Give these 8 tips to improve digestion a try if you’re looking to beat bloating, stomach pain, reflux, and other troublesome digestive symptoms. Let me know which ones work best for you!
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Here are my 8 favorite tips to help you improve digestion naturally.
No. 1 Be Mindful
Did you know that the digestive process begins before food even reaches your mouth? The act of seeing and smelling food begins what is called the cephalic phase or first phase of digestion.
The body begins to release stomach acid and digestive enzymes in anticipation of a meal. By doing so, the body is primed and ready to break down and digest food particles upon arrival.
You can improve digestion by taking the time to mindfully prepare a meal, or even by sitting down and taking a few deep breaths before digging in to your meal. This will help initiate this process and support your body’s natural means of digestion.
No. 2 Slow Down (You Move too Fast!)
Saliva contains important digestive enzymes that are only incorporated in our food when we chew it thoroughly. One of these enzymes is alpha-amylase which helps break down starch.
Without enough amylase, carbohydrate maldigestion and malabsorption can occur. In addition, lingual lipase is secreted by glands under the tongue. Without enough lipase, fats may not be digested well either.
Poor digestion can lead to large undigested food particles moving into the small intestine. Here, it can become a breeding ground for bacteria to feed off of,, and lead to gas, bloating, and constipation.
Some experts encourage chewing your food 32 times to improve digestion, but there’s no magic number. Instead, do an honest assessment of how quickly you eat and how many times you chew your food. It may feel strange to chew your food more thoroughly at first.
Try practicing one meal a day at first, and increase your number of bites gradually. Other tips include: Don’t overload your fork or spoon with food; Put your utensils down in between bites; Once your food has lost all it’s texture and flavor, take your next bite. (1)
Eating slowly can also help promote satiety, and thus, overeating, as it takes your brain ~20 minutes to register that your stomach is full. By eating slowly, you reduce the likelihood of stuffing yourself past the point of comfort and experiencing all the uncomfortable side effects that come along with it.
No. 3 Say NO! to Stressed Eating
When we’re stressed or anxious, we enter what is known as “fight or flight” mode. As a result, less stomach acid and digestive enzymes are produced. And, blood flow, which would normally be allocated to the digestive tract, is instead shunted to other peripheral organs and muscles such as the legs and heart. (2)
While we all live busy, stressful lives, it’s really important to take a little chill out time before meals, and get in the right frame of mind for eating. This can be as simple as sitting down, taking a minute to do breathing exercises, and giving thanks or saying a prayer for our food.
Being fully attentive to the meal in front of you, can go a long way in helping to improve digestion.
(Read this post: 31 Days of Self Care Tips to Soothe Your Mind, Body, and Soul )
No. 4 Get Back to the Basics
Once upon a time, it was common to eat 3 meals a day, without snacks. Today, for many people, grazing & snacking throughout the day has become more of the norm. But, really, our digestive systems really weren’t designed for frequent mini meals.
We all have something called the migrating motor complex (MMC). It’s a cleansing process that helps move small food particles and bacteria away from the gut lining so it can be excreted.
Think of the MMC action as being similar to flicking out a beach towel to get rid of sand. The catch is, the MMC only works properly in the absence of food, or during a fasted state of at least 90 minutes.
For most healthy people, the MMC gets to work within 90 minutes to 2 hours. However, for people with IBS or SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) , it usually takes longer-up to 3 to 4 hours-for the MMC to kick in.
When the MMC isn’t allowed enough time to do its job, you can get a buildup of bacteria and fungi in the small intestine, which may lead to bloating, pain, and other IBS symptoms.
So what’s the solution? Meal planning is key. If you are used to snacking throughout the day, I recommend cutting back to 3 meals/day or, 3 meals + 1 snack. For most people, this allows at least 3-4 hours between eating so the MMC can do its job. (3)
Note: This eating pattern works well for most of my clients, but if you suffer from GERD or delayed gastric emptying, you may do better with smaller meals. In that case, I suggest you try different meal time strategies to see what works best for you.
No. 5 Nix Late Night Noshing
Consumption of large meals late in the evening, especially those high in fat or containing large portions of meat, take longer to digest and may lead to poor sleep quality, digestive upset and acid reflux. (4)
Additionally, drinking coffee or alcohol late at night can loosen the esophageal sphincter, leading to acid to reflux and heartburn. Other reflux trigger foods include: peppermint, tomatoes, citrus fruits/juice, chocolate, black pepper, garlic, raw onions, and other spicy foods.
Ideally, aim to eat dinner at least 3 hours between going to sleep to give food adequate time to digest. If eating early in the evening is just not feasible, aim for smaller portions of easily digestible foods at dinner time such as fruits, vegetables, or whole grains. This will go a long way to help improve your digestion.
No. 6 B is for Bitters
The term “bitters” refers to a collection of plants compounds with characteristically bitter flavors. Consumption of bitter foods, herbs, and spices may help support digestion by triggering the production of stomach acid, bile, and digestive enzymes to help break down and absorb food.
By facilitating this process, less intact food particles end up in the intestine where they are fermented by bacteria. This diminishes the risk of digestive issues such as gas, bloating, constipation and loose stool.
Start by incorporating bitter foods into your diet. These include: arugula, bitter melon, broccoli rabe, citrus juice/zest, cranberries, coffee, dark chocolate (80% + cacao), dill, dandelion greens, grapefruit, green tea, kale, mint, radicchio, & turmeric.
A simple and effective means of incorporating bitters into the diet is by starting off the meal with a salad of bitter greens such as arugula, dandelion or radicchio.
If eating bitter foods doesn’t provide adequate relief from gas, bloating, and pain, you might consider trying a commercially available bitter tincture or capsule 20 – 30 minute before eating.
Three bitters preparations I recommend to my clients to improve digestion are:
Iberogast and Urban Moonshine are liquid tinctures in a small amount of alcohol. CarminaGest is a new product from Designs for Health that comes in capsule form without alcohol.
Please use caution taking Iberogast. It contains licorice which is contraindicated in pregnancy and possibly hypertension-consult with your doctor or dietitian before taking.
No. 7 E is for Enzymes
Our bodies naturally produce digestive enzymes in response to eating.
However, genetics and/or certain conditions may lead to a reduction in the
production of enzymes. For instance, a deficiency in lactase, the enzyme that digests lactose in dairy products, is quite common, especially with IBS.
In addition, we produce less stomach acid, and consequently fewer digestive enzymes, as we age, which may lead to digestive difficulties. OTC digestive enzymes MAY be helpful to help alleviate symptoms of gas, bloating, and abdominal pain after eating certain high FODMAP foods.
Although studies are limited, the 3 digestive enzymes that have some research behind them include: (5)
- Alpha-galactosidase. Helps breakdown foods high in galacto-oligosaccharides aka GOS, including beans, lentils, peas, soy, beets, cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.
- Lactase. Helps break down lactose in dairy products.
- Xylose Isomerase. Converts fructose into glucose, which may help with fructose intolerance.
It’s important to note that there are a lot of digestive enzymes on the market, many of which have enzymes that aren’t needed, or have low amounts of the potentially beneficial enzymes I mentioned above.
If you are interested in trying enzymes to help improve digestion, a few products I recommend are:
- Carbo-G from Transformation Enzymes (lactase & alpha-galactosidase)
- Digestive Enzymes Ultra from Pure Encapsulations (lactase & alpha-galactosidase)
- Similase BV from Integrative Therapeutics ((lactase & alpha-galactosidase))
- Digestzymes from Designs for Health (lactase & alpha-galactosidase)
- Lactase Drops from Seeking Health (lactase)
- Lactase Formula from Nature’s Way (lactase)
- Eat Anything and Fructaid (xylose isomerase)
You can purchase all of the enzymes, except Eat Anything and Fructaid, through my supplement dispensary at Fullscript. Don’t have an account yet? Sign up here.
No. 8 J is for Journal
Last, but not least, if you’re not already keeping a food journal, consider starting one. Journaling Is a great way to make the connection between what, how, and when you are eating, to the way you are feeling, and can help you make targeted changes to your eating habits.
Keeping a food diary and noting things such as meal composition, size, time, as well as your mental and physical environment can be a great way to start connecting the dots between your eating habits and your digestion.
Recap: 8 Tips to Improve Digestion Naturally
- Be mindful at mealtime.
- Eat slower and chew food thoroughly.
- Say no to stressed eating.
- Try 3 meals (& a snack) instead of grazing all day.
- Nix late night noshing.
- Try bitter foods and digestive bitters.
- Experiment with digestive enzymes.
- Keep a food journal.
References on How to Improve Digestion
- Your Digestive System and How it Works. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/digestive-system-how-it-works. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Published December 2017. Accessed June 15, 2020.
- Konturek, P.C., Brzozowski, T., Konturek, S.J. Stress and the Gut: Pathophysiology, Clinical Consequences, Diagnostic Approach and Treatment Options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011, 62, 6, 591-599.
- Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). https://blog.katescarlata.com/2014/01/22/small-intestinal-bacterial-overgrowth/. For a Digestive Peace of Mind Blog. Published January 22, 2014. Accessed June 15, 2020.
- Am J Gastroenterol. Fujiwara, Y., Machida, Ai., Watanabe, Y., et al. Association Between Dinner-to-Bed Time and Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease. Am J Gastroenterol. 2005 Dec;100(12):2633-6.
- Freuman, T.D. The Bloated Belly Whisperer. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2018.
Do you have any questions about how to improve your digestion?
I hope you find these tips to improve digestion helpful! If you have any questions, comments, or tips of your own to share, I would love to hear from you. Be well!
Hi There! I’m EA, a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) in sunny San Diego. I create easy, DELICIOUS gluten free recipes & low FODMAP recipes for a wide variety of diets. Learn more about my nutrition philosophy and my nutrition coaching for digestive health, autoimmune disease, wellness nutrition, & vibrant aging. Sign up for my newsletter, or get in touch~I’d love to connect with you!