Everyone experiences occasional digestive symptoms such as upset stomach, gas, heartburn, nausea, constipation or diarrhea. But when they start to happen frequently, it can really disrupt your life.
We don’t talk about digestive disorders and we rarely seek advice to help such a common problem. The most common problems associated with the digestive tract are diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and heartburn. These can be caused by many things, such as an unhealthy lifestyle, poor nutrition, a food sensitivity or even an infection. And just as there are many causes, there are many ways to help your digestive system work smoothly.
Digestive system health is impacted by the foods and beverages you consume, but also by the balance of bacteria in your gut, emotions, and more. And your digestive system is linked to your whole-body health. For instance, allergies or sensitivities to certain foods lead to not only digestive upset but also to other inflammatory conditions such as hives, swelling, and, in severe cases, even anaphylaxis.
Fortunately, diet and lifestyle changes can have a positive impact on your gut health.
Your digestive system breaks down the foods you eat into the nutrients your body needs. If you neglect your digestive health, your body could run into problems absorbing those essential nutrients.
The foods you eat and the lifestyle you live have a direct impact on your digestive health. Taking steps to improve your digestive health can help your digestive system function more efficiently and improve your overall health and sense of well-being.
Fortunately, changes to your diet and nutrition can make a big difference when it comes to managing digestive issues. Plus, many of the changes are natural swaps or new considerations – all coming down to the basis of eating real food.
An unhealthful diet or lifestyle can cause more regular digestive problems, and lifestyle changes can often help resolve symptoms. A doctor can offer support and advice.
An underlying medical issue, a medication, or a food intolerance can also cause regular digestive discomfort.
A healthy microbiome is a balanced microbiome. Too many bad or opportunistic microbes and you’re at an increased risk of inflammation and disease. Healthy gut bacteria, on the other hand, protect you from disease, keep inflammation low, and even promote your mental health.
Our simple tips will help you build a better gut. Luckily, they’re not too difficult to follow either, so you can easily incorporate them into your everyday life. By doing so, you should feel better and your gut flora should be restored.
Home remedies can help improve digestion in the short term. Lasting improvement may require more significant dietary or lifestyle changes.
These gut health foods and hacks are cheap and easy to implement. You don’t need supplements or exotic root extracts, you just need a shopping list with these gut healing foods that improve gut health and increase good bacteria in the gut naturally.
Best Ways to Improve Your Digestion Naturally
Eat Real Food
The typical Western diet — high in refined carbs, saturated fat and food additives — has been linked to an increased risk of developing digestive disorders.
Food additives, including glucose, salt and other chemicals, have been suggested to contribute to increased gut inflammation, leading to a condition called leaky gut.
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.
Studies also suggest that artificial sweeteners may increase your number of harmful gut bacteria.
Gut bacteria imbalances have been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Fortunately, scientific evidence suggests that diets high in nutrients protect against digestive diseases.
Therefore, eating a diet based on whole foods and limiting the intake of processed foods may be best for optimal digestion.
Eat a High-Fiber Diet
According to Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RDN, owner of Halsa Nutrition and adjunct professor of nutrition at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts, consuming a high-fiber diet that’s rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes can improve your digestive health. “A high-fiber diet helps to keep food moving through your digestive tract, making you less likely to get constipated,” Adams says, adding that a high-fiber diet can also help you prevent or treat various digestive conditions, such as diverticulosis, hemorrhoids, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In addition, it can help you achieve or maintain a healthy weight.
There are two types of fiber:
- Insoluble fiber: This type of fiber doesn’t dissolve in water and cannot be digested. It absorbs water and bulks the stool to help regulate bowel movements. Insoluble fiber is found in grains and some vegetables
- Soluble fiber: This type of fiber dissolves in water, forming a gel-like substance that moves through the intestines. Found in fruits, vegetables, and legumes, soluble fiber is associated with lowering cholesterol and controlling blood sugar.
A food is considered to have a high fiber content when it has more than five grams of fiber per serving.
Stress can affect the digestive system.
Many people experience an unsettled stomach before an exam or a big event, but sustained stress can affect the connection between the brain and the gut, causing ongoing problems.
There is a link between physical and mental health, and reducing stress can have a positive impact on both. The American Psychological Association recommend three key ways to manage stress:
- having a good support network
- getting regular exercise
- getting enough sleep
During a busy day it can be tempting to rush meals, but this can cause indigestion and stomach discomfort. Take time to relax, particularly before and after eating.
Reducing stress by seeking support and making some lifestyle changes may improve problems with digestion.
Incorporate Probiotics into Your Diet
Probiotics are living microorganisms that positively benefit you. They improve the health and functioning of your gastrointestinal tract (GI) and may help boost your immune system. Probiotics such as bacteria and yeast help balance the flora (microorganisms) found in your intestinal tract, killing off the bad bacteria and allowing the good bacteria to flourish. Probiotics are found in some yogurts and dairy products as well as in supplement form.
Fruit — Not Juice
If you think fruit juice is good for you, think again. Sure, fruit juice has vitamins and nutrients, but it’s also laden with sugars that are rapidly absorbed into your bloodstream where they cause your insulin to spike and encourage weight gain. Plus, simple sugars also feed bacteria that are associated with gut inflammation.
When you eat a piece of fruit, the fiber creates a buffer that slows down the absorption of sugars, improves your digestion, and nourishes healthy gut bacteria. Restoring your gut flora with whole foods, including fruit, will gradually address poor digestion and even reduce intestinal inflammation naturally.
Super Fruits to Improve Gut Health
These super fruits are prebiotic foods for good bacteria in the gut. Add them to your healthy gut diet to restore your intestinal lining, strengthen your gut wall, and combat inflammation.
Change Your Eating Habits
The way you eat has a large impact on how your digestive system works. By changing a few of your eating habits you may be able to improve your digestion dramatically. These are some of our favorite non-food digestion hacks:
- Eat in a relaxed environment and focus on eating. Just eating.
- Turn off the television and phone so you can fully focus on the food you are eating and the act of eating. Notice how your food looks, tastes, smells and feels in your mouth. This is called being mindful..
- Try not to eat when you are upset or in a bad mood. Your brain and your digestive tract are interconnected so these feelings can impact the effectiveness of your digestive system.
- Be sure to chew each mouthful of food thoroughly before swallowing it to lessen the impact on your digestive system. Chewing your food into smaller particles is an essential, but often overlooked, step in digestion. The more you chew your food, the better it will be broken down which will help with the digestive process. This is because breaking down your food mechanically is actually considered to be the first phase of digestion. The smaller the particles the easier the food travels down the esophagus. As you chew your food, saliva is released from glands in your mouth and which then begins the chemical digestion of the food before it even reaches your stomach. Additionally, the presence of saliva triggers the stomach to produce acid and its own digestive enzymes in preparation for the arrival of your meal.
- The act of chewing is often the most overlooked step in the digestive process but not one to be taken lightly.
Pay Attention to Your Energy Level After Eating
“If you need a post-dinner nap then you may be suffering from a sluggish digestive system. When your system is under strain your body needs to direct its energy to digesting and assimilating the food, leaving you feeling tired.
“If you are overeating your body will also struggle to fuel both you and your digestive system and you’ll feel sleepy. Try smaller meals with healthy snacks in between to give your system a break.
“Taking a short walk after your meal has been shown to improve digestion – plus the fresh air should help give you a burst of energy. You could also try taking a spoonful of apple cider vinegar in a glass of water before each meal, which is beneficial for some in helping digestive issues.”
Add Healthy Fats to Your Diet
Good digestion may require eating enough fat. Fat helps you feel satisfied after a meal and is often needed for proper nutrient absorption.
Additionally, studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids may decrease your risk of developing inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis.
Foods high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseeds, chia seeds, nuts (especially walnuts), as well as fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines.
Choose Lean Meats
Protein is an essential part of a healthful diet, but fatty cuts of meat can lead to digestive discomfort. When you eat meat, select lean cuts, such as pork loin and skinless poultry and limit portion size, filling more of your plate with fiber-rich whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Drink Mint Tea
Mint tea is a home remedy for nausea and indigestion. However, some people find that mint can contribute to heartburn or acid reflux.
To make a simple mint tea:
- Set aside 5–10 peppermint or spearmint leaves.
- Boil 1 cup of water and leave it to cool slightly.
- Pour the water over the leaves and steep for 3–5 minutes.
- Add a slice of lemon or a small amount of honey, if desired.
Researchers have found that peppermint oil may relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome — including stomach pain — in the short term. However, there has been too little research to determine whether mint has lasting digestive benefits.
Water isn’t on our list of superfoods, but it’s a great addition to your diet to help some of the super-fiber foods work better. Drinking half your body weight (in ounces) of water each day helps counter the fluids that fiber absorbs. If you weigh 120 pounds, for example, you should aim to drink 60 ounces of water a day.
- Drink enough water each day. The average person should aim to consume approximately 80 ounces of water (or other non-caffeinated fluids) each day.
- But…..you need to drink this water between meals rather than with meals to avoid diluting stomach acid which is vital for optimal digestion.
Diversify Your Carbs
Dishes with grains, brown or wild rice, and legumes are an easy way to increase fiber intake and improve gut health. Grains and legumes are an essential part of your healthy gut bacteria diet because your body can’t digest fiber, but gut microbes can!
Add whole grains or legumes to any meal and it will contain a lot more dietary fiber, which will help get your daily 30 grams. If you need some inspiration, check out Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Indian cookbooks for some delicious recipes that restore gut health, like hummus, dahl and bean stew.
Best whole grains and legumes for gut health
Whole grains can take a while to cook, so make them in big batches and freeze portions for future meals. As for legumes, you don’t need to soak lentils, but you should soak beans. If you’re pressed for time, use a pressure cooker to prepare these essential foods for a healthy gut.
Rejuvenate with a REAL Food Reboot
Excess toxins can be a cause of digestive problems for many people, causing either diarrhea, constipation or in the case of many with IBS – both! Eliminating the foods that create inflammation in your body while replacing them with whole, nourishing and nutrient-dense foods is one of the best ways to reset your digestive and help you troubleshoot what’s really going on in there.
- Ditch the artificial sweeteners. These have been shown to drastically alter gut bacteria which we already know is a very important part of healthy digestion and overall health.
- Eat fewer processed foods. These foods tend to be empty calories with little to no nutrient value and are often full of refined sugars, artificial flavors, colors and preservatives that cause harm to your kidneys and liver and are addictive.
- Eliminate gluten from your diet. Gluten is a common allergen and gut irritant (even for those without gluten allergies like celiac disease).
- Avoid processed soy. Soy interferes with the absorption of nutrients and causes a hormone imbalance in the body when consumed in large quantities (i.e. as soy protein isolates in processed foods and beverages).
Don’t Smoke. If You Do Smoke, Quit
Smoking seems to be bad for every part of the body, and our digestive system is no different. Smoking has an astringent effect on the body, narrowing blood vessels and increasing the likelihood of inflammation; in the gut, this sort of effect can be very harmful, leading to heartburn, ulcers, and other intestinal complications
Chew Your Food
Digestion starts in your mouth. Your teeth break down the food into smaller pieces so that the enzymes in your digestive tract are better able to break it down.
Poor chewing has been linked to decreased nutrient absorption.
When you chew your food thoroughly, your stomach has to do less work to turn the solid food into the liquid mixture that enters your small intestine.
Chewing produces saliva, and the longer you chew, the more saliva is made. Saliva helps start the digestive process in your mouth by breaking down some of the carbs and fats in your meal.
In your stomach, saliva acts as a fluid, which is mixed with the solid food so that it smoothly passes into your intestines.
Chewing your food thoroughly ensures that you have plenty of saliva for digestion. This may help prevent symptoms such as indigestion and heartburn.
What’s more, the act of chewing has even been shown to reduce stress, which may also improve digestion.
Manage Your Stress
Too much stress or anxiety can cause your digestive system to go into overdrive, according to Adams. Find stress-reducing activities that you enjoy and practice them on a regular basis.
Try Fermented Foods
Fermented foods have been partially or wholly broken down by microorganisms such as bacteria. These microorganisms work to preserve food, and they may also benefit gut health.
Bacteria occur naturally in the gut. Some help digest food, but others can cause problems with digestion if there are too many in the body. Fermented foods contain bacteria that may help support a healthy digestive system.
Some fermented foods include:
- probiotic yogurt
- sourdough bread
Incorporating these foods into the diet may help improve digestion. However, confirming the benefits will require more scientific research.
Get Some Exercise
You don’t have to join a gym or follow Joe Wicks and lockdown workouts, you just need to get moving. Cardiovascular exercise like brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, dancing, and playing socially-distanced badminton will do the trick.
Exercise is great for improving gut health because it literally gets your gut moving, which can solve constipation. Plus, working out may even help you get good gut bacteria. That’s right, sporty people have happier microbiomes than couch potatoes. Studies even show that microbes produce substances that soothe an inflamed gut!
Boost Your Stomach Acid
That’s right. Boost it. The truth is that high levels of hydrochloric acid, or ‘stomach acid’, are often not the cause of heartburn as we’ve been lead to believe. In fact, it’s often too little stomach acid that’s to blame. In order for food to be released from the stomach into the small intestine where most of the digestion and absorption of nutrients occurs, food needs to be in a liquid state. So if you don’t chew each mouthful thoroughly and you have low stomach acid that means your stomach needs to do more ‘mechanical’ digesting – or more churning and squeezing, to break the food down. This mechanical digestion takes more time which means food is left in the stomach longer where it can start to ferment, causing pressure to build (read: gas and bloating). What you now have is the perfect storm with regards to heartburn because the increased pressure exerts force on the esophageal sphincter (the muscle that closes the esophagus off from the stomach) making the acid you do have more likely to splash back up into the esophagus. Here are three simple ways to boost stomach acid naturally:
- Add freshly squeezed lemon juice to the water you drink between meals.
- Drink 1-2 teaspoons of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar in a small amount of water before each meal.
- Chew your food. Chew each mouthful until it is nearly impossible to discern what was in the bite you took. This may mean upwards of 15-20 chews per bite.
Eating late at night and then lying down to sleep can lead to heartburn and indigestion.
Your body needs time to digest, and gravity helps keep the food you eat moving in the right direction.
Additionally, when you lie down, the contents of your stomach may rise up and cause heartburn. Lying down after eating is strongly associated with an increase in reflux symptoms (42Trusted Source).
If you experience digestive issues at bedtime, try waiting three to four hours after eating before going to bed, to give the food time to move from your stomach to your small intestine.
Avoid These Foods
While people react differently to different foods, some foods and drinks commonly cause problems with digestion.
- processed foods
- fried foods
- acidic foods, such as vinegar and citrus fruits
- sweeteners, such as fructose
- Limiting the intake of these can help improve digestion.
Also, fast foods and ready-made meals are high in sugar, salt, and saturated fats. They can be harder for the body to digest and cause problems such as constipation and gas.
Read more Best Healthy Foods to Improve Digestion