaller pieces so that the enzymes in your digestive tract are better able to break it down. Poor chewing has been linked to decreased nutrient absorption. When you chew your food thoroughly, your stomach has to do less work to turn the solid food into the liquid mixture that enters your small intestine.
Chewing produces saliva, and the longer you chew, the more saliva is made. Saliva helps start the digestive process in your mouth by breaking down some of the carbs and fats in your meal. In your stomach, saliva acts as a fluid, which is mixed with the solid food so that it smoothly passes into your intestines.
Chewing your food thoroughly ensures that you have plenty of saliva for digestion. This may help prevent symptoms such as indigestion and heartburn. What’s more, the act of chewing has even been shown to reduce stress, which may also improve digestion.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to improve your digestion. Exercise and gravity help food travel through your digestive system. Therefore, taking a walk after a meal may assist your body in moving things along. One study in healthy people showed that moderate exercise, such as cycling and jogging, increased gut transit time by nearly 30%.
In another study in people with chronic constipation, a daily exercise regimen including 30 minutes of walking significantly improved symptoms. Additionally, studies suggest that exercise may reduce symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases due to anti-inflammatory effects, such as decreasing inflammatory compounds in your body.
Slow Down and Listen to Your Body
When you’re not paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues, it’s easy to overeat and experience gas, bloating and indigestion. It’s a commonly held belief that it takes 20 minutes for your brain to realize that your stomach is full. While there’s not a lot of hard science to back up this claim, it does take time for hormones released by your stomach in response to food to reach your brain.
Therefore, taking the time to eat slowly and pay attention to how full you’re getting is one way to prevent common digestive problems. Additionally, emotional eating negatively impacts your digestion. In one study, people who ate when they were anxious experienced higher levels of indigestion and bloating. Taking the time to relax before a meal may improve your digestive symptoms.
Ditch Bad Habits
You know that bad habits such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol and eating late at night aren’t great for your overall health. And, in fact, they may also be responsible for some common digestive issues. Smoking Smoking nearly doubles the risk of developing acid reflux.
Furthermore, studies have shown that quitting smoking improves these symptoms. This bad habit has also been associated with stomach ulcers, increased surgeries in people with ulcerative colitis and gastrointestinal cancers. If you have digestive issues and smoke cigarettes, keep in mind that quitting may be beneficial.
Alcohol can increase acid production in your stomach and may lead to heartburn, acid reflux and stomach ulcers. Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. Alcohol has also been associated with inflammatory bowel diseases, leaky gut and harmful changes in gut bacteria. Reducing your consumption of alcohol may help your digestion.
Eating late at night and then lying down to sleep can lead to heartburn and indigestion. Your body needs time to digest, and gravity helps keep the food you eat moving in the right direction. Additionally, when you lie down, the contents of your stomach may rise up and cause heartburn. Lying down after eating is strongly associated with an increase in reflux symptoms. If you experience digestive issues at bedtime, try waiting three to four hours after eating before going to bed, to give the food time to move from your stomach to your small intestine.
Incorporate Gut-Supporting Nutrients
Certain nutrients may help support your digestive tract.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that may improve digestive health when taken as supplements. These healthy bacteria assist in digestion by breaking down indigestible fibers that can otherwise cause gas and bloating. Studies have shown that probiotics may improve symptoms of bloating, gas and pain in people with IBS.
What’s more, they may improve symptoms of constipation and diarrhea. Probiotics are found in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and miso, as well as yogurts that have live and active cultures. They’re also available in capsule form. A good general probiotic supplement will contain a mix of strains including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Glutamine is an amino acid that supports gut health. It has been shown to reduce intestinal permeability (leaky gut) in people who are critically ill. You can increase your glutamine levels by eating foods such as turkey, soybeans, eggs and almonds. Glutamine can also be taken in supplement form, but talk to your healthcare practitioner first to ensure that it’s an appropriate treatment strategy for you.
Zinc is a mineral that is critical for a healthy gut, and a deficiency can lead to various gastrointestinal disorders. Supplementing with zinc has been shown to be beneficial in treating diarrhea, colitis, leaky gut and other digestive issues. The recommended daily intake (RDI) for zinc is 8 mg for women and 11 mg for men. Foods high in zinc include shellfish, beef and sunflower seeds.
The Bottom Line
Simple diet and lifestyle changes may help improve your digestion if you experience occasional, frequent or chronic digestive symptoms. Eating a whole-foods diet high in fiber, healthy fat and nutrients is the first step toward good digestion. Practices such as mindful eating, stress reduction and exercise can also be beneficial. Finally, ditching bad habits that may affect your digestion — such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol and late-night eating — may help relieve symptoms as well.