When all is going well, digestion is one of those routine bodily processes you probably don’t pay much attention to. That is, until ills like bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation rear their ugly head. While some people just try to ride it out, frequent gastrointestinal distress isn’t ‘normal.’ Rather, it’s your body’s way of telling you that your digestion needs some TLC. Ignore the message and you may find your belly’s bad behavior ruling your life – and who wants to live under that cloud?
The good news is that getting your digestive system back on track is relatively easy. Take care of business and not only will it help make elimination a breeze but it will also support better sleep, mood and vitality, not to mention the health of your gut and immune system. That, in turn, will help reduce risk for any number of serious, life-altering diseases.
Here are 12 ways you can bring your digestion to a healthy, happy and optimally functioning state, so you can feel better tomorrow and beyond:
Your mouth is where digestion begins.
The first stop on the digestion train is your mouth. Saliva provides lubrication for chewing and swallowing, while also signaling to your digestive tract that food is on the way. Then, your teeth provide the chewing, tearing and gnashing, a.k.a. food ‘processing.’ The more completely you chew your food, the easier it is on your digestive tract, and the less gas, bloating and gastric distress you’re likely to experience. Got older folks in your life with digestive complaints? Try some of the suggestions that follow, with their doc’s OK, and also see if their dentist can help. Missing or damaged teeth can make it tough for older people to chew well and digest their food properly, which in advanced cases, can lead to malnourishment.
Try an elimination diet.
If your belly feels like a perpetual digestive battle ground, one way to help you get to the bottom of the trouble is to try an elimination diet. Not only are they helpful for detoxing – and breaking bad dietary habits – but an elimination diet will give your digestive system a vacation and make it easier to uncover any food sensitivities that may be causing the gut to act up. That means cutting sugar, processed foods, all grains (including soy and corn), and dairy from your diet for two weeks. Next, reintroduce possible offenders one at a time, with a generous helping of the food in question at lunch and dinner. This is a surefire way to see if a particular kind of food is irritating your system. If it is – and this may sound obvious, but a lot of people don’t do it – simply stop eating the problematic food! That’s the easiest way to eliminate gas, bloating, and other discomfort, at least until your gut health has improved. If you absolutely can’t let it go, use digestive enzymes for extra support.
Prime your digestive pump.
To get your digestive juices flowing and jumpstart the digestive process, kick off meals with drinkable bitters or bitter foods. That stimulates receptors in the mouth, stomach and gut, giving them the heads-up to boost digestive secretions and prepare for the work ahead.
For a drinkable digestive aid, try a few drops of herbal/botanical Angostura bitters – an ingredient often seen on craft cocktail menus – or Swedish bitters, mixed in water or club soda as a pre-meal pump primer. You can also take bitters straight up as a tincture. Another simple drinkable digestive aid: a tablespoon of organic apple cider vinegar mixed into a tall glass of water.
For an edible version, try starting meals with bitter foods, like arugula, dandelion greens, kale, radicchio or endive which also adds a few more vitamins and nutrients to your meals.
Take your time.
Inhaling a meal as if it were your last is a recipe for digestive difficulties, so make mealtimes a relaxing, mindful, unwinding time – a pleasurable cap to the workday. As you eat, put the fork down between bites. Savor your food and don’t rush. And remember to chew, chew, chew to fully process your food before swallowing. When you don’t have time for a proper meal, opt for a portable, easily-digested meal replacement shake or green smoothie. Just make sure to keep sugar extremely low – as in, tell the barista to skip the high-sugar add-ins like apple or orange juice (or any kind of fruit juice for that matter), or super-sweet fruits like banana, pineapple, mango chunks, etc. Go for greens or berry-based smoothies instead.
Amp up your pre- and probiotic intake.
As you age, digestive secretions decrease—in particular, gastric acid and pancreatic enzymes. This makes digestion more difficult and messes up the bacterial balance of the microbiome. And if you’re also eating sugar and processed foods, and not enough pre- and probiotics, you’re asking for a very messed-up microbiome. That adds to the digestive discomfort but worse, can result in leaky gut—microscopic holes in the gut wall that allow incompletely digested food particles and toxic specks to “leak” through. This can cause inflammation and pain throughout the body, as well as inflammation-related problems like insulin resistance.
What to do instead? Go heavy on prebiotics – the non-digestible foods that the bacteria in your gut feed on – and up your probiotics, the friendly bacteria you take on board in fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha and kimchi. Although it’s always best to get your probiotics from food, you can also supplement with either a probiotic capsule or powder, just be sure it contains a number of active bacterial strains known to promote health. As for the prebiotics, go with goodies like garlic; chicory root; onions; leeks and asparagus, to name a few. They encourage elimination, just like grandma used to say, but they also encourage the critically important growth of friendly bacteria in your gut.
Fill up with fiber.
Plenty of dietary fiber keeps appetite and weight in check by taking up space in the gut; promotes feelings of fullness between meals; and slows down the release of glucose into the bloodstream. When it comes to fiber, I am a big fan of “resistant starch”, like green bananas, raw potato starch, beans and legumes. These starches are resistant to human digestion, and feed the friendly bacteria in your large intestine. This increases the production of the crucial short-chain fatty acids like butyrate, which feed the cells of the large intestine, decreasing inflammation and promoting overall health. You can find resistant starch as a supplement that you can easily mix with water or a protein smoothie, one we like is PaleoFiber RS, by Designs for Health.
Sip on bone-broth.
A wonderful gut-soother that I often prescribe to help those with problem guts is bone broth. This easy-to-digest, tasty ‘souper food’ is rich in collagen which is packed with amino acids that support and heal overtaxed digestive systems. Try making bone broth your daily, drinkable, no-brainer health habit. Keep some in the fridge, ready to heat and drink as a healthy snack or mini-meal and keep a supply in the freezer for use as a nutrient-rich base for soups and stews. Trade your morning or afternoon coffee for a cup of bone broth, spiked with coconut oil or ghee, and in the evenings, switch out carb-loaded snacks for bone broth to keep blood sugar from spiking and to give your digestive system a well-deserved pre-bedtime rest. Pick up your broth from healthy sources like Brodo.com, myshopify.com or bonafideprovisions.com, or, to make your own, try this recipe by my good friend ,‘Broth Guru,’ and founder of NYC’s Brodo broth bar, Chef Marco Canora.
Add some antimicrobial herbal supplements to your digestive program.
Bringing your gut microbiome back into balance to support better digestion often means adding some anti-microbial supplements to the mix, to bring the bacterial bad guys to heel. Look for a formula that combines some of the following: berberine, grapefruit seed extract, oregano oil, olive leaf extract, wormwood, black walnut, bearberry extract, barberry extract. One we like is GI Microb-X, by Designs for Health.
Keep things moving.
You know how a stagnant pond left unchecked will grow all sorts of algae and choke the life out of the water? Digestion is a bit like that. If it’s not being pushed along with help from the liquids you drink and frequent physical activity throughout the day, things get stagnant (think, constipation), bad enough by itself but also a contributor to any number of digestive difficulties. But stay well-hydrated and keep your body moving and everything will keep moving, namely the rhythmic contraction and relaxation of the digestive pipe that pushes waste products through and out of the system. (Peristalsis is the technical term.) Got gas or bloat? Try adding a few yoga stretches or some foam rolling once or twice a day to help release it.
Give your gut the night off.
Though you might not think so, your gut enjoys a good rest as much as the rest of you does, so get into an early dinner and a late breakfast groove. Not only will a nice long, nightly break in the digestive action improve the health of your microbiome, but you’ll rest easier when your digestive system isn’t working overtime when you’re trying to sleep. To practice ‘time restricted eating’ leave a minimum of 12 hours between your last meal in the evening and your first the next day, and over time, work yourself up to 16 hours or more.
Get your gut tested.
If you have a functional medicine doctor, you can ask for an assessment called a Gut Zoomer Test, which provides a comprehensive analysis of your gut microbiome from a one-time stool collection, to give you and your healthcare provider a window into what’s happening in your gut and to help identify the root causes of your gastrointestinal difficulties. It checks for gut diversity, pathogens (like parasites and candida), inflammatory markers, short chain fatty acids and other metabolites that can be helpful in determining treatments. It also measures your level of zonulin, which is a protein molecule used to determine intestinal permeability, a.k.a. leaky gut, Another option to consider would be the GI-MAP (gastrointestinal microbial assay plus). Note: test availability varies by state.
Digestion ends in the bathroom.
So, what’s the final stop on the digestive train? Elimination. Trouble is, most of us do that while sitting on a toilet which, hygienic as that may be, kinks up the alignment of colon and rectum. That makes strain-less elimination much more difficult than it would be using the ancient squatting method, still the norm in some countries. To approximate the squatting position without squatting, you can use a one-step, step-stool, an overturned bucket, a small stack of books or go with the commercial equivalent, known as a Squatty Potty, placed in front of the toilet. Any of these will elevate your knees and get the tail end of your digestive tract into a more natural position which means less effort or strain.
Up your healthy habits and ditch the digestion devils.
Other ways to level the digestive playing field? Ditch the behaviors that interfere with digestion, slow it down or just aggravate gut issues. You may need to seriously rethink coffee and alcohol ues and, without a doubt, give the heave-ho to: smoking (of course); excessive reliance on prescription and over-the-counter drugs; a sedentary lifestyle and too much unrelieved everyday stress.