Sluggish digestion can really throw your day off gear. Ask anyone who’s had tummy trouble, be it gas, constipation, an upset tummy, or diarrhea. Your digestive system breaks down food into its simplest forms like glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids. These nutrients are then absorbed into your blood stream from your small intestine and carried to various parts of your body. The process of digestion begins in the mouth, where your teeth grind up food and enzymes in saliva start breaking it down. Along the way, gastric juices from your stomach, bile from your liver, and digestive enzymes from your pancreas work on it further. Microbes that live in your large intestine also play an important role in keeping your digestive system running smoothly.1
Given how complex your digestive system is (and how hard it works!), it’s up to you to give it all the help it needs. Put in place these simple everyday practices to improve your digestion:
1. Eat Right
In the hustle bustle of the day, many of us don’t pay attention to how we take our food. Follow these simple rules to make sure that your digestive system is functioning well:
- Have your meals regularly. Don’t skip meals or change meal times if you can help it.
- Eat slowly. And remember digestion starts in your mouth. Chew well to grind down your food and allow saliva to break it down.
- If you frequently suffer from tummy upsets or indigestion at night, try shifting your dinner to an earlier time. Avoiding food at least 3 to 4 hours before you sleep is a good idea. Your stomach contents are more likely to get pushed into your food pipe and cause heartburn if you lie down with a full stomach.
2. Get In Some Fiber
Fiber is great for your digestive system. Soluble fiber absorbs water and bulks up stool. This helps it pass through your intestines more easily. A diet low in fiber can play a part in many disorders related to the digestive system like constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, and colon cancer. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and wholegrains are high in fiber so make sure you include these in your diet.2
Do remember, however, that high fiber foods can also cause abdominal gas. So if you’re moving from a low fiber diet to a high fiber diet, do it gradually to allow your body to adjust.
3. Tank Up On Water
Fluids have an important role to play in the health of your digestive system. As we just saw, fiber works like a sponge by soaking up water. This is what helps it bulk up stool and ease its passage through your system. Without sufficient water, fiber won’t be able to do its work properly.3
Women should ideally get in about 2.1 liters of fluids in a day while men require around 2.6 liters. However, you may require more if the weather has been excessively hot or you’ve been exercising strenuously, as you would have lost more fluid through sweat.4
4. Have Probiotics
Probiotics are “friendly” bacteria which help to keep your digestive system healthy. They can also improve conditions like diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome. Helpful bacteria like bifidobacteria and lactobacilli can maintain a balance of healthy microorganisms in your gut by increasing the acidity of your intestine and halting the growth of harmful bacteria. Yogurt is rich in probiotics and can be a staple in your diet. Other options include sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and tempeh.
Also, if you are looking to treat a specific condition, know that particular strains of bacteria can help. For instance, Lactobacillus GG has been found to help with irritable bowel syndrome while Lactobacillus casei Shirota works for chronic constipation.5 6 You will, however, need to discuss these options with your doctor as they may involve taking pharma-grade probiotics.
5. Perk Up With Lemons And Oranges
Fruits may not come to your mind when you think of improving digestion. But lemon juice has been traditionally used as a digestive. Both the smell and the flavor of lemon can help produce more saliva. That’s not all – both lemons and oranges can stimulate pancreatic secretions which help with digestion.7 So make these citrus fruits a part of your daily diet.
6. Check Out Herbs And Spices
Spices and herbs don’t just add flavor to your food, but also help with digestion. Both their taste and smell can stimulate gastric and salivary secretions. For instance, coriander, ginger, cumin, chili, peppercorn, and turmeric can help you digest carbohydrates and fats by increasing bile acid. Peppercorn, chili, and ginger can increase an enzyme known as pancreatic trypsin which helps you digest protein. Meanwhile, peppermint, fennel seed, aniseed, and cinnamon are carminatives – that is, they help relieve gas and bloating. So go ahead and spice up your food!8
7. Steer Clear Of Habits That Hinder Digestion
If you’re frequently plagued by digestive problems, avoiding a few harmful habits just might improve your digestion and set your tummy right.
If you smoke, here’s another reason to quit – it can cause acid reflux. Smoking weakens the muscles at the bottom of your food pipe. This makes it difficult for them to close off and prevent stomach acid from your going the wrong way up your food pipe. The result is acid reflux and heartburn. Acid reflux can also worsen inflammatory bowel conditions and stomach ulcers.
Drinking in moderation may not harm your digestive system. But excessive consumption of alcohol can increase the production of acid in your stomach and lead to heartburn. It can also worsen other digestive problems. So what is “excessive” drinking? Well, it may be a lot less than you thought. Just a little over 3 pints of 4% beer in one sitting is excessive for men while a little over 2 large glasses of 13% wine is excessive for women.9 10
Watch What You Drink
Alcohol isn’t the only drink that can throw your digestive system out of whack. Coffee, tea, and colas contain caffeine which can increase acid in your stomach and lead to heartburn. Meanwhile, fizzy drinks can cause bloating, which not only leads to that “uncomfortably full” feeling but can also cause heartburn. It might be best to avoid these drinks if you have a sensitive tummy.
If you just can’t make it through the day without your daily shot of caffeine, limit your consumption to 1 to 2 cups of coffee a day.11
Cut Down On Fatty Foods
You might have noticed you suffer from abdominal pain or heartburn more frequently after you gorge on foods like burgers, chips, or other fried foods. That’s because greasy foods are harder to digest and can increase your stomach’s workload. Try to substitute high-fat foods with options like fish and lean meats that are lower in fat. Grilling instead of frying foods can also help you avoid excessive intake of fat.12
8. Handle Stress
We’ve all experienced that uneasy feeling in the stomach during times of stress. Worry and anxiety can affect your digestion in many ways. It may slow digestion in some people, causing constipation and bloat, while speeding it up in others and resulting in diarrhea. Stress can also aggravate conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and stomach ulcers. So it makes sense to keep mealtimes relaxed and happy. Let’s look at some ways of dealing with stress:13
Take A Breath
Deep breathing is one of the simplest ways of mitigating stress. It’s no wonder then that we use the phrase “take a deep breath” synonymously with “relax”!
Here’s a simple exercise that you can try:
- Plant your feet apart by about the width of your hips and sit or stand comfortably.
- Take in a deep breath through your nose and draw your breath into your abdomen.
- Without a pause, now breathe out through your mouth.
- This exercise can be done for 3 to 5 minutes for a calming effect.14
Try Guided Imagery
Visualize soothing places, scenes, or experiences in your mind. This positive vision can take the place of stressful feelings and help you relax. You can also find calming images online or free apps which help you practice this technique. Just make sure you pick an image that has some personal significance and soothes you.
Research indicates that mindfulness meditation can help with pain, depression, and anxiety. This form of meditation involves focussing your mind on the present moment without wandering into thoughts about the past or future.15 To practice mindfulness, sit comfortably and pay attention to sounds, thoughts, the sensation of breathing, or to parts of your body. When your attention starts to wander from its focus, gently bring it back.16
9. Practice Yoga
Yoga describes many asanas or poses that might help with digestion, including:
The Hero Pose (Virasana)
Kneel on the floor. Your thighs should be at 90 degrees to the floor, your knees should be touching on the inside as you kneel, and the top part of your feet should be flat on the ground. Now slowly slide your feet apart till they’re a bit wider than your hips, pull your calf muscles backward and sit with your bottom placed between your feet. Relax in this pose for 5 to 10 minutes.
Wind Releasing Pose (Pawanamukta Asana)
The pawanamukta asana is supposed to be done on an empty stomach in the evening or morning. Lie down flat on the floor and bring a knee to your abdomen by holding it with both hands and bending it. Make sure your other leg is straight as you press your knee into your abdomen. Repeat this exercise with your other leg. Do this cycle 5 times. Now repeat the exercise, but by bending both the knees together this time.
Upward Stretched Leg Pose (Urdhava Prasarita Pada Asana)
The urdhava prasarita pada asana is supposed to be done on an empty stomach. Raise one leg straight upward while lying down. Then use a strap to pull that leg toward your body. Repeat the exercise with your other leg. Do this exercise 5 times.17
10. Follow Ayurvedic Guidelines
The ancient science of Ayurveda offers many tips on maintaining a healthy digestive system:
Don’t Suppress Natural Urges: According to Ayurveda, suppressing natural urges like sleep (nidra), flatus (vata), and stool movement (purisha) can upset the balance of your digestive system.
Don’t Overeat: Overeating (adhyasana) can lead to indigestion. Ayurveda advocates the consumption of easily digestible and light food which should be chewed properly. You should also refrain from eating until your last meal has been properly digested, which means a gap of 2–3 hours.
Have Foods That Help Prevent Indigestion: Foods like wheat, green gram, garlic, seasonal fruits, green leafy vegetables, asafetida, pepper, dry ginger, and lukewarm water are thought to help with digestion and help prevent indigestion.18
11. Understand Your Body
Each person is different and your digestive system might have its own quirks. For instance, though lemons and oranges have been found to help with digestion, some people find them too acidic and may experience heartburn. Onions and wheat can cause irritable bowel syndrome in others. And people who can’t tolerate lactose experience gas and diarrhea after consuming dairy products like yogurt, milk, and cheese. Certain spices too may not agree with all people. You might also find that specific things like eating fruits in the latter part of the day don’t agree with you.
Keeping a food diary is one way of understanding what works for your digestive system. By jotting down what you eat every day, you will be able to see patterns and identify foods that don’t agree with you.19 20
|↑1||Digestive system. Department of Health & Human Services.|
|↑2||Fibre in food. Department of Health & Human Services.|
|↑3||[Good foods to help your digestion “Good foods to help your digestion”). National Health Service.|
|↑4||Water – a vital nutrient. Department of Health & Human Services.|
|↑5, ↑11, ↑12, ↑20||Good foods to help your digestion. National Health Service.|
|↑6||Probiotics. University of Michigan.|
|↑7||Valussi, Marco. “Functional foods with digestion-enhancing properties.” International journal of food sciences and nutrition 63, no. sup1 (2012): 82-89.|
|↑8||Dog, Tieraona Low. “A reason to season: the therapeutic benefits of spices and culinary herbs.” Explore: the journal of science and healing 2, no. 5 (2006): 446-449.|
|↑9||Binge drinking. National Health Service.|
|↑10, ↑13||Five lifestyle tips for a healthy tummy. National Health Service.|
|↑14||Breathing exercise for stress. National Health Service.|
|↑15||Six relaxation techniques to reduce stress. Harvard Health Publications.|
|↑16||Mindfulness. National Health Service.|
|↑17||Pande-Bhargava, Navodita. Yoga: The Oriental Healing. Partridge Publishing, 2014.|
|↑18||Ajirna (Indigestion). National Health Portal.|
|↑19||Digestive Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.|