Everyone experiences occasional digestive symptoms such as upset stomach, gas, heartburn, nausea, constipation, or diarrhea. We all have our own unique microbiome — the world of living organisms inside the gastrointestinal tract. We depend on these friendly flora to help us break down food, absorb and transport vitamins and minerals, balance our immune function, and lower our chances of food or other allergies.
Numerous factors can threaten the health and balance of your microbiome and overall digestive system. And in today’s world, these threats are on the rise, contributing to an epidemic increase of chronic GI health issues that can end up wreaking havoc on nearly every other system in the body. A healthy digestive system is at the core of long-term wellness, and works hard to keep your immunity, neurological health and other systems running smoothly. When digestion is out of balance—you can feel it.
The good news is, supporting digestion with targeted, researched solutions, can be an effective way to improve not only GI function, but overall health and wellness. Here are some of the most effective strategies that can make a difference to improve digestive and long-term health.
1. Eat A Healthy Diet for Digestive Health
A well-balanced, nutritious diet loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables, and high in nutrient-dense whole foods can go a long way to support digestive health. We are faced with many choices and challenges when it comes to what to eat. There are numerous types of diets in addition to the “western diet” that is the norm for so many. The heavy meat, high starch meals that our grandparents were raised on have been shown to cause inflammation and degeneration throughout our bodies—starting with the GI tract. Popular alternative diets like vegetarian, vegan, paleo, ketogenic, raw food and Mediterranean are a few that aim to support good nutrition, while easing the strain on the digestive system.
2. Limit Processed Food for Digestive Health
Digestion and overall health are challenged by high sugar intake; trans fats from fried foods, highly processed foods, artificial ingredients and others that are high in chemicals and empty calories. Prepackaged, frozen, and canned food often contain ingredients such as saturated oil, sugar, salt, preservatives, or artificial flavors that can wreak havoc throughout the body. A diet high in processed food is linked to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and a whole host of other ailments including chronic digestive issues.
3. Include Fiber for Digestive Health
Insoluble dietary fiber acts like a giant toothbrush, helping the digestive tract keep everything moving along. Vegetables, whole grains, and wheat bran are good sources of insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber absorbs water and helps add bulk to stool. Soluble fiber is found in oat bran, legumes, nuts, and seeds. A high-fiber diet has been linked to a lower risk of digestive conditions, including ulcers, reflux, hemorrhoids, diverticulitis, and IBS (1, 2).
4. Know the Good Oils for Digestive Health
Nutrition and cooking experts agree that one of the most versatile and healthy oils to cook with and eat is olive oil, as long as it is extra virgin. You will want an oil that isn’t refined and overly processed.. An “extra virgin” label means that the olive oil is not refined and therefore of high quality. Vegetable oils like soy, corn, cottonseed, and canola are refined and processed, which means they not only lack flavor but also nutrients.
Avocado oil is a great choice. It’s unrefined like extra virgin olive oil, but it has a higher smoking point, which means it can be used to cook at higher heat and is great for stir-frys.
Coconut oil has mixed reviews. Toasted sesame oil is a great choice for a flavorful oil.
Fish oil has a significant role in digestive health by balancing the microbiome, reducing inflammation and lubricating the colon, which helps with elimination. (3)
5. Drink Plenty of Filtered Water for Digestive Health
Most doctors and nutritionists agree that staying hydrated is one of the most important habits to keep the body healthy. Plenty of liquids, mostly pure water, keeps the digestive system moving and functioning at its optimum.
Finding clean water has become more difficult in some parts, as pollution on the planet continues to grow. Bottled water may have risks depending on the source, the processing, and the chemicals in the bottle. Potentially harmful chemicals have been found in bottled water in addition to tiny pieces of plastic. Harmful substances can leach into the water if plastic bottles are exposed to heat or left to sit for long periods. Water filtration systems such as carbon filters or reverse osmosis help remove harmful contaminants. (4)
6. Reduce Acidic Foods for Digestive Health
There is much literature today about our bodies being too acidic. Too much acid can cause a lack of oxygen (a crucial nutrient for health), destroy the immune system, and create an environment where pathogens may be able to more easily grow and prosper. Acidic foods and chemicals (sugar, coffee, tap water, meat, dairy products, alcohol, processed foods, toxic chemicals, medications, etc.) can create a highly acidic environment in the body and disrupt the balance of normal pH in the stomach and intestines.
7. Decrease Stress for Digestive Health
Reducing stress with healthy stress management strategies, can significantly enhance our health—including digestion which is often acutely affected by stress. Mindful meditation is one way to promote healthy stress responses and support balance in the gut-brain pathways.
In addition, how we eat, the environment in which we eat, and of course what we eat are all important factors that determine the stress our digestive system takes on.
Making the effort to create calming and balancing eating rituals, can go a long way toward reducing the impacts of stress on digestion. Eat at regular intervals, and try to keep a quiet atmosphere where there are few distractions. Turn off electronics including the TV and cell phones, eat slowly, chew food well, and keep liquids to a minimum to allow digestive enzymes to do their job. Taking the time to relax and digest is important for all areas of health, but especially GI health.
8. Limit Bad Eating Habits for Digestive Health
Poor meal planning, bad food combinations, too many meals out, mindless eating, not eating together, eating on the run, giant portions, and overeating are all habits that can have a negative effect on digestive health.
9. Supportive Supplements for Digestive Health
Pre and probiotics, certain botanicals like ginger and cinnamon, and digestive enzymes can also help support digestive health.
10. Consider Natural Remedies for Digestive Health
Bone broth, peppermint oil, cultured foods like miso soup, yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut. Turmeric, ginger, cayenne, apple cider vinegar, and chamomile tea can also be beneficial. (5,6)
(1) McRorie JW Jr, McKeown NM. Understanding the physics of functional fibers in the gastrointestinal tract: An evidence-based approach to resolving enduring misconceptions about insoluble and soluble fiber. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2017;117(2):251-264. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27863994/
(2) Anderson JW, Baird P, Davis RH Jr, et al. Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutr Rev. 2009;67(4):188-205. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19335713/
(3) Lisa Howard, The Big Book of Healthy Cooking Oils, Page Street Publishing; 1st Edition (September 15, 2015)
(4) Peppard CZ. 4 reasons to never drink bottled water again. Mindbodygreen.com. Published February 12, 2020. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-11193/7-reasons-to-never-drink-bottled-water-again.html
(5) Peppermint Oil – For IBS and More. Iherb.com. https://www.iherb.com/blog/peppermint-oil-for-ibs-and-more/224(6) Johnson J. The top 6 bone broth benefits. Medicalnewstoday.com. Published January 12, 2020. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323903