Most of us are having digestive problems. They could be easier to solve than you think.
Dr. Erica Volk, ND
If you regularly suffer from digestive symptoms—think gas, bloating, post-lunch tummy aches or frequent trips to the bathroom—you’re definitely not alone. According to one survey, 72 percent of Americans are dealing with these symptoms multiple times a month. Beyond discomfort and embarrassment (cue the “that awkward moment when … ” memes), chronic digestive complaints can also contribute to nutrient malabsorption, skin complaints and fatigue. The good news is that there are simple things you can do every day to find digestive freedom—and they’re mostly free!
You might have heard the phrase “rest and digest.” It turns out that eating on the go has a negative effect on digestion! Proper digestion involves our parasympathetic nervous system, which is fired up when we’re relaxed. To promote a relaxed state at mealtime, find a calm location where you can be still and focus on gratitude. Expressing gratitude before a meal actually helps support healthy digestion by activating our parasympathetic nervous system.
If you have digestive complaints that aren’t easily managed with the steps listed here, or if your symptoms have persisted for weeks, see a health professional and have a proper evaluation.
Potential underlying causes of chronic digestive symptoms like diarrhea, constipation and acid reflux include sluggish thyroid, food sensitivities, autoimmune disease or an overgrowth of yeast, parasites or bacteria. Proper diagnosis and treatment may resolve the issue for good.
Chewing your food thoroughly helps your saliva begin the process of digesting starch and eases the burden on your stomach. Another benefit of chewing well is that it’ll help you identify when you’re full, so you’ll be less likely to overeat. In general, chew soft foods like fruit five to 10 times, and chew tougher foods like veggies up to 30 (yes, 30) times before you swallow.
Sugar, refined grains and alcohol are all mainstays in the Western diet, but they can promote inflammation and wreak havoc on digestion. While you might not experience an obvious reaction to these foods, many people see improvements in their digestion and overall health if they reduce or eliminate those three things from their diet. Often, even a temporary break can reduce inflammation and promote healing of digestive tissues, which reduces digestive symptoms and seemingly unrelated symptoms like pain and fatigue.
People on plant-based diets may benefit from digestive enzyme supplements containing alpha-galactosidase, which helps break down a gas-inducing substance in beans and cruciferous veggies.
Staying hydrated helps with digestion and removal of waste, improves physical performance, maintains healthy blood pressure and keeps your skin healthy. Get your Sharpie out and mark your water bottle with times of the day (at regular intervals), starting at the top and working your way to the bottom, to keep track of how much you’re slurping. Try drinking lukewarm water with lemon for a warm infusion of H2O anytime.
When it comes to mealtimes, put the water away and let your stomach acid do its job. Drinking fluids with meals can dilute stomach acid, increasing its pH and decreasing its ability to break down your food. Chronically low stomach acid is thought to lead to malabsorption of nutrients, including calcium and iron. Wait about 30 minutes after a meal before drinking anything.
Remember to always check with your doctor or other health care practitioner before trying a new supplement to ensure it’s right for you.
Peppermint in tea or encapsulated oil form may help resolve symptoms like gas, bloating and diarrhea. However, be mindful that it can worsen acid reflux in some.
Psyllium is a great source of soluble fiber that can be used to normalize irregular stools due to constipation, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome.
Digestive enzymes may be taken before a meal to aid in the breakdown and absorption of your food, which can prevent gas and bloating.
Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) in chewable tablets or lozenges can be soothing and supportive to the tissues of the stomach. It’s commonly used to soothe indigestion and acid reflux.
Artichoke leaf may lessen damage to gastric tissues through its antioxidant action. In one study of patients with indigestion, 38 percent reported significant reduction of symptoms after 60 days of treatment using a blend of dry extracts of artichoke leaf, dandelion, turmeric and rosemary.
Probiotics can do wonders for digestive symptoms. They exert powerful anti-inflammatory and immune-enhancing effects, and studies show improvement in digestive symptoms and abdominal pain.
Demulcents are healing herbs like slippery elm and licorice, which have been used traditionally to soothe an inflamed digestive tract.
We’re talking fermented foods here. Sauerkraut contains a host of natural probiotics—friendly bacteria found in your gut that continue to be an exciting subject of research. The reason? They’re being connected to everything from our digestive health to our cognition and may hold the secret to many other systems that affect our overall health. Don’t just stick to sauerkraut. Try something new—water kefir, coconut kefir, kimchi and kombucha are just some of the other fermented foods worth diving into.
Fiber is the best thing since sliced bread. Well, actually, it’s the best thing in sliced bread—as long as you stick to the healthy, whole grain variety. And most Americans only get about half the dietary fiber they should (14 g versus the recommended 25 g per day for women or 38 g per day for men). Eating plenty of fiber (also abundant in foods like lentils, black beans, broccoli and raspberries) is important to our health. It can help reduce our risk of heart disease, diabetes, weight gain and some cancers—and yes, it also improves digestive health.