Why and How to Improve Digestion

by Marixie Ann Obsioma
Published on November 18, 2020 and last updated for accuracy on November 28, 2020

Your digestive system has a direct impact on your overall health. Digestion is the mechanical and chemical process of breaking down food into molecules small enough to be absorbed through your intestinal lining.  Built-up old waste and hardened mucus can hinder absorption. You must have a healthy, clean and intact intestinal lining to absorb the maximum nutrients possible. Every cell, tissue and organ in your body depends on nutrient absorption and assimilation of food through healthy digestion. That’s why it’s so important to eat foods or supplements with adequate amounts of probiotics, enzymes, and fiber for digestive and immune health.

As important as it is to digest and absorb, it is equally important to eliminate. Once digestion and absorption are completed, undigested food, bacteria, metabolic wastes, hormones, cholesterol, and environmental toxins need to be removed from the body to prevent autointoxication. This happens through bowel movements. If you don’t have daily bowel movements, you may experience a host of uncomfortable symptoms, from bloating to low energy.

Why Improve Digestion?

When your GI tract is healthy and your digestion is functioning well you can expect the following benefits:

Enhanced Elimination of Toxins

Our bodies do an excellent job when the digestive system is in working order. It takes care of the many toxins and waste we build up inside of us. We get rid of by-products every time we urinate, expel a breath, blow our nose, release tears when we cry, sweat and have bowel movements. Our body targets these toxins and eliminates them.

Heightened Mental Clarity

Healthy digestion combined with a highly nutritious diet is the essence of long-term vitality. Your diet affects every system in the body, but especially the brain. Research has found an abundance of neuropeptides, which are molecules that transmit brain signals in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and have also shown that the beneficial bacteria in our GI tracts influence brain health, mood, and much more.

Increased Energy and Stamina

When you clean out the gunk in your gut, your body doesn’t have to work as hard to digest the foods you eat. Energy that would have gone into digestion can now be used to live life.

Regular, Consistent and Optimal Bowel Movements

You will realize regularity when your digestive system is functioning properly. This is defined as a bowel movement one to three times a day and one that is not too soft or hard, but it is important to note that everyone has a different number of bowel movements, despite popular belief.

Improved Absorption of Nutrients

When you have a healthy digestive system, what you consume is properly digested, and then the beneficial nutrients are immersed into the bloodstream via the small intestine. Nutrient absorption gets a boost when a healthy intestinal lining provides a large surface for absorption.

Increased Immune System and Disease Defenses

Did you know that 80% of our immune system is contained in our digestive system? When all is running smoothly, our immune responses increase.

Relief from Mood Disorders

Our GI tract, often called our body’s “second brain,” is responsible for producing 95% of the serotonin, the “feel good” hormone, in our bodies. Experts found that serotonin plays a key role in controlling depression. Feelings of relaxation, optimism and an overall sense of well-being can be attributed to the neurotransmitter, serotonin.   

Healthy Weight Loss

When toxins are eliminated efficiently and not trapped inside of us, our stool passes much of the waste out of our bodies, thereby “lightening our load.” Eating enough fiber and drinking enough water assists this process.

How to Improve Digestion Naturally?

Diet and lifestyle changes can have a positive impact on your gut health.

1. Eat Real Food

The typical Western diet, which is high in refined carbs, saturated fat and food additives, has been linked to an increased risk of developing digestive disorders (1).

Food additives, including glucose, salt and other chemicals, have been suggested to contribute to increased gut inflammation, leading to a condition called leaky gut (2).

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 (3).

Studies also suggest that artificial sweeteners may increase your number of harmful gut bacteria (4, 5).

Gut bacteria imbalances have been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease (6).

Fortunately, scientific evidence suggests that diets high in nutrients protect against digestive diseases (7).

Therefore, eating a diet based on whole foods and limiting the intake of processed foods may be best for optimal digestion.

2. Chew Your Food

Chewing well is a critical and yet widely overlooked practice! Chew thoroughly to help food digest. Saliva contains enzymes you need to begin breaking down the food for digestion and you don’t want to rush through this process. Our stomach doesn’t have teeth. To properly digest our food, we need to do a lot of work in the mouth. When we eat on the run or gulp down our food, digestion gets compromised. Slow down, savor your food and chew it well.

3. Boost Stomach Acid

This is an area of misconception for most people. Many people who have heartburn, gas and bloating likely have too little stomach acid, not too much. The typical treatment is to take antacids, which reduces stomach acid even further, exacerbating the problem. Proper stomach acid levels are critical for the breakdown of proteins in the stomach. Stomach acid also destroys pathogenic bacteria that can lead to illness.  Boost stomach acid naturally by adding freshly-squeezed lemon to your water or by drinking one tablespoon of raw apple cider vinegar in water each morning. I add both to warm water with a dash of cayenne every morning and honestly, I never feel the same without it.

4. Eat More 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 (8).

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 (9).

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 (7).

Prebiotics are found in many fruits, vegetables and grains.

5. Stay Hydrated

Low fluid intake is a common cause of constipation (10, 11).

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.

6. Reduce or Eliminate Processed Foods

Processed “foods” are hugely challenging for the digestive system. A good thing to keep in mind: If you don’t recognize an ingredient on the label, your body won’t either! Processed foods are full of “anti-nutrients”, which means the body must deplete its own nutrient stores for these foods to metabolize, essentially robbing the body of nutrients rather than nourishing. This also causes your body to expend more energy than it should. More processed foods equals less energy for you. Stick to whole foods as much as possible.

7. Add In Probiotics

Our gut is teeming with bacteria and that’s good! But if the balance in our bacteria gets tipped in the wrong direction, it can lead to digestive issues. We need good bacteria to strengthen the immune system, reduce chronic inflammation, and help remedy leaky gut and more. You can get more of the “good bugs” by taking a probiotic supplement or with raw fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir or kimchi.

8. Manage Your Stress

Stress can wreak havoc on your digestive system.

It has been associated with stomach ulcers, diarrhea, constipation and IBS (12, 13).

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 (14, 15).

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 (16).

Therefore, incorporating stress management techniques, such as deep belly breathing, meditation or yoga, may improve not only your mindset but also your digestion.

9. Exercise

Yes, exercise is good for just about everything, including digestion. It takes healthy muscle tone all around the abdomen to help move food through our digestive tract. Increasing exercise can improve digestion, even if you don’t change what you eat!

10. Stop Drinking and Smoking

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 nearly doubles the risk of developing acid reflux (17).

Furthermore, studies have shown that quitting smoking improves these symptoms (18).

This bad habit has also been associated with stomach ulcers, increased surgeries in people with ulcerative colitis and gastrointestinal cancers (19, 20).

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 (21).

Alcohol has also been associated with inflammatory bowel diseases, leaky gut and harmful changes in gut bacteria (22).

Reducing your consumption of alcohol may help your digestion.

10 Best Foods to Help Improve Digestion

1. Yogurt

Yogurt is made from milk that has been fermented, typically by lactic acid bacteria.

It contains friendly bacteria known as probiotics, which are good bacteria that live in your digestive tract and can help improve digestion, keeping your gut healthy.

While probiotics naturally occur in your gut, boosting your intake through foods like yogurt can ease digestion. 

Probiotics can help with digestive issues, such as bloating, constipation and diarrhea. They have also been shown to improve the digestion of lactose, or milk sugar.

However, not all yogurt contains probiotics. When shopping, be sure to look for “live and active cultures” on the package.

2. Apples

Apples are a rich source of pectin, a soluble fiber.

Pectin bypasses digestion in your small intestine and is then broken down by the friendly bacteria in your colon.

It increases stool volume and is therefore commonly used to resolve constipation and diarrhea. It can also help decrease the risk of intestinal infections, as well as inflammation in the colon.

3. Chia Seeds

Chia seeds are an excellent source of fiber, which causes them to form a gelatin-like substance in your stomach, once consumed. They work like a prebiotic, supporting the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut and therein contributing to healthy digestion. 

Their fiber content also helps promote bowel regularity and healthy stools.

4. Papaya

The luscious tropical fruit papaya contains a digestive enzyme called papain.

It assists during the digestive process by helping break down protein fibers. While not required in your diet, it can aid the digestion of protein.

Papain may also ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), such as constipation and bloating.

It’s commonly used as the main enzyme in digestive supplements due to its gastrointestinal capacities.

5. Whole Grains

Grains are the seeds of grasslike plants called cereals.

To be classified as a whole grain, it must contain 100% of the kernel including the bran, germ and endosperm.

Popular fiber-packed whole grains include oats, quinoa, farro and products made from whole wheat. The fiber found in these grains can help improve digestion in two ways.

First, fiber helps add bulk to your stool and can reduce constipation.

Second, some grain fibers act like prebiotics and help feed healthy bacteria in your gut.

6. Ginger

Ginger is a traditional ingredient in Eastern medicine that helps improve digestion and prevent nausea. Many pregnant women use it to treat morning sickness.

From a digestion standpoint, this yellowish root has been shown to accelerate gastric emptying.

By moving food from your stomach to your small intestine quicker, ginger reduces your risk of heartburn, nausea and stomach discomfort.

7. Dark Green Vegetables

Green vegetables are an excellent source of insoluble fiber.

This type of fiber adds bulk to your stool, quickening its pace through your digestive tract.

Green vegetables are also a good source of magnesium, which can help relieve constipation by improving muscle contractions in your gastrointestinal tract.

Some of the most common dark green vegetables that provide this benefit are spinach, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and other leafy greens.

In addition, a 2016 study revealed an unusual sugar found in green leafy vegetables that feeds good bacteria in your gut. This sugar is thought to aid digestion while also impairing some of the bad bacteria that can cause illnesses (23).

8. Salmon

Salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help reduce inflammation in your body.

People with inflammatory bowel disease, food intolerances and other digestive disorders often have inflammation in the gut. Omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce this inflammation and thereby improve digestion.

9. Peppermint

Peppermint, part of the genus Mentha, grows commonly throughout much of the world.

Peppermint oil is made from the essential oils found in peppermint leaves and has been shown to improve digestive problems.

The oil contains a compound called menthol, which may ease symptoms of IBS, including bloating, stomach discomfort and bowel movement issues.

The oil appears to have a relaxing effect on the muscles of your digestive tract, which may improve digestion.

Peppermint oil can also ease indigestion by accelerating the food’s movement through your digestive system.

10. Bone Broth

Bone broth is made by simmering the bones and connective tissues of animals.

The gelatin found in bone broth derives from the amino acids glutamine and glycine.

These aminos can bind to fluid in your digestive tract and help food pass more easily.

Glutamine protects the functioning of your intestinal wall. It has also been shown to improve the digestive condition known as leaky gut, as well as other inflammatory bowel diseases.

Key Takeaway 

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.

References: 

(1) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25581832/

(2) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25676324/

(3) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27117004/

(4) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25831243/

(5) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25231862/

(6) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27833381/

(7) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23541470/

(8) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27863994/

(9) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19335713/

(10) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28450053/

(11) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27230827/

(12) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25339801/

(13) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24881644/

(14) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24756641/

(15) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25339800/

(16) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24574705/

(17) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15542505/

(18) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24322837/

(19) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25968332/

(20) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23776588/

(21) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27824864/

(22) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26695747/

(23) https://www.nature.com/articles/nchembio.2023

 

Read Next
Laxatives are a type of medication that people use to…