How to Improve Your Digestive System
Digestive problems can be uncomfortable to put it mildly. Whether you are experiencing gas, bloating, reflux, constipation or abdominal distention you are probably left wondering how to improve your digestive system. I have 4 fundamental recommendations that you can begin practicing today to help you reduce your GI frustrations.
- Slow down
- Parasympathetic preparation
- Hydrate between meals
These recommendations may seem basic at first but don’t let their simplicity deceive you. Understanding some of the physiology of digestion may help you realize how impactful these fundamentals really are. Continue reading to explore each recommendation in more detail.
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge potential barriers you may encounter with some of these best practices for digestion. Many of our eating behaviors as adults have been influenced by our early childhood experiences with food and our unique family dynamics. I recognize that some of the strategies I am about to share with you may take time and certain privileges to put into practice. You may not be able to incorporate all of these recommendations right now and that is OK.
No matter where you are starting today, focus on the recommendations within your control and you can experience improvement in your digestive health. With time you can continue to build on the fundamentals. Don’t despair, these best practices to improve your digestive health work separately as well as collectively.
1. Slow Down
It is not lost on me that this recommendation may be easier said than done. Many factors can influence the speed at which we eat: early childhood experiences and family dynamics, work demands, busy schedules, hustle culture, piling chores, skipping meals and biological hunger, etc. But if you want to try to improve your digestive system, making an effort to slow down your pace is a great place to start.
How much time you set aside for a meal is going to vary with your unique circumstances. When determining what is right for you, here are a few things to consider:
- Stomach acid, bile, and pancreatic enzymes take time to be fully secreted and are essential for proper digestion. We need these gastric juices for chemical digestion to effectively breakdown our food into smaller components ready for absorption. When we are stressed it can take even longer for secretion (we will talk about stress and parasympathetic preparation later).
- It takes about 20 minutes for your gut to communicate approaching fullness to your brain via a hormone known as cholecystokinin (CCK). Once the brain receives the signal it works to reduce your sense of hunger and promote satiety. If it takes you less than 20 minutes to finish your meal, you are likely missing this feedback mechanism leading to feeling uncomfortably full and bloated.
- Your stomach is your blender, so what happens when its overfull? An overfull stomach is like trying to mix a batch of stir fry in a coffee cup, it impairs the stomachs ability to mix the food and gastric juices properly. While the stomach is contracting and churning in tight quarters, its overfull contents can spill over leading to excessive belching and reflux.
Continuing with the same slow down theme, I’ll ask, are you a fast eater? If so, you are likely skipping a voluntary but VERY important first step in digestion – chewing. Surprisingly, the average person only chews about 6 times before swallowing, leaving the gut to do the heavy lifting.
Mechanical digestion “chewing” is essential to proper digestion and sets the stage for chemical digestion (via hydrochloric acid, pepsin digestive enzymes and bile) in the stomach and intestines. The GI tract has to work much harder when it is required to breakdown and digest large chunks of food as opposed to liquified bits. Thoroughly chewing your food, ideally until it is liquid, can reduce gas and post-meal fatigue.
Swallowing large chunks of food can also significantly slow down digestion. When digestion slows it allows the bacteria in our intestines to “feast” on the food for longer periods of time, creating a gas buildup. Often times this leads to abdominal distention, bloating and excess gas.
3. Parasympathetic Preparation
The parasympathetic nervous system is known as rest, digest and heal whereas the sympathetic nervous system is known as fight, flight, freeze. If you are wondering how to improve your digestive system, we need to talk about activating your parasympathetic nervous system. When we are feeling stressed and our sympathetic nervous system is on alert that can impact both digestion and motility in a myriad of ways such as (1):
- diverting blood flow away from the gastrointestinal tract
- decreasing digestive enzymes, bile and stomach acid
- impairing nutrient absorption
- increasing intestinal permeability
- decreasing serotonin production
Activating the parasympathetic nervous system supports digestion, priming the body for nutrient absorption. Here are a few parasympathetic activation strategies to try when entering meal time:
Sit down while eating. Make time in your schedule so that you aren’t eating while driving or taking bites between other tasks such as chores or work.
Breathe. Before you being eating, take a few slow, deep breathes. Breath work before your meal serves two purposes. First, these deliberate, calming breathes help to signal a parasympathetic response setting the stage for digestion. Second, and perhaps more obvious, breathing brings oxygen into the body, which is needed for proper digestion. Sometimes when we are stressed we tend to hold our breath or take shallow inhales which can decrease oxygen intake.
Cultivate a peaceful environment. Try to postpone tense conversations, paying bills, or anything that may increase your stress in the moment. Focus on being present and remind yourself that feeding is one way you can practice self-care. It is challenging to enjoy and experience the aroma, textures and flavors of our meal when we are feeling stressed or not fully present.
Use a mealtime mantra of Slow. Chew. Breathe. Connect. Signal to your brain and body that it is time to rest, digest and heal. Using a mindfulness technique such as a mantra, can help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and improve digestion by increasing salivary secretions and stimulating gastric juices, digestive enzymes, and bile (1).
4. Hydrate Between Meals
Majority of hydration should be consumed between meals. To improve your digestive system, avoid drinking large volumes of water during the meal as to not dilute stomach acid. Excessively diluting stomach acid can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort such as bloating, belching and early satiety.
Additionally, it is commonly assumed that acid reflux is the result of an overproduction of stomach acid. However, low stomach acidity actually slows gastric emptying which can contribute to and promote gastroesophogeal reflux disease (GERD) (2,3). With low stomach acidity it takes the stomach longer to empty its contents and ready nutrients for absorption.
Improving your digestive system doesn’t have to include expensive supplements or eliminating food groups as a first line of defense. Chronic stress can play a leading role in many common GI frustrations. Implementing some of these seemingly basic yet effective best practices can greatly improve your digestive health.
Remember slow down, thoroughly chew your food, practice mindful eating techniques, and hydrate between meals. You don’t need to do all of these perfectly or even at the same time. Start where you can today and over time you will learn how to improve your digestive system and what works best for you.
- Cherpak CE. Mindful Eating: A Review Of How The Stress-Digestion-Mindfulness Triad May Modulate And Improve Gastrointestinal And Digestive Function. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2019 Aug;18(4):48-53. PMID: 32549835; PMCID: PMC7219460.
- Sanaka, M., Yamamoto, T. & Kuyama, Y. Effects of Proton Pump Inhibitors on Gastric Emptying: A Systematic Review. Dig Dis Sci 55, 2431–2440 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10620-009-1076-x
- Jagdish BR, Kilgore WR 3rd. The Relationship Between Functional Dyspepsia, PPI Therapy, and the Gastric Microbiome. Kans J Med. 2021 May 21;14:136-140. doi: 10.17161/kjm.vol1414831. PMID: 34084274; PMCID: PMC8158412.