Digestive problems, like nausea, gas, stomach aches/cramps and bloating, are complaints numerous people struggle with and are common symptoms for many chronic illnesses. You could be eating the healthiest foods but if our body doesn’t digest, break down and absorb nutrients from them then we won’t receive the benefits. Many factors impact our digestion, including the drinks we consume, the timing of fluid intake, types of foods eaten with meals, our posture when eating, the environment we eat in and how much we chew our food. Below is a simple overview of the digestive process and how to improve digestion, with 10 tips that I implement which have helped relieve digestive complaints.
Disclaimer: This post is intended for informational purposes only. This is not intended to constitute or be a substitute for medical advice. Please consult a qualified practitioner if you have any questions regarding medical problems. This post may contain affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you I will earn commission if you click on a link and make a purchase. See my full disclaimer here.
We aren’t what we eat but what we digest and absorb
Diet is one essential part of a healthy lifestyle. The common phrase is “We are what we eat”. As a result, there’s so much talk and research about the specific diet which is best for our health – vegan, keto, paleo, autoimmune protocol, low carb etc. However, we are all unique and the specific diet and foods which are best will be different for each person.
Regardless of the specific diet being followed, there is one important principle which is applicable to everyone that is spoken about less. That is to receive the health benefits of the food we eat our bodies need to be able to digest and absorb nutrients from our food to transport it to every cell of the body.
You could be eating a diet full of fresh organic, in season unprocessed whole foods but if our body isn’t digesting and absorbing the nutrients from these foods then we won’t receive the benefits of them and can experience digestive problems (1). Therefore, a more accurate phrase is “We are not what we eat but what we digest and absorb”.
Brief Overview of digestive process
step 1 – before taking first bite
Digestion of food begins before we’ve even taken a mouthful. The look and smell of food causes the brain to send messages to increase saliva production in the mouth and increase digestive enzyme production in the stomach, which are needed to digest and break down food (2).
step 2 – beginning eating in the mouth
When we begin eating, each mouthful of food gets coated in our saliva which contains digestive enzymes. This helps begin the process of digesting food and absorbing nutrients. Chewing food also breaks it down into smaller pieces before being swallowed and traveling down to the stomach (2).
step 3 – role of the diaphragm
The diaphragm, the muscle which allows us to breathe deeply, helps move food along the digestive tract to the stomach, while also preventing stomach acids from rising back up to the throat (2).
step 4 – stomach
In the stomach digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid break the food down more until it’s the right liquid consistency that can be passed into the small intestine (2).
step 5 – small intestine
In the small intestine nutrients are absorbed, passed into the bloodstream and transported throughout the body (2).
what factors impact our digestion
Digestive problems affect numerous people and are a common symptom for many chronic illnesses. Digestive complaints include:-
- Stomach aches/cramps,
- Acid reflux,
- Heartburn and,
These symptoms used to be some of the most debilitating ones for me. However, over time I’ve learnt that the following factors can all impact how well our bodies break down and digest food and absorb nutrients (3):-
- The drinks we consume,
- The timing of fluid intake,
- Types of foods eaten with meals,
- Our posture when eating,
- The environment we eat in,
- How much we chew our food.
10 tips for better digestion
Below are 10 tips I implement which have really helped improve my digestion and relieve these digestive problems.
Tip 1). Drink a glass of warm lemon water 30 minutes before meals.
This stimulates stomach acid production, which improves digestion and the absorption of nutrients. Robyn Youkilis in her book Go With Your Gut (UK Link/US Link) recommends after finishing this to not drink anything else, other than small sips if you need to, until one hour after a meal. Consuming fluids too close to or during meals impairs and slows digestion by diluting digestive enzymes in the stomach, making them less effective at breaking down food and absorbing nutrients, which can cause fermentation, gas and bloating.
Tip 2). Consume bitter greens with meals
Bitter greens include arugula/rocket, watercress, kale, dandelion greens, spinach and raddichio. Adding these to meals, like in this Sprouted Buckwheat Salad or Jackfruit Tuna Salad increases digestive enzyme production, which improves digestion and maximises the amount of nutrients we absorb (4, 5).
Tip 3). Soak and sprout beans, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds.
Beans, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds all contain antinutrients, which:-
- Damage the gut,
- Bind to nutrients in our food,
- Prevent our bodies from absorbing the nutrients, which over time can lead to deficiencies (6).
Soaking and sprouting them before eating has the following benefits:-
- Reduces the antinutrients,
- Increases the digestive enzyme content, making them easier to digest,
- Increases the protein, fibre, vitamin and mineral content,
- Maximises the amount of nutrients our body absorbs (6).
how to sprout
beans & legumes
For beans and legumes, the following are commonly able to be sprouted at home in a sprouting jar (UK Link/US Link) following instructions like in this How To Sprout Chickpeas post. Make sure you buy organic beans and legumes designed specifically for sprouting as these have been tested to ensure they’re free from harmful bacteria:-
- Chickpeas/garbanzo beans (UK Link/US Link),
- Red Lentils (UK Link/US Link),
- Green Lentils (UK Link/US Link),
- Mung beans (UK Link/US Link),
- Mixed beans (UK Link/US Link).
nuts & seeds
For nuts and seeds, most are just soaked in warm filtered water with sea salt for 4-12 hours prior to consumption as they are unable to be or very difficult to sprout.
pre soaked & sprouted grains, nuts & seeds
You can easily soak and sprout some grains, nuts and seeds at home like in these How To Sprout Buckwheat and Activate Nuts and Seeds posts. To save time, some grains, nuts and seeds you can buy already soaked and sprouted, like the following:-
- Sprouted flaxseed (UK Link/US Link)
- Sprouted sunflower seeds (UK Link/US Link)
- Sprouted pumpkin seeds (UK Link/US Link)
- Sprouted almonds (UK Link/US Link)
- Sprouted oats (UK Link/US Link)
- Sprouted buckwheat(UK Link/US Link)
- Sprouted quinoa
Tip 4). Activate the vagus nerve & parasympathetic nervous system before starting each meal.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, running from the brain down to the stomach and through all our major organs. Activating the vagus nerve stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system, our rest and digest system, which we need to be active to digest and absorb nutrients from the foods we consume.
Activating the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system before eating increases digestive enzyme and stomach acid production and optimises the speed food moves through the digestive tract (7). The easiest way I activate it before meals is spending a minute doing slow deep breathing. Ideally breathing should be:-
- 6 breaths per minute,
- Done using the diaphragmatic (belly breathing),
- In and out through the nose,
- With the exhale lasting twice as long as the inhale (8).
Tip 5). Eat in an upright seated position
Eating on the go when standing or walking means our energy is focused on supporting our body and moving, reducing the energy available to digest food efficiently.
Even when sitting, having a slumped posture, like when leaning over working on a laptop, prevents us from being able to breathe deeply. As a result, the vagus nerve sends a signal to the brain that we’re in danger and our stress response, our fight or flight response, is activated, causing our digestive system to shut down and work inefficiently. Digestive enzymes and stomach acid production is reduced and so our ability to digest and absorb foods becomes significantly impaired (9).
A slumped posture also compresses the stomach and reduces the room available for food. This slows the rate food moves through the digestive tract and can cause stomach acids to rise back up to the throat, causing acid reflux, bloating, gas and indigestion (9).
In contrast, an upright posture allows us to breathe deeper, which activates our parasympathetic nervous system and expands the stomach. This allows food to move through the digestive tract efficiently and enables our body to break down and absorb nutrients optimally (9).
Tip 6). Avoid distractions.
For years I always ate on the go and while doing other activities, such as:-
- Scrolling through my phone,
- Watching TV,
- Working on my laptop,
- While in the car,
- Listening to music or a podcast,
- Talking to others,
- While at a sporting event or music concert.
These distractions while eating switch off our parasympathetic nervous system and activate our sympathetic stress response. This reduces the amount of digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid produced, which impairs our ability to break down and digest our food. As a result, food remains in the stomach for longer, which can cause bloating, gas and constipation and reduces the amount of nutrients we absorb (10).
Tip 7). Chew each mouthful thoroughly
Not chewing each mouthful enough means the food doesn’t get coated in as many digestive enzymes from our saliva. This means the stomach has to work harder to break the food down into the liquid consistency needed to pass through to the small intestine.
However, the number of digestive enzymes produced in the stomach may not be enough to compensate for the lower amount of enzymes from the saliva to fully break down and digest the food. This means food stays longer in the stomach and can cause stomach acids to rise back up to the throat, which increases the risk of heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux and nausea and also reduces and slows the rate our body absorbs nutrients (11).
Instead, it’s recommended to chew each mouthful thoroughly, around 25-30 times, until it’s liquid before swallowing. When food is turned to liquid in our mouth, the tongue recognizes the flavours of each specific ingredient and sends a message to the brain to produce the specific digestive enzymes necessary to optimally digest and absorb nutrients from that particular food. It reduces the work the stomach has to do and so speeds up the rate food is passed through the stomach and small intestine and transported round the body. This maximises the amount of nutrients we absorb and the rate they’re absorbed (11).
Tip 8). Eat fruit alone (or with dark leafy greens only)
Fruit is digested rapidly in just 30-40 minutes, the quickest of any foods, requiring a minimal amount of energy. In contrast, other foods can take 1-3 hours to be digested. Eating fruit with other slower digesting foods slows down the rate it’s digested, causing it to sit in the stomach for longer and begin to ferment, which can cause gas, bloating and stomach aches/cramps (12).
Therefore, some people may find relief eating fruit alone on an empty stomach (or with dark leafy greens which have a similar digestion time and can help balance blood sugar levels), like in this Immune Boosting Chaga Berry Thick Smoothie Bowl or Grain Free Porridge With Apple & Pear.
Tip 9). Finish eating 3 hours before bed
As mentioned previously, some foods can take up to 3 hours to be fully digested (12). Consuming foods too close to going to bed means your digestive system won’t have finished digesting it before sleeping. When laying down, the contents of the stomach can travel back up to the throat, causing acid reflux, heartburn and indigestion, while also disrupting sleep, which is vital for our body to fully process and absorb nutrients from our food (13).
When we sleep, our whole body, including our digestive system, is resting and so it will be less efficient at breaking down and absorbing nutrients from our food. This can cause food to remain in the stomach for longer and potentially cause bloating, nausea and gas (14).
Tip 10). Don’t overeat
It’s recommended to eat until we’re 80% full, with the first burp providing the indication that it’s time to stop. When we begin eating and our stomach expands it can take around 20 minutes for the brain to receive the signal that we’re full and to switch off our appetite (15). Not chewing food thoroughly and being distracted while eating means it’s easy for us to eat too quickly and have already overeaten by the time the brain receives this signal. Distractions can also cause us to override these fullness cues and consume more food than needed (15).
Overeating causes the stomach to expand more than normal, causing bloating, and also slows down digestion. Eating a larger amount of food takes a longer time to be broken down and digested, requiring more energy and extra digestive enzymes and stomach acids to be produced. The extra time and demands means food sits in the stomach for longer and can begin to rise back up to the throat, causing indigestion, heartburn and acid reflux. It also reduces the energy available elsewhere in the body, which can cause tiredness, fatigue and drowsiness after meals (16).
related health and wellness posts
Click to read my other blog posts with tips and strategies that are helping me improve my health and wellbeing:-
- Anxiety & Stress Relief – 15 Things To Do In Bed
- Healthy Food Swaps For Any Dietary Requirement
- 6 Free Ways To Start Non Toxic Living (& Why It’s Important For Health)
- 15 Easy Ways To Reduce Chemicals In Your Home (& Why It’s Important For Health)
- 5 Tips To Maximise The Health Benefits Of Sunlight
- Waking Up With Anxiety – 5 Simple Swaps For Relief
- How To Open Drainage Pathways For Health & Chronic Illness Management
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