Have you ever wondered if your digestion system is working properly? Do you ever suffer from bloating, constipation, diarrhea or abdominal pain? Even if you are having bowel movements consistently, if they are too hard, too loose or too smelly, that could also be a sign that your digestion system isn’t working properly.
When your body isn’t digesting normally, it prevents your liver from being able to get rid of all of the toxins in your body, causing the overall level of toxins in your body to increase. This can cause a host of issues, including fatigue, brain fog, depression, sleep impairment, and an increased risk of inflammatory diseases.
What Is Normal Digestion?
So what does normal digestion look like? According to Dr. Kelsie Lazzell, DC, ND, a chiropractor and naturopathic practitioner at the Center for Holistic Medicine, most people should be having between one to three bowel movements a day, ideally one hour after eating, and they should be well-formed (like a sausage or hot dog), easy to pass with limited straining, should not contain any undigested foods except corn or quinoa, and should lack a foul smell.
Dr. Lazzell also says it should take about 10 to 20 minutes to fully pass a bowel movement — something many of us don’t give ourselves proper time for. “Unfortunately, if our diets and busy work schedules don’t allow for this, our digestion begins to suffer,” she says.
How to Improve Your Digestion: Diet, Stress Reduction and Exercise
Not surprisingly, an unhealthy diet, high levels of stress and lack of exercise can all affect how well our body is able to digest our food.
Here are a few tips on ways you can improve your diet and stress levels to support proper digestion.
- Eat Plenty of Fiber
If you aren’t getting enough fiber in your diet, your stools are going to be harder and less frequent. Standard recommendations say that women should be getting 25 grams of fiber a day and men should get 30 grams of fiber a day, but Dr. Lazzell says most people get barely 15 grams daily. To eat a diet high in fiber, aim to get plenty of fruits and vegetables, brown rice, whole grains, legumes and nuts.
Dr. Lazzell says it’s also important to understand the difference between soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fibers are one that absorb water. “Soluble fibers are broken down in the digestive process and help bulk up stools and prevent diarrhea,” Dr. Lazzell explains. Foods that contain soluble fibers include oats, peas, beans, apples and carrots.
Insoluble fibers do not break down in our system, but instead help draw water into the digestive tract, which helps support movement and reduces constipation. So, if you are suffering from constipation, you need to eat more insoluble fibers, such as whole wheat flour, green beans, potatoes and cauliflower.
“People can be eating the wrong types of fiber to support their digestive and potentially causing their symptoms to worsen,” she says.
- Drink Enough Water
“Drinking water is important to promote healthy digestion,” says Patricia DeAngelis, a functional medicine nurse practitioner at the Center for Holistic Medicine. “Both the small and large intestines absorb water. Water is used to absorb nutrients and assists with motility.”
DeAngelis says people should aim to drink half of their body weight in ounces per day. So if you weigh 150 pounds, you need to drink 75 ounces of water a day, or the equivalent of nine cups of water a day. If you are sweating a lot or live in a warm climate, you need to drink even more.
- Reduce Your Stress
Have you ever had a big date or an important meeting and had to run to the bathroom with diarrhea because you were so nervous? That’s because our gut is highly sensitive to stress. “When we are stressed, the body is signaled to be in a state of alarm. Motility can slow down or speed up rapidly,” DeAngelis says. “Healthy digestion requires a state of rest or parasympathetic tone of the nervous system.”
To reduce your stress, DeAngelis suggests trying meditation or a type of gentle movement, such as stretching, yoga, pranayama, or tai chi, to support the nervous system and promote healthy digestion.
- Avoid Too Much Sugar or High-Salt Foods
Strangely enough, eating sugary and salty foods cause also a stress response in our gut. “Sugary and salty foods can trigger the sympathetic nervous system (also known as our fight/flight response), and can act as ‘stressors’ to our gut,” says Allison Musso, ND, a naturopathic coach at the Center for Holistic Medicine, adding that they can cause issues with mood, sleep, metabolism and more.
Musso says the more sugary and salty foods we eat and the faster we eat them, the more it will affect our digestion. “They are most stressful when consumed without the addition of protein or fiber to allow our body to process them slowly,” she says.
If you are going to eat sugar, Musso recommends avoiding processed foods and instead eating home cooked foods that are sweetened with fruit, honey, molasses or agave, which allows you to monitor how much you are adding to your food.
- Get More Exercise
One of the reasons that so many people suffer from digestive issues these days is that many of us are used to a sedentary lifestyle. To digest your food properly, it’s better to get up and walk around. “Light physical activity is a good habit for digestion health,” DeAngelis says, adding that light to moderate physical movement increases blood flow to the digestive tract and promotes forward movement in your digestive tract. “Most people’s digestion can benefit with as little as 15 to 20 minutes daily of brisk walk following a meal,” she says. However, DeAngelis doing an intense workout right after you eat can cause the body to redirect blood to your muscles and away from your digestive organs, resulting in digestive issues.
And remember, before you start a new exercise plan, get the okay from your healthcare provider.
- Take Supplements
If you’re looking for supplements to support your digestive health, try taking fish oil, magnesium or ground flax seed.
“One of my favorite supplements for digestive issues is fish oil due to its anti-inflammatory effects as well as the mucus promoting effects it can have in the digestive tract,” says Dr. Lazzell. “This helps improve immune system and intestinal barrier function, as well as provide lining support with essential fatty acids found in the omega 3.”
Dr. Lazzell also recommends taking magnesium, which helps relax the smooth muscles that line your intestines. “There are many different forms of magnesium, and some act more directly on the digestive system, like magnesium citrate, which can help loose compacted stools and promote bowel movements,” she says. Dr. Lazzell suggests taking magnesium at night before bed to support a healthy morning bowel movement.
If you’re suffering from constipation, DeAngelis recommends taking two tablespoons of ground flax seed, which she says can also assist with detoxification of hormones.
- Be Aware of How Foods Make You Feel
Musso says one of the best ways to improve digestion is to be more aware of how we feel after we eat certain foods so we can try to eliminate foods that are causing us problems. “Do you always feel tired or sluggish after you eat a certain food? Do you feel jittery or restless after another? These are sympathetic responses which can let you know how this food affects you,” Musso says. “These states can also become addictive to our nervous system, and we may feel more cravings to eat a food that actually fuels our body’s stress and dysfunction.”
If you identify a food that often causes you problems, Musso says try abstaining from it for a week or two to see how your body responds without it. “Giving ourselves space from a food and reintroducing can allow us to experience the ‘acute’ response as opposed to getting lost in a ‘chronic’ response, especially when we are not certain of which food it is. Give your dietary habits a challenge!”