Feeling off lately? Maybe you are more bloated or having trouble going to the bathroom regularly. Trust me, you’re not alone. This is especially common now that eating habits, stress and daily activities have been thrown off by spending more time at home in quarantine.
Unfortunately, there is often not a quick-fix to improving digestion – I wish there were. It takes a delicate balance of good nutrition, movement and stress management to get you back on your game. But don’t worry, here at Culina Health we’ve spent a lot of time figuring out the best ways to hack your digestion, and get you feeling like yourself again. We’ve got you covered.
Think of the tips below as a starting point. They’ll help with common digestive issues, such as bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation. If you are in pain and/or experiencing something more severe or long-term, you should immediately see a doctor.
1. Eat whole foods
Are most of your foods coming from a package? Do you seek out powders and potions that promise better digestion? This may not be what you want to hear, but it’s time to throw all of that stuff out. Believe it or not, the best thing you can do for your tummy is to mostly eat whole, minimally-processed foods. Our bodies run optimally on real foods that the digestive system recognizes and knows how to digest. Seek out fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, eggs, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans.
2. Make sure you get enough (but not too much) fiber
Fiber is the indigestible part of plants that helps form and move waste in the body, so that it can be properly eliminated. Women need at least 25 grams a day and men need 38 grams a day. For good digestion, you want to eat at least the recommended amount.
But before you go on an all-out fiber kick – beware! Eating excess fiber can make your digestive symptoms worse, often worsening constipation. The best way to increase your fiber intake is to do it gradually from whole food sources.
There are two types of fiber – soluble and insoluble fiber. They each perform different functions, and you need a mix of both. Soluble fiber attracts water and forms a gel-like substance in the body. This helps slow digestion, makes you feel fuller longer, and has even been shown to help lower heart disease risk. You can find soluble fiber in oats, barley, seeds, nuts, beans and certain fruits (apples) and vegetables (potatoes).
Insoluble fiber works to bulk up your stool and helps food pass through the digestive tract. Find insoluble fiber in vegetables, fruits and whole grains.Don’t worry about how much of each type of fiber you are getting daily. Just aim for a variety of fiber from different whole foods.
Fiber also helps maintain strong gut health, since it is the main source of food for the microbes in our intestines. Species of bacteria differ in their ability to hydrolyze certain types of dietary fiber. Therefore, consuming many types of plant foods provides a favorable environment for a variety of bacteria to thrive. There is a growing body of evidence that the composition of the microbiome, impacted by dietary choices, can alter the host’s metabolism and gene expression which may support or hinder weight loss, and disease progression. The bottom line? Eat a variety of plant foods with different types of fiber in them!
3. Water, water, water
You should be aiming for about 10 glasses of fluids a day. Water keeps the food and fiber moving through your intestines. If you are dehydrated to begin with, your large intestine will soak up fluids from your waste and this will make your stool harder to pass.
My advice – Invest in a 1 liter water bottle, and fill it three times a day. Make drinking water more fun by adding some frozen fruit as flavored “ice cubes,” lemon and/or fresh herbs.
For tips on drinking more water, check out this post!
4. Carefully consider probiotics and other supplements
We are only just beginning to understand the many benefits that probiotics have when it comes to our health. Probiotic-rich foods are much more potent sources of this beneficial bacteria than any supplement can offer. Start adding foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, coconut yogurt, tempeh and miso to your diet. A little goes a long way, and these foods often add a kick of flavor.
If you are having trouble adding a variety of probiotic foods to your diet or want a boost, there are certain probiotic supplements that you can add to your routine. Everyone is different, so a registered dietitian can help navigate which strains may work best for you.
A magnesium supplement can also help hydrate the colon and get things moving, especially since many adults are deficient in this mineral. Work with a health provider to review your bloodwork and see if your body may be deficient in any other nutrients. Adequate nourishment makes everything run smoother – including digestion.
5. The gut-brain connection is no joke
Bacteria in your intestines make about 95 percent of the serotonin supply that your body uses to regulate mood and gastrointestinal function. Ever heard of the happiness hormone – this is serotonin!
Maintaining good gut health may improve your mood and mental health. On the flip side, your mental status may impact your gut. For instance, stress can greatly impact digestion, either delaying or speeding up the process. Therefore, activities that improve mood and reduce stress can help you manage symptoms. Yoga, acupuncture, physical activity, meditation and breathing exercises have all been shown to help improve digestion. Pick something you like and can stay consistent with – even 5-10 minutes of deep breathing a day can have enormous benefits!
If you’re struggling with anxiety, we have a whole blog post on our favorite anxiety-reducing foods. Check it out here!
If you’re experiencing digestive distress during this time, please remember two things – you are not alone, and there is nothing wrong with you. Rather, there may just be a few life factors that are affecting your digestion. The good news – it’s totally fixable! We suggest tackling these five things, one at a time. If you’re still experiencing symptoms, reach out to a Culina Health registered dietitian, and we can help!