6 Tips for Improving Digestion
Sam is a Registered Dietitian, Whole30 Certified Coach, and personal trainer. Her wellness philosophy centers on holistic health; the interplay between food, stress/mindset, sleep quality, and movement. She’s the owner of Mindful Bites, where she blogs on all things health & wellness and works 1:1 with clients looking to find sustainable change. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook!
In my practice, I see a lot of clients struggling with chronic health concerns, from autoimmune diseases and hormone imbalances to high cholesterol and digestive issues. Nine times out of ten, improving their gut health drastically improved their overall health.
How well we digest our food, how much our stomach bloats, whether we have loose or infrequent stools, and more are all indicators of how well our bodies are (or aren’t!) utilizing the food we eat on a daily basis.
The old adage ‘you are what you eat’ should instead be ‘you are what you digest and absorb.’ You can eat the healthiest foods in the world, but it’ll all be for naught if your body is not properly absorbing and utilizing what you’re eating.
Thankfully, there are some easy ways to improve your digestion that I like to keep in my toolbox for those times when a client doesn’t want to or isn’t able to invest in more extensive testing. Hooray for (mostly) free medicine!
1. Consider a reset or elimination diet, like Whole30
For those dealing with chronic digestive issues like bloating, constipation, diarrhea, frequent bowel movements, or even skin and other health issues seemingly unrelated to the gut, I highly recommend an elimination diet.
One of my favorites is the Whole30, where you remove commonly inflammatory foods for 30 days to see how your body feels without them. You then reintroduce foods one at a time to see what impact they have on your body, including digestion, mood, skin health, joint pain, and more. Finding out which foods work (and don’t work) for you can help you find a diet that helps you feel your best.
Another form of an elimination diet would be to follow a specific dietary framework, like paleo. In the paleo diet, you remove foods that may be inflammatory for some people, like gluten, grains, dairy, soy, beans, and alcohol. Some people eat paleo all the time while others embark on the paleo diet to resolve health concerns and may then reintroduce certain foods, much like you would during a Whole30, to see what works for them.
You may be shocked at how good you feel after removing certain Standard American Diet (SAD) mainstays, like gluten or dairy, from your diet. Just this step alone can completely reverse some peoples’ health and digestive woes.
2. More fruits and veggies isn’t necessarily a good thing
Fruits and vegetables often have a health halo around them, and for good reason. But more fruits and veggies isn’t always best, especially if you struggle with digestive issues.
Fruits & veggies can be hard to digest
Fruits and veggies are high in fiber, and some are high in fermentable carbohydrates (also known as FODMAPs). Given this, individuals already struggling with gastrointestinal issues may find that certain fruits and veggies are hard for them to digest.
They may end up with bloating, belching, diarrhea, and other symptoms. These individuals often find they feel better by cutting back on fruits and veggies until digestive symptoms improve. As these individuals start to notice improvements, they can slowly ramp up their fruit and veggie consumption.
Cook your veggies!
If you’re currently eating a lot of raw veggies, it’s usually a good idea to focus on eating only cooked vegetables until digestion improves. In most cases, raw vegetables are harder for your body to digest because of a fiber called cellulose.
As you work to heal your gut and optimize digestion, you may find that you do better with raw veggies. Cut them out for a few weeks to see if symptoms improve, then phase them back in slowly to see how your body responds.
3. How you eat your food matters
Ideally, we’d all eat and chew our food slowly, sitting down in a calm environment. But we’re always on-the-go these days, which translates into scarfing down our food in the car or while we’re working. We almost never take the time to eat deliberately, without distraction.
The benefits of taking time with your food are numerous though, and they extend beyond improved digestion. By taking the time to eat slowly and thoroughly chew your food, you’ll improve digestion by making the food easier for your body to digest.
On top of that, if you eat slowly and without distraction, you’re better able to recognize when you’re full. You’re also more likely to feel satisfied after your meal since you’ve actually been present for the experience. This is a great habit to adopt, even after your digestive symptoms improve.
4. Supplement with collagen, gelatin, and bone broth
Collagen, gelatin, and bone broth (which contains gelatin) can help facilitate gut healing by helping to repair the gut lining. This is exciting since an increasing number of people are suffering from gut permeability (aka leaky gut!) thanks to a standard American diet that includes excessive sugar and gluten intake along with exposure to pesticides and other toxins.
If you supplement with any of these while cleaning up your diet, you’ll get a 1-2 punch of gut healing goodness. My store-bought favorites are Vital Proteins or Further Food collagen and FOND or Bonafide Provisions bone broth. You can also make your own bone broth at home in a slow cooker or Instant Pot for a more cost-effective option.
5. Lean on food as medicine probiotics
While there’s certainly a time and place for supplementation, you can get some pretty great gut health benefits from probiotic-rich foods. Probiotics are living microorganisms that, when ingested, help to colonize your gut with health-promoting “good” bacteria.
Given the aforementioned pitfalls of the SAD, many people have an imbalance in their gut bacteria, with more “bad” or pathogenic bacteria instead of the “good” commensal bacteria.
You can find probiotics in various foods, such as kefir, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, fermented veggies, or some yogurts (some of my favorites include Culina and Coconut Cult!). I recommend consuming 2-3 probiotic-rich foods per day or feel free to supplement with a high-quality refrigerated or soil-based probiotic from your local health food store.
It’s also important to consume prebiotics, which are dietary fibers that help feed your friendly gut bacteria. Some great examples of prebiotic-rich foods include garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, flax seeds, jicama, apples, bananas, and seaweed.
Probiotics and prebiotics aren’t for everyone
It’s important to note that not everyone does great with pre and probiotics. If you find that you’re dealing with a lot of bloating or abdominal pain after consuming probiotic-rich foods, start by dialing back how much you’re having. It’s easy to have too much at once, especially if you’re not used to consuming these types of foods.
If you still notice symptoms, you may want to ask your doctor about both a stool and SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth) test, since those can help you figure out the underlying cause of your issues.
6. Consider taking a digestive enzyme or HCL
While it’s not something you’ll hear about often, there’s such a thing as too little stomach acid. And this is an issue even with people who suffer from acid reflux!
Low stomach acid can make digesting food a challenge since stomach acid helps to break down your food before it heads into the small intestine. Hydrochloric acid (or HCL) is the main digestive acid in the stomach. If your own body isn’t producing enough, supplementing with HCL can help your stomach do its job. Reach out to a doctor or dietitian if you want more information on dosing than I provide here.
Your body naturally makes digestive enzymes, which help break down fat, protein, and carbs into smaller molecules that are more easily absorbed. There are three main types of digestive enzymes, and they help break down the three macronutrients:
- Proteases help break down protein
- Lipases help break down fat
- Amylases help break down carbohydrates
There are other enzymes made in the small intestine as well. Though your body does create digestive enzymes, if it is unable to make enough your food can’t be digested properly. This can lead to digestive issues or an inability to digest certain foods.
If you suspect this might be a problem for you, you can supplement with digestive enzymes or eat foods naturally high in digestive enzymes, such as pineapple, papaya, mango, avocados, sauerkraut, kimchi, and ginger to see if your symptoms improve.
To start, pick one of these tips to try and aim for consistency for 1-2 weeks. If you notice an improvement, great! If not, try a few of the other suggestions. If you still don’t notice improvements after implementing any of these tips, it may be a good idea to ask your doctor about further testing.
I’d love to hear if any of these tips helped improve your digestion or digestive symptoms. Let me know in the comments!