In this article:
- The digestive system comprises of different organs that work in harmony to provide nutrients and energy to the body from the food you eat.
- The digestive process begins in the mouth, where mechanical chewing and the saliva start breaking down food.
- It is rather common to experience digestive problems, most of which resolve quickly.
- Changing certain eating habits may help alleviate some digestive problems such as bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea.
Not until you experience even a small problem involving the digestive tract are you made aware of the sophisticated and delicate nature of the digestive process.
The digestive tract works consistently at all times to break down the food you ingest (bread, vegetables, meat, etc.) into simpler forms. This breakdown process is vital for your survival as the body cannot use whole, intact foods for nourishment.
The complex mechanism of digestion helps derive nutrients from food, such as minerals, fats, calories, vitamins, proteins, and carbohydrates, which are absorbed in the intestinal walls.
These compounds are then dispensed to the body through the blood and are utilized for growth, energy, cellular repair, and other body functions.
Some common digestive ailments include:
These problems affect millions, (1) but they are short-lived and easily manageable with simple changes in lifestyle. Some cases may require medications, and a few may indicate other health problems.
If lifestyle and dietary changes do not help alleviate the symptoms, you may have a serious medical condition, which may include:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Crohn’s disease
- Gallbladder stones
Signs of a Digestive Problem
The development of the following symptoms may indicate that you have a digestive issue:
- Dry, hard stools
- Straining during bowel movements
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain in the stomach or upper abdomen
- Problem swallowing
- Weight gain or loss
Causes of Digestive Problems
Several factors can contribute to digestive issues, including:
- Alcohol intake
- Excessive stress
- High intake of caffeine
- Food consumption late at night
- Environmental toxins
- Swallowing food without properly chewing it
- Certain medications
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Low fiber diet
- Food sensitivity or allergy
- Lack of sleep
- Genetic factors
These factors affecting digestive health can vary greatly, and it is estimated that 60-70 million people experience a digestive problem at any given time. (1)
Despite the relatively high prevalence of digestive problems, some people may feel embarrassed and hesitant to discuss and address these problems.
Many individuals may also disregard mild digestive issues as insignificant sources of discomfort and wait for them to resolve on their own.
While most of the commonplace digestive problems are brief and easily manageable, they may be accompanied by other health issues or impaired absorption of some nutrients. Therefore, it is prudent to do what you can to prevent and treat even mild digestive problems.
Foods to Improve Your Digestion
One of the primary factors that may influence your digestion is the food you consume. It is important to increase your intake of fluids and foods that facilitate easy digestion.
Identify the foods that cause abdominal discomfort, belching, bloating, or any similar symptoms and avoid them. Beans, fatty or fried foods, and fizzy drinks may lead to flatulence.
Acidic items such as coffee, tea, grapefruit juice, and spicy foods can cause stomachaches and heartburn. (2)
Here are some foods to improve your digestion.
1. Whole Grains
Whole grains are rich in fiber, specifically insoluble fiber, which is beneficial for digestive health. Insoluble fiber acts like a scrub brush in the intestinal wall and helps in the movement of food through the intestine. These effects ensure regular bowel movements, therefore preventing constipation. (3)(4)
Fiber absorbs water, making the stool soft and also adding bulk to it, consequently preventing constipation. These actions help in reducing pressure inside the intestines, lowering the risk of diverticular disease (diverticulosis).
Whole grains contain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals and have a much higher fiber content than refined carbohydrates, such as pasta, white rice, and white bread.
Whole grains such as oats have high amounts of beneficial nutrients, including phosphorus, thiamine, copper, zinc, selenium, and vitamin E. (5)
However, if you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, you should contact your healthcare professional before adding oats to your diet. (5)
Barley, oatmeal, quinoa, whole wheat, bulgur, farro, millet, spelt, and teff are some whole grains you can incorporate in your diet. Nuts, seeds, vegetables, and beans are also sources of insoluble fiber.
Add in more whole grains gradually to your diet to allow your digestive tract to adjust. It is also recommended to increase your fluid intake as you increase your fiber intake.
2. Probiotics and Prebiotics
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria in the gut. Fermented foods, such as yogurt, kombucha, and kimchi, are natural sources of probiotics.
Prebiotics refer to the food (majorly fibers) for these bacteria and are present in certain vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
Probiotics can help improve intestinal functioning, alleviate lactose intolerance symptoms, and reduce the risk of other medical problems. Several strains of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus are considered beneficial probiotics. (6)
Studies suggest probiotics can help cure acute diarrheal disease, boost lactose metabolism, and prevent antibiotic-caused diarrhea. However, their use as routine clinical treatment requires further studies. (7)(8)
The type of probiotics and their dosage in supplemental form have not been determined yet. It is recommended to eat a varied diet that includes fermented foods and diverse fiber sources to get prebiotics and probiotics.
3. Fermented Foods
They include yogurt, kefir (yogurt-like drink), pickles, kimchi, miso, tempeh, and sauerkraut, which are fermented by natural processes.
Also, it is vital to consume a plant-based, high-fiber diet to support the growth of these microbes by providing prebiotics.
Multiple review papers elucidate the benefits of consuming fermented foods. However, clinical evidence on the role they play in gastrointestinal health and related problems is lacking. High-quality clinical trials are needed to establish the health benefits of such foods. (11)
4. Fruits and Veggies
Fruits and vegetables are beneficial for digestive health for many reasons. They contain vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory agents. They are also rich in both insoluble and soluble fibers. (12)
It is recommended to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables in all your meals. Try eating an assortment of fruits and vegetables to get a mix of different nutrients and fibers.
Fruits and vegetables also help make you feel full, which could help lower appetite later. (13)
Some fruits, such as green bananas, have been shown to help subside various gastrointestinal conditions, including constipation, diarrhea, and ulcers. (14)
Adding yogurt to fruits can provide synergistic benefits from the potential effects of probiotics and prebiotics on digestive health. (15)
Speak with your health care team regarding what fruits and vegetables are best for your state of health. Certain digestive conditions, like IBS, may warrant avoidance of certain fruits and vegetables.
5. Herbs and Spices
Since ancient times, asafetida has been used as a spice and traditional medicine. It has a strong odor, reminiscent of the taste of onion and garlic, and is widely used in Indian cuisine.
Asafetida may help stimulate bile flow and secretion needed for the digestion of dietary lipids. It also boosts the action of the digestive enzymes of the small intestines and pancreas.
Asafetida has been used to provide relief from flatulence, stomach pressure, loose stools, and low acid levels in the stomach. (16)
Although the medicinal importance of asafetida has been recognized, further detailed studies are needed before progressing to clinical trials. (17)
Traditionally, ginger has been used in the treatment of multiple gastrointestinal disorders. It contains antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that may help alleviate gas, nausea, bloating, digestive spasms, and indigestion. (18)
A study published in 2011 in the World Journal of Gastroenterology demonstrated that ginger facilitated gas emptying in people with dyspepsia (indigestion). However, it was not effective in subsiding the symptoms associated with the problem. (19)
Peppermint has a cooling effect, which is highly beneficial in soothing the digestive system. It aids in digestion and speeds up healing.
Peppermint is efficient as a first-line treatment for upset stomach, and it relieves indigestion and the discomfort associated with eating a heavy meal. It also helps in subsiding nausea and indigestion. (20)
Peppermint oil may also be a potent therapy for IBS. (20) While the safety and short-term efficacy of this treatment method have been determined, studies on its long-term use and effectiveness are yet to be conducted. (21)
You may consume peppermint in the form of tea with your breakfast. But note that peppermint tea may aggravate heartburn in individuals with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
You may also add one or two drops of peppermint oil to a glass of hot water and drink it up once or twice a day.
Additional Tips for Optimum Digestion
Proper digestion is, in some way, dependent on your diet. However, various other aspects also influence the smooth functioning of your digestive tract. Therefore, it is vital to balance all factors, and this may be achieved by:
- Stress management: Intense emotions can trigger digestive problems by stimulating chemical changes. Thus, it is important to manage stress with the help of exercise, meditation, massage, adequate sleep, and other relaxation techniques.
- Avoiding smoking and drinking: Smoking can increase the chances of having various health conditions, including those of the digestive system. Excess alcohol consumption may negatively influence your digestive and overall health.
- Exercising: Regular exercise stimulates the movement of food through the digestive tract. Therefore, setting up an exercise routine, even as simple as walks, can help maintain your digestive health.
- Increasing water intake: Ensure the consumption of adequate amounts of water to stay hydrated as it helps in bowel movement and prevents constipation. When coupled with a balanced diet, proper water intake can efficiently promote healthy digestion.
Consuming a varied, healthy, and well-balanced diet is key to maintaining good health and adequate nutrition. A single food item or food group will not help treat or prevent any health issues.
Adding the suggested foods in your diet may be a simple and effective way to improve your digestive health. However, if doing so does not help alleviate your problems, it is recommended to seek medical advice.
Identify and avoid foods that induce reflux, heartburn, or any symptoms associated with digestive problems. If you have a preexisting digestive condition, consult your healthcare team before adding different foods or supplements to your diet.
Fiber is one of the fundamental parts of your diet, and its daily consumption should meet the suggested requirement. The addition of optimum levels of fiber in your diet should be gradual. Since it absorbs water in the digestive tract, it is vital to increase your water intake as well when fiber intake is increased.
Lower hydration levels in comparison to your fiber intake can lead to constipation and nausea. All in all, it is essential to take proper care of your digestive system if you desire an adequate supply of nutrients to your body for growth and general health. Staying hydrated and consuming a healthy diet are things you can do and control to maintain digestive health.