Did you know that 40% of Canadians experience digestive issues in some form or another? That’s a lot of people!
I understand from personal experience how debilitating digestive issues can be. Unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms have a way of making you second guess going to new places or trying new foods, because you’re never too sure how your stomach is going to respond (or if there will be a bathroom close by), and that seriously impacts your quality of life. Digestive issues may be common, but that definitely does not make them normal.
Our digestive tract is a complex system of organs that do a lot more than digest, absorb, and eliminate the foods we eat. Gut health plays a huge role in the health of our immune system, skin, liver, hormones, cardiovascular system, and brain. Poor gut health can lead to chronic diseases such as autoimmune conditions, obesity, metabolic diseases, and some types of cancer — poor gut health can even lead to mental illness due to the intimate connection between your gut and your brain. This is exactly why optimizing your digestion and the health of your gastrointestinal tract is so important.
You might be wondering how to know if your gut is healthy, or if it’s in need of some TLC. Here are some signs you might need to pay your digestion more attention:
You experience frequent gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or heartburn.
Your bowel movements are urgent and/or feel incomplete.
You crave lots of sugar and processed carbohydrates.
You have poor sleep quality and are always tired.
You have skin irritations like acne or eczema.
You have been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition.
You have difficulties digesting certain foods.
You gain or lose weight unintentionally.
I know that might sound like a lot, but the good news is that the status of your gut health is within your control. By choosing to include (or avoid) certain dietary and lifestyle habits, you can improve your digestion and overall gut health, which in turn can improve your quality of life. Here are 6 tips on where to start to improve your digestion today:
Include whole-foods rich in fiber in your diet
Dietary fibre is the portion of plant-derived foods that cannot be completely broken down by digestive enzymes, and it’s found in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Adequate fibre intake is super important for gastrointestinal health and optimal digestion.
Fibre can be classified as either soluble or insoluble. Soluble fibre (eg. oat bran, chia seeds, apples, citrus fruits and psyllium) retains water and become jelly-like in texture. Insoluble fibre (eg. nuts, beans, cauliflower, whole grains) attracts water to your stool, making it softer and easier to pass, therefore helping to maintain bowel health.
Both soluble and insoluble fibre sources are important to include in your diet for their many benefits, but the benefits of including fibre in the diet expand beyond the digestive system. Fibre not only promotes regular bowel movements and makes you feel full for longer, but it also “feeds” certain species of microbes living in the gut. As the microbes metabolize dietary fibre, they produce beneficial bi-products such as short-chain fatty acids. Increases in short-chain fatty acids have been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, weight regulation, and reduce inflammation. Adequate fibre intake has also been associated with reduced levels of “bad” cholesterol LDL, as well as risks of certain cancers.
The recommended amount of dietary fibre to include in your diet is a minimum of 25 grams/day. For reference — one medium sized apple contains roughly 4.5 grams. When increasing fibre, it’s important to do so slowly over time to avoid undesirable side effects such as gas, abdominal pain, and bloating. It’s also important to ensure that you are drinking enough water each day with increased fibre intake.
Hydration is a key component in digestive health and improved digestion/absorption of the food we eat. Drinking enough water throughout the day helps to regulate our bowel movements by making stool softer and preventing constipation. If dehydrated, the body will pull any available fluid from the digestive tract, slowing the digestive process and causing stool to harden. This not only causes uncomfortable symptoms like cramping and bloating, but can lead to an unhealthy balance of gut flora, decreased nutrient absorption, fatigue, weight gain, acne, reduced immune function, estrogen dominance, low grade inflammation, and an increased risk of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
Drinking enough water is also crucial as it mixes with the food we eat, lubricating it and making it easier to chew (mechanically digest) and swallow. Water helps to break down food into smaller, more absorbable particles, as it’s a component of digestive enzymes. On top of that, certain vitamins require the presence of water molecules to be transported across the intestinal barrier into the blood stream. Water-soluble vitamins, including vitamin C and the B vitamins, are then circulated throughout the body and used for various functions.
Aim to drink a minimum of 8 glasses of water each day. If you really want to tackle your water intake, the ultimate goal would be to include your body weight divided by 2 in ounces of water. For example, a 150 pound person should consume 75oz of water each day (~2.2L).
Don‘t forget to chew!
Chewing is one of our first lines of digestive defence, along with looking at and smelling your food. The physical process of chewing each individual bite helps to break down large food particles into smaller ones, increasing the particles surface area, and making it easier for nutrients to be absorbed. While the actual act of chewing mechanically breaks down food (i.e. mechanical digestion), it also helps to mix the food in your mouth with digestive enzymes found in your saliva (i.e. chemical digestion).
Chewing also sends a message to the rest of your gastrointestinal system that food is on its way, stimulating the secretion of digestive enzymes such as hydrochloric acid in the stomach.
It is recommended to chew each bite of food 30 times. This sounds excessive, I know, but slowing down while eating and being mindful of chewing your food thoroughly can help avoid unpleasant digestive issues like heartburn, bloating, and gas. Chewing your food well will support your digestion and the absorption of many key nutrients.
Eat probiotic and prebiotic rich foods
I bet you’ve heard of these two! So what’s the difference between the two? And how do they help us with our digestion?
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts found in various foods such as kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso and kombucha. Our bodies, especially our guts, are full of bacteria. Probiotics are considered “good” or beneficial bacteria as they keep our gut microbiome balanced. The microbiome is a diverse community of organisms unique to each individual — no two people have the same microbial cells! But despite the differences in everyone’s microbiome make-up, our bodies all have the same goal of achieving balance between the good and bad organisms for optimal health. Probiotics encourage this balance, which helps your body digest food, support your immune system, improve mental health thanks to the gut-brain axis, create vitamins, and support your gut lining to prevent “bad” bacteria from entering your bloodstream.
Prebiotics are special plant fibres that help healthy bacteria grow in the gut — essentially, prebiotics feed probiotics. Prebiotics are carbohydrates that your body cannot digest, so they travel to your lower digestive tract where they can encourage the proliferation of healthy bacteria. You’ll find prebiotics in many fruits, vegetables, and whole grains such as apples, asparagus, green bananas, berries, flaxseeds, dandelion greens, onions, artichokes and oats.
Eating a well-balanced diet rich in fibrous prebiotic foods, as well as incorporating foods rich in probiotics, can help to keep balance in your gut microbiome, optimizing digestion and many other factors of health.
Move your body
Regular physical activity and movement have been shown to improve digestion by stimulating the gut. In order for food to move through the intestines, there needs to be a coordinated, wave-like contraction of the muscles surrounding the digestive system — this is a process known as peristalsis. Physical activity increases blood flow to these muscles, helping to move the food through the digestive tract. This not only helps to treat/prevent constipation and promote healthy digestion, but some research has also shown that exercise positively affects the balance of gut bacteria — that microbiome we talked about above. Aim to move your body in whatever way feels good for 10-30 minutes after a meal to stimulate peristalsis and improve your digestion.
Not only that, but low intensity movement such as walking, yoga, tai chi, and stretching help to reduce stress levels. This shifts our nervous system into a parasympathetic state, also known as the rest and digest state. A parasympathetic nervous state enables the digestive process by increasing motility and stimulation the secretion of gastric juices. Low intensity movement is best to do before a meal to prep your body for optimal digestion.
Set aside time for your meals
Life gets busy, and we live in a society that encourages a go-go-go mentality. While this mindset may be helpful for your desired career path, it’s most definitely hindering your digestion.
Eating on the go likely means a few things are happening. Typically, we’re eating a lot quicker than we should be, and often shoving food into our mouths as fast as possible, not chewing each bite properly. But, as we now know, chewing is our first line of digestive defence! In order to improve our digestion, we need to slow down and chew our food thoroughly. And in order to slow down, we need to dedicate time to our meals.
If possible, try and set aside at least 20-minutes to each meal. Sit down, undistracted (yes, put away that phone and turn off Netflix) and enjoy the beautiful meal in front of you. Savour each bite. The 20-minutes timing is best as this allows a hunger hormone, leptin, to set in. This hormone reduces a person’s urge to eat as they become full, and giving it enough time to kick in can reduce overeating which negatively impacts digestion.
Improving your digestion doesn’t have to be difficult. I hope you’ve found this information useful and are excited to implement these six simple strategies into your routine. They may seem small, but are they ever mighty in improving digestion.
If you are struggling with your digestion and don’t know where to start, send me a message! We can chat about your options and how I can best support you with optimizing your gut health.