6 Ways to Improve Digestion Naturally

By Jillian Greaves, MPH, RD, LDN

Let's talk about digestion!

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If gas, abdominal pain, bloating, heartburn, constipation or diarrhea are part of your everyday life – you’re not alone! Functional digestive disorders are characterized by persistent, recurring GI symptoms and they effect an estimated 25 million Americans. They are not caused by structural or anatomical abnormalities, but the symptoms (most commonly changes in bathroom habits) can be debilitating (1).

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is one of the most common and well researched functional GI disorders associated with abdominal pain, diarrhea and/or constipation. With a quick google search of “diet for IBS” – there is an overwhelming number of results featuring all sorts of restrictive diets lacking research and supplements out the wazoo.

There is truly no one-sized-fits-all diet, miracle food or supplement when it comes to managing functional digestive disorders as they are extremely heterogeneous. Digestion is individual. What works for you might not work for your friend.

Before jumping into an elimination diet or adjusting a patients’ FODMAP intake (more on this in future posts) I always address the basics first. Below are 6 simple tips for improving digestion that are often overlooked, and can have a major impact on digestion.

1.     Slow down!

Chew food slowly and thoroughly. Digestion starts in the mouth where digestive enzymes in saliva begin the process. By chewing food thoroughly, you produce more saliva and increase the surface area of food to allow for better digestion. Eating in a rush also incorporates more air into the digestive track which can lead to bloating and discomfort (2). Try eating without distractions and putting down your fork between bites to help you slow down (hint: this will help you eating more mindfully, too!).

2.     Establish a consistent eating pattern

Several studies have reported that skipping meals and irregular meal habits are more common in individuals with IBS than healthy controls (3). Skipping meals or going long periods of time without eating and then having large meals could potentially trigger IBS symptoms. Try eating small, consistent meals and establishing a more structured schedule.

3.     Incorporate more movement

Engaging in mild physical activity has been shown to improve IBS symptoms including intestinal gas clearance, reduction of bloat and relief of constipation (4).

On the other hand, exercise that is too vigorous can act as a stressor and worsen symptoms. Choose a type of movement that feels good, one that you enjoy, and make it a habit!

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4.     Hydrate!

Meeting hydration needs can help improve stool frequency for those who struggle with constipation or irregular bathroom habits (3). A good place to start is 1.5-2 liters per day, but your needs might be higher depending on the climate you live in and your level of physical activity. Buy yourself a fun water bottle and up your hydration game!

5.     Stress less

Stress can exacerbate digestive issues and has been associated with diarrhea, constipation and IBS. Chronic stress can cause changes in your gut microbiome, cause the gut to become more permeable, and impact gut sensitivity and motility (5,2). Find ways to incorporate stress reduction activities into your daily life whether it be walking your dog, meditating, journaling, or reading – do what works for you and make it a daily ritual! Yoga, cognitive behavioral therapy and acupuncture have also been shown to help.

6.     Eat REAL food

Regular and constant intake of the standard American diet -- high in refined carbohydrates, food additives, and saturated fat and low in fiber -- has been linked to an increased risk for developing functional digestive disorders. Research has shown that incorporating more whole foods into your daily intake can actually be protective against digestive issues. Aim to include more vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, lean protein and whole grains (6).

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Takeaways

If you experience frequent digestive discomfort, you don’t have to suffer in silence! Functional digestive issues are complex, and each individual is unique. Focus on the basics first and work with a GI doc and Registered Dietitian to get the support you need to feel your best.


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Jillian Greaves provides nutrition counseling to adults with a variety of conditions with a special interest in PCOS, gastrointestinal conditions and autoimmune disease, all through a non-diet, weight neutral approach. No matter the goal, she aims to support clients in making balanced and sustainable dietary changes that fit into their busy lives.


References:

1.     Varjú P, Farkas N, Hegyi P, et al. (2017, Aug) Low fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols (FODMAP) diet improves symptoms in adults suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) compared to standard IBS diet: A meta-analysis of clinical studies.

2.     Scarlata K. (2018) The Low Fodmap Diet.

3.     Cozma-Petruţ, A., Loghin, F., Miere, D., & Dumitraşcu, D. L. (2017, June). Diet in irritable bowel syndrome: What to recommend, not what to forbid to patients!

4.     Johannesson E, Simrén M, Strid H, Bajor A, Sadik R. (2011, May.) Physical activity improves symptoms in irritable bowel syndrome: a randomized controlled trial.

5.     Qin, H.-Y., Cheng, C.-W., Tang, X.-D., & Bian, Z.-X. (2014). Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome.