By Randi Mann, WHNP-BC, NCMP, APNP
“A good digestion turneth all to health.” George Herbert
Good digestion is essential to our health – and our mood – and when it’s all working smoothly, we tend to take it for granted. It’s not until things go wrong that digestion moves to the forefront of our minds.
If you are someone who suffers with digestive issues such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating, and nausea, you know that it can quickly become all we think about, affecting every moment of the day. And the discomfort is only the tip of the iceberg. If we’re not digesting food properly, we’re at risk for nutritional deficiencies. That’s because the digestive system is our central “distribution center”, breaking down what we eat and shipping nutrients out to the cells that need them.
Like any supply chain, any broken link can have far-reaching consequences. In addition to the many far-reaching effects of nutrition deficiencies, poor digestion can lead to emotional stress, and even depression due in part to the gut’s role in producing serotonin (our happy hormone).
Digestive Disorders are Increasingly Common
Digestive disorders have risen dramatically in recent years, likely because our fast-paced lifestyles contain many elements that contribute to problems, such as high stress levels, too much time sitting and poor quality sleep. The good news is that it’s possible to get your digestion back on track.
By getting to know your own digestive system and experimenting with different lifestyle habits that are known to make a difference to many people, you can figure out that funny tummy, reclaim your social life, and feel confident that what you eat is truly nourishing your body.
10 Proven Ways to Help Improve Your Digestion
1. Eat whole, natural foods
Choosing whole foods means opting for the least-processed version whenever possible. Choose an apple over apple pie, for example, or whole grains over refined flour. Not only is this the best way to get all of the essential nutrients, but the additives and excess sugar found in many processed foods can feed the bad bacteria in your gut, contributing to gut irritation, bloating, and cramps. Artificial sweeteners are another culprit of poor digestion since even the so-called “healthy” sweeteners like xylitol have been linked to bloating and diarrhea.
2. Focus on fiber
To understand the myriad of ways fiber promotes digestive health, it’s helpful to distinguish between the two types of fiber:
As the name suggests, soluble fiber dissolves in water. When it passes through your body, it absorbs water and other fluids to form a gel-like substance that feeds the good bacteria in your gut. Good sources of soluble fiber include beans, apples, oats, and strawberries.
Because insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve, it helps provide bulk to stools, which helps them move along the digestive tract more easily, contributing to regularity and that sometimes elusive feeling of complete elimination. Good sources include vegetables and many whole grains.
Your diet should contain both types of fiber to promote good digestion and regularity. To increase your overall fiber intake, increase your consumption of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. There are numerous ways to sneak more fiber into your diet, like leaving the peel on potatoes, adding a handful of nuts to a salad, and sprinkling a little freshly ground flaxseed on yogurt. However, if you currently eat a low-fiber diet, be careful not to ramp up your intake too quickly, which can lead to gas and discomfort. And as you introduce increasing amounts of fiber, make sure you’re also drinking more water as the fiber itself absorbs a lot.
3. Stay hydrated
One of the most common culprits for constipation is dehydration. Water helps move things along through your digestive tract in a wave-like muscle movement called peristalsis. However, if your body senses that you need more water elsewhere in the body that takes priority. The lower intestine draws water from your stools to redirect it to other parts of your body such as your muscles or brain, making your stools harder to pass.
Choose your fluids wisely. Sipping on water and herbal teas throughout the day are great options to keep you hydrated. Avoid alcohol, which acts as a diuretic and further dehydrates, as well as sweetened beverages. The jury is still out regarding coffee’s effects on digestion. Some people find it leads to heartburn, but scientists haven’t found a direct causal effect. Coffee does have a laxative effect for many people, and it’s best consumed in moderation.
4. Choose healthy fats
Toss a fiber-rich salad with a bit of olive oil, and stay clear of fat-free dressings. Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, and nuts actually help your body absorb nutrients, so don’t be afraid to add them to a meal. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent digestive disorders like Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis. Foods high in omega-3 include fatty fish like salmon, chia seeds, hemp hearts, and nuts.
5. Reduce stress
Yes, this is easier said than done. But consider this: Your gut has millions of neurons receiving messages from your brain. When you’re under chronic stress, you’re more vulnerable to stomach aches and other upsets. Plus, when you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release more of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol, which can lead to cramping as the body redirects hydration from your intestines to your arms and legs.
Try to create a calm atmosphere for meals, and keep dinner conversation pleasant. Tackle long-term stress by introducing more stress-busting mindful activities such as yoga or walks. Many people have success with meditation, especially practices geared towards digestive issues.
6. Eat mindfully
Part of making mealtimes less stressful can simply mean slowing down. Avoid eating on the go and try to make a policy of eating while sitting down, at a table, instead of in your car, or while running to another activity. Turn off the TV and pay attention to the pleasure of a good meal.
Use your senses throughout a meal – taste, smell, textures – food should be enjoyed after all. Savor every bite instead of absent-mindedly snacking while thinking of something else and you’ll improve digestion by preventing overeating to the point of feeling too full.
7. Chew your food well
What’s the rush? When you chew your food, you’re starting the digestive process, so it follows that more chewing breaks down your food more thoroughly. Plus, chewing slowly helps you to focus on your food in a more conscious manner and, in turn, reduces stress. Aim to chew your food 20 – 30 times before swallowing to aid the digestive process.
8. Get moving
It’s simple: When you move, your digestive system moves. That might sound overly simplistic, but scientists have found that exercise can improve the rate at which you digest food. The peristalsis process speeds up with the increase in blood flow and the triggering of various movement receptors in your colon, pushing food through the digestive tract at a regular pace. Exercise also reduces stress, boosts energy, improves mood and heart health.
9. Clean up your habits
You can add “better digestion” to the many reasons to quit smoking and cut down on alcohol consumption. Some smokers feel that smoking helps them stay regular, but like caffeine, that is due to a stimulant effect that can be irritating. Smoking also greatly increases the risk of acid reflux, peptic ulcers, Crohn’s disease, and cancer of the colon. If this is you, we can work with you on creating a health plan to help you cut out smoking – while practicing other good digestion habits – so you won’t feel the need to rely on cigarettes.
10. Maintain the microbiome
Your digestive tract contains trillions of bacteria supporting gut health. Maintaining that microbiome is essential for avoiding digestive problems like gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. A healthy gut microbiome is also essential for mental health, as the gut is the main site for the production of our happy hormone, serotonin.
These tips can help you maintain balanced levels of the right kind of gut bacteria:
- Because the microbiome contains many different types of bacteria, be sure to eat a wide variety of foods to help sustain them.
- Good bacteria help digest some types of fibers, so following a high-fiber diet stimulates their growth.
- Fermented foods help replenish good bacteria, so choose foods like unsweetened yogurt, kimchi, kefir, tempeh, and sauerkraut when possible.
- Probiotic supplements can help maintain a good balance in your gut. Research suggests they’re an effective supplement to reduce the symptoms of existing digestive problems, although they may be less effective at preventing problems.
Don’t let digestive problems hold you back from enjoying life. If you’d like to talk about further strategies or want help creating a plan to implement these tips, give us a call!
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Randi Mann, WHNP-BC, NCMP, APNP, is a woman’s hormone expert and the owner of Wise Woman Wellness LLC, an innovative wellness and hormone care center at 1480 Swan Road, De Pere. Mann is the author of the eBook: A Guide to Gluten and Going Gluten Free. She is a board certified Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner and NAMS Certified Menopause Practitioner, one of a handful in Wisconsin and less than 1600 worldwide to achieve this distinction. She combines the best of conventional, functional and integrative medicine to help women with female, thyroid and adrenal hormone issues to live healthier, more abundant, joy-filled lives using a blend of compassion, cutting edge science, practical guidance and humor. Contact her at 920-339-5252 or via the Internet at www.wisewomanwellness.com. Join the introductory virtual seminar, “End Hormone Havoc – Crazy Hormones Cause Fatigue, Weight Gain and Brain Fog and How to Fix Them!”, offered monthly, to learn about specialized thyroid, adrenal and female hormone testing and customized, bioidentical hormone treatments to achieve lifelong optimal hormone balance, increased vitality and longevity.