If you go to the trouble of eating healthy foods each day, you’re going to want to make sure that your body is actually able to break down and use the nutrients in those foods. For that to happen, you need to have good digestion.
You can improve your digestion by taking the time to thoroughly chew your food, eating minimally processed whole foods, including fermented foods to support your gut health, incorporating regular exercise, getting sufficient sleep and water, and practicing stress management techniques.
Knowing the habits to include is one thing, but learning about what may be sabotaging your efforts is also crucial.
In this article, I’ll give you 5 simple yet effective science-backed strategies to improve your digestion and explain what to avoid.
- Your digestive health is linked to your overall health and can impact your weight, your energy levels, your mood, and your likelihood of developing other medical conditions.
- You will know if you have healthy digestion when you have regular, easy-to-pass bowel movements, free of pain, bloating, and gas.
- You can maintain healthy habits for digestive health long-term by making it a game, getting help from friends and family, or hiring a coach or other professional, if needed.
Signs Of Healthy Digestion
The best indicator for healthy digestion is actually your poop. For a long time, this has been a touchy subject that is considered taboo but one that should be talked about more often.
Many people don’t even know what is normal and healthy and have been living with poor-quality digestion without realizing it.
More attention has been brought to digestive health now that gut health is becoming a widely discussed topic. The two are related because the gut is where many digestive processes are carried out.
When you have healthy digestion and a healthy gut:
- You will have regular bowel movements, 1 to 2 times per day
“The ideal frequency of bowel movements is 1 or 2 times per day. The goal is to have bowels completely emptied.”Dr. Elyanne Ratcliffe, Pediatric Gastroenterologist
- Your stools will be well-formed and easy to pass: science has shown that there is a direct link between stool consistency and the health of the gut microbiome (the collection of organisms that live and work with our bodies in our guts).
- You will be free of pain, bloating, and gas: these are all signs of digestive distress, so when your digestion is healthy, you will not experience these symptoms.
- You will feel energized: when you are digesting your food well, you can extract and transfer the energy from the food you eat to your body.
- You will have a stable appetite: hormones released from the gut during digestion normally work to regulate appetite, which will keep you from having intense cravings.
- You will easily maintain a healthy weight: when you have healthy digestion and a healthy gut, your body can communicate with your brain more clearly to let your brain know when you have had enough to eat.
Recent studies have shown that this gut-brain signal does not work as well in people who are obese as people who maintain a healthy weight.
- You will be more likely to have clear eyes and skin: this study showed a link between poor gut health and the development of eye conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and retinitis pigmentosa.
Similarly, this study showed a link between poor gut health and skin conditions such as psoriasis, acne, and rosacea.
If you’ve noticed that you struggle in one or more of these areas, then you likely have poor gut health and poor digestion.
What Causes Poor Digestion?
Poor digestion can be influenced not only by what you eat, but also by how you eat, and other lifestyle factors.
Common culprits for poor digestion include:
- Getting too little fiber (most common) or too much fiber
- Eating foods that you are sensitive to (dairy and gluten are common culprits)
- Eating high-fat and/or fried foods
- Consuming artificial sweeteners
- Consuming too much caffeine and/or alcohol
- Not drinking enough water
- Not chewing thoroughly
- Being sedentary
- Experiencing high levels of stress
- Taking certain medications
Luckily, there are things you can do to improve your digestion to set you on a better path.
5 Things To Do Every Day To Improve Your Digestion
1. Focus On Minimally Processed Whole Foods
Minimally processed whole foods contain more micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) than their ultra-processed counterparts, and they contain more water and fiber, as well.
For example, eating a baked potato has more nutrients and fiber than eating a potato chip.
Whole foods give your body what it needs for overall health, including digestive health. Fiber adds bulk to stool without adding calories, which helps the stool pass smoothly through your digestive system. As a bonus, the extra volume helps you feel full, which can prevent overeating.
Aim for the majority (~80%) of your intake each day to come from minimally processed whole foods.
- Related Article: How To Start Eating Healthy: 5 Simple Tips For Beginners
2. Eat Fermented Foods
Fermented foods are a natural source of probiotics, which are live microorganisms, including bacteria and yeast, present in certain foods that can also live inside our bodies.
Ingesting these microorganisms contributes to the gut microbiome and improves your gut and digestive health. These healthy bacteria help to break down food in your gut, making digestion easier.
Fermented food sources of probiotics include:
Aim to include at least one fermented food in each of your main meals.
3. Chew Thoroughly
“Chew your food” isn’t just casual advice – a meta-analysis (collection of studies) has scientifically shown that “enhanced oral processing” (aka chewing) increases satiety, decreases hunger, regulates appetite, and increases gut hormone release for improved digestion.
If an enhanced ability to reach and maintain a healthy body weight isn’t enough to get someone to chew their food properly, I don’t know what is.
Aim to set down your utensils between each (moderately-sized) bite and chew your food at least 10-20 times before swallowing.
It turns out that no aspect of your health isn’t positively impacted by exercise, digestion included.
Exercise positively impacts digestion in the following ways:
- Exercise enriches the diversity of the species in the gut and increases the number of beneficial species, which has been shown to lead to more positive health effects (i.e. increased immunity).
- Exercise improves gut “motility,” meaning that it encourages timely and regular movement of waste products through the colon, helping you poop more often and more easily.
Aim for 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day.
5. Manage Stress
High levels of stress are associated with poor digestion and can even lead to gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
If you’ve ever experienced the sensation of “butterflies in your stomach” when nervous or stressed, you can see how this makes it harder to digest your food properly.
A great way to reduce stress and improve digestion is to practice mindful eating. This means having a dedicated place to eat, enjoying it slowly, and paying attention to each bite.
Aim to remove distractions, eat slowly and mindfully, remain present for at least one meal per day, and build from there to eventually apply to all meals.
Things To Avoid To Improve Your Digestion
You can improve your digestion by incorporating new habits, but it’s also important to limit things that negatively impact your digestion.
Processed foods are more likely to contain refined sugars and saturated fats, and are less likely to contain fiber to support your digestion.
These first ingredients are linked to poor digestion, and you’re also missing out on fiber that both feeds helpful gut bacteria and adds bulk to the stool to help it pass smoothly through your digestive system.
Not Chewing Thoroughly & Eating On The Go
If you gulp down food with minimal chewing, perhaps because you’re rushing around and trying to eat (or drink) while you are driving or walking, you create a lot more work for your gut to break down the food and extract the nutrients it contains.
This can cause large particles of food to get into your intestines, where they can irritate the intestinal lining and cause issues. These large particles keep nutrients “locked up” and unavailable to your body.
You are also less likely to make healthy food choices when you’re on the go and in a rush. These factors combine to create a “double whammy” negative impact on your digestion.
Antibiotics & Other Medications
While antibiotics and other medications can be very helpful and are at times required parts of modern medicine, they can negatively impact your digestive health by wiping out your good bacteria along with the bad.
Do your best to only use antibiotics when there are no other alternatives. Many infections will naturally clear up on their own if you get appropriate rest combined with a balanced, nutritious diet.
Some painkillers can also negatively impact digestion, so consider whether other pain management techniques like meditation, massage, or acupuncture are appropriate.
At all times, your doctor’s (or other healthcare professional’s) advice is the most important. Be sure to ask them questions if you have concerns about negative impacts on your digestive health.
Incorporating Habits For Long-Term Digestive Health
Once you start feeling better, it can be easy to slip back into old habits, thinking they won’t have a negative impact but your digestive health is something you must continue to nurture.
When you start to struggle with consistency, it’s important to remember what habits caused your poor digestion in the first place.
Ways to keep up your new healthy habits include:
Making It A Game
“Gamifying” (turning things into a game) is a common way for humans of all ages to get more engaged in learning new skills and carrying out behaviors they might otherwise not enjoy.
Just think about parents turning clean-up time into a “tidy game” or getting exercise from participating in sports: you might hate running but love chasing a ball around a soccer field.
You can take advantage of this tendency by turning your new habits into a game. Find a “habit” app where you can earn streaks, badges, or stars for checking off your habits daily.
Plus, these apps will also give you a notification to remind you, such as an alarm to drink water or a prompt asking “Did you eat your vegetables today?”.
Enlisting A Buddy
Just as you can get ahead in games when you recruit allies, you need allies in real life who can help keep you on track.
This might mean that you get your (alcohol) drinking buddies to become water or kombucha drinking buddies instead, or you decide that you’re going to meet your friends for a walk in the park instead of for a rich meal at a restaurant.
It can feel intimidating to make new connections when you’re trying out new behaviors, so reach out to community groups that specifically support your new activities and lifestyle, like a healthy cooking class at the local community college or grocery store, or a recreational sports league.
Working With A Professional
Investing time and money with a trusted professional such as a Registered Dietician or Nutrition Coach signals your commitment to your new healthy habits, and can provide the support and accountability you need to stay on track.
As a bonus, these people are also trained to provide helpful suggestions, and can sometimes see the “whole picture” of your health from an outside perspective, allowing them to connect the dots in a way that you can’t.
How Long Does It Take To Improve Digestion?
Digestion can start to improve in as little as a few days. When there is a change in dietary intake, the gut microbiome shifts rapidly to help with digesting the foods.
It also depends on how poor your digestive health is in the first place. Most people will see marked improvements in as little as 3-4 weeks, but for people battling chronic conditions, it can take 3-6 months to see benefits from changing intake and addressing lifestyle factors, as described above.
In general, aim to devote 2-12 weeks to improving your digestion, and then maintaining it.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are The Symptoms Of A Bad Digestive System?
Symptoms of a bad digestive system include abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, anal leakage, and straining and/or blood when passing stools. A bad digestive system can also cause discoloration of the eyes and/or skin, low energy and mood and poor sleep, as well as unexplained weight gain or loss.
What Foods Are Bad For Gut Health?
Refined sugar, alcohol, artificial sweeteners, fried foods, and processed meats are bad for gut health. Also, in sensitive individuals, high “FODMAP” foods may cause gastrointestinal problems, which include otherwise healthy foods like garlic, onion, some fruits & vegetables, legumes and grains.
What Kills Good Gut Bacteria?
Antibiotics are one of the leading killers of gut bacteria (both harmful and helpful) since they work indiscriminately to wipe out bacteria when treating an infection. Also, failing to consume enough prebiotics like fiber and fermented food can starve gut bacteria of their preferred fuel sources, causing them to die.
What Helps Digestion After A Big Meal?
One of the best things to help digestion after a big meal is gentle movement, such as walking or yoga. There is a Chinese proverb: “After dinner, walk 100 steps and you will live 99 years.” Also, slowly sipping herbal tea can assist with digestion. Peppermint and ginger teas are both linked with better digestion.
About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.