5 TIPS FOR BETTER DIGESTION
More people than ever are facing problems with their digestion. From being clinically diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s, IBD, or IBS to having no idea why you are always bloated and having pain after eating, there are myriads of reasons why your digestion may be going array. Living with constant inflammation and pain in your gut is not something that anyone should be going through. Not to mention chronic inflammation can lead to even more health-related issues that can otherwise be avoided. Learning about your body, what feels good and what does not can help reduce symptoms and improve your digestion over all. Now let’s get into it!
Symptoms of poor digestion:
- Gas (often)
- Stomach pain
- Poor quality of sleep
If any of these problems sound like something that you have been dealing with then read through this article to see if any of these tips can help reduce your symptoms! If your symptoms are still unmanageable I recommend seeking out assistance from a Registered Dietitian (like myself) or talking to your primary care doctor about your symptoms and possibly getting referred to a GI specialist.
TOP 5 TIPS FOR BETTER DIGESTION
1. EAT MORE FIBER
First, what is fiber? Fiber is the difficult to digest portion of a plant, the “bulk” (either soluble or insoluble) or "roughage" that cannot be absorbed or digested by the body. Click here to read my fiber article!
Dietary fiber refers to the undigested parts of plant-based foods that are natural to the plant. No digestive enzymes are produced by the body to break it down. This means it will bulk up your stool (make it more solid if you suffer from diarrhea) and will pass right through you.
Functional fiber is the carbohydrate that is extracted from plants and added to foods (ie: gums or cellulose). You can find these in more processed foods like granola bars or protein bars that claim they are “high fiber” but aren’t containing any fiber packed plants.
To improve your digestion, it is important to have a steady intake of dietary fiber to keep your bowel movements regular. High intake of functional fiber may actually add to digestive issues as your body sometimes is unable to recognize what type of fiber it is or how to best digest this product.
Fiber is found in: legumes, whole grains, non-starchy vegetables, and whole fruits.
Just remember when you have a product like white rice or white bread most of the fiber is stripped from it in processing. Thus, leaning towards a whole grain option will always provide more fiber. Additionally, fruit juices have no fiber compared to their whole fruit counterpart, so always make sure you go for the food in it’s most whole form when possible.
Two key things to remember when increasing fiber intake to improve tolerance:
1. Drink water!
You need fluids to help push the fiber through your GI tract otherwise you may suffer from constipation.
2. Start slow!
If you are not a current consumer of high fiber foods, I recommend starting very slow. You need to warm your gut up to the idea that you will be eating more fiber. If you don't do this you will probably worsen any gas or bloating that you experience. Start by adding about 1/8-1/4 cup of beans to your daily diet instead of a cup of 3 beans soup! Starting slow and building up over time will leave you feeling much better. You can increase the amount of fiber you eat over time as tolerated.
*NOTE: If you have a diagnosed condition like Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s disease and are very inflamed or are in the midst of a bad flare up your doctor may have you on a low fiber diet. As I mentioned earlier, prolonged inflammation can lead to increased health risks and further bowel damage. Temporary low fiber diets are recommended for people with severe inflammation in their guts to give them a break and time to recover. The fiber is meant to be added back slowly to eventually return to a regular diet. Fiber is an essential nutrient to our health and should only be avoided in cases of extreme need.*
2. STAY HYDRATED
As mentioned above water is incredibly important for digestion. It is a great way to keep your bowel movements regular and to stay hydrated. Our bodies are made up of primarily water so naturally when we are dehydrated from limiting it we can face some of these symptoms: dizziness, headaches, constipation, and bloating. Fluid in particular is a great way to manage constipation caused by increased fiber intake as mentioned above.
Ok so how much fluid am I supposed to be getting? There are a few ways to look at this, here are a few of my favorites.
64oz is a good minimum goal to try and achieve daily that I recommend to most of my patients
1- 1.2 oz per kg of body weight (so if you are 70 kg or 154lbs, 70-84 oz)
Or you can just use this chart for the Adequate Intake from the USDA.
Now remember drinking water isn't the only way to get in adequate fluids. Eating fresh fruits, veggies, and soups can help you do this as well. There is something to remember as well when increasing fluid intake. If you are eating a high sodium diet (fast food, salty snacks, etc.) your body will look to hold on to excess fluid instead of urinating to help reduce the amount of salt in your blood. This can lead to bloating which you may be familiar with. While bloating is generally just uncomfortable, it can also lead to heart issues down the line. Chronic bloating from longterm excess sodium consumption can lead to your heart having to work overtime by pumping blood to the excess space your body now has. This is one of the reasons why in heart failure patients with fluid overload, we often see them put on fluid and sodium restrictions to correct this imbalance. I personally like to drink the majority of my water throughout the day and morning so I can sleep comfortably without having to get up in the middle of the night.
If you struggle with staying hydrated try some of these tips:
Put some pre-filled glass water bottles in the fridge for easy access.
Add lemon and cucumber slices to your water for a little bit of flavor
Bring water in your car, it's so easy to chug a bottle of water if you are just sitting for a 30 minute commute to work.
I never realized how much movement had to do with digestion until I started focusing on the timing of my movement. Yes it is incredibly important to stay active for heart health and muscle growth but did you know you can use it to your advantage? A few years ago I got really into walking and have loved it ever since. When I would wake up I would do my regular morning routine, then go for a 15 minute walk, drink some water, have my cup of coffee and without fail, have a bowel movement! It is so interesting how after sleeping for 8 hours a little bit of movement and fluids is all the digestive tract needs to get to work. Notice how it didn't need warm lemon water or a ginger, apple cider vinegar shot!
Another great time to go for a quick walk is after dinner. Now this used to be exclusive for me and my family in the summer time at the beach or after Thanksgiving dinner. But why limit it to just those times? Taking 10-20 minutes to go for a leisure walk around the neighborhood after dinner can help use up some of the energy you just ate so it doesn't go right into storage.
In addition being upright in general after meals makes digestion much easier on your bowels, compared to laying down to watch a movie. Alternatively if its the depths of winter, you had a late meal, don't have a treadmill, or gym nearby, and just cannot fathom the idea of going outside, just standing up for 30 minutes to do the dishes, fold some laundry, or clean up around the house will be 10x better than laying down. Try it, you might surprised!
4. FASTING & EATING MINDFULLY.
I know there are so many controversial opinions about intermittent fasting and intuitive eating but from looking at the research here are my thoughts. Intermittent fasting is basically just a period of fasting/ not eating- like when you sleep. I think that fasting is too individualized to set a recommendation that will benefit the majority of the population. For example someone may not be hungry until 12 in the afternoon and waiting till then to start eating works for them. However, someone else may be starving when they wake up and will get jittery or fatigue if they try to wait. I also think it depends on yesterdays eating habits as well. If you eat a large, late dinner, you may not be hungry first thing in the morning. Whereas if you eat an early, light dinner and go for a walk after you may be hungry right away. Ultimately it is unique to each individual!
Take a look at your hunger-cues. Am I eating because it's breakfast time? Or am I eating because I am hungry? Fasting can be great for your metabolism if done appropriately so not just eating to eat or snacking because food is there can be great for your digestive tract if you are having issues with bloating and gas. Another key piece of this is understanding when you are full! So many people are rushed when they are eating or are very distracted. This can lead to over eating, then heartburn. Eating slow, undistracted, and modest portions can allow you to sense when you are full much faster, ultimately leading to less work for your digestive tract.
*Note if you have diabetes fasting may lead to low blood sugars so monitor sugars closely and snacking may be better for you*
I personally like to save elimination diets for the last resort for my patients. They take a lot of energy from the patient to figure out what to and not to eat along with greatly restricting your food choice. While these are never meant to be long term they are also difficult to sustain even for a few weeks.
Let me tell you why these styles of diets are even a thing! The main reason why we need elimination diets is to help us identify what food or what type of food may be causing us digestive distress. One of the most popular being the low-FODMAP diet. There are different phases to this diet. You first limit your intake to a few basic foods like rice, potatoes, greens, and certain easily digestible veggies. Then after about 2 weeks of this you add back in each food group one at a time to try to identify what you are not digesting well. This is definitely a commitment and I only recommend trying an elimination diet under direct supervision of a Registered Dietitian or qualified health professional.
Prior to trying this diet I also recommend attempting to remove dairy from your diet for a few weeks. This is such a common source of discomfort as the majority of Americans are in fact lactose intolerant. While dairy is praised as one of the key foods in the Standard American Diet there are two main things that come from dairy that we need, protein, and calcium. Those things can easily be consumed in a well planned dairy-free diet. Thus if it is causing your body difficulty with digestion there is absolutely no nutritional reason why you need to consume it. You may also try this with gluten, another very common allergen. However, with dairy and gluten if you have no reaction to them then there is no need to remove them from your diet completely! Low fat dairy and whole forms of gluten (whole wheat) can be a part of a well balanced diet.
I hope these tips help you get your digestive system back on track so you can go back to living your life without discomfort! Click here to learn more about how your digestive system actually works and all about our GI tract from the NIH.