Top 7 Ways to Improve Digestion

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Indigestion is a common problem, affecting about 25% of Americans.

Affecting approximately one in four people, indigestion is a very common and often agonizing experience. Indigestion can mean many things, but most often, the symptoms associated with it include bloating, gas, heartburn, acid reflux, or general discomfort after eating. 

Although the causes of indigestion are multifactorial, there are several ways to improve your digestive health and relieve some uncomfortable symptoms. 

7 Ways to Improve Digestion

1. Consume Probiotics

Probiotics, which can be consumed in supplemental or food form, are living microorganisms that benefit the host. Essentially, probiotics are helpful bacteria that live in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract and provide health benefits. 

While probiotics have dozens of functions — with more and more being discovered each year — one of their most basic abilities is digestion. A common cause of indigestion is lactose intolerance, which is the inability to break down the sugar in dairy products fully. The probiotic strains Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have been found to help with the digestion of lactose, as discussed in a November 2018 review published in Nutrients

Where can you get your daily dose of probiotics? Fermented foods are the only foods that contain natural probiotics, including yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and miso. These foods are great to add to your dietary rotation to ensure that the gut receives a variety of probiotic strains. 

Additionally, probiotic supplements can help provide large doses of healthy bacteria all at once. Probiotic supplementation has also been found to increase protein and carbohydrate digestion and improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), including abdominal pain and bloating. Probiotic supplements should contain, at a minimum, 1 billion CFUs (colony forming units) per capsule.

Fermented foods, like yogurt, provide probiotics that can help improve digestion.

2. Digestive Enzymes

Inadequate amounts of digestive enzymes secreted by the GI system and pancreas can also cause symptoms of indigestion. The secretion of these enzymes decreases with age, inhibiting our ability to properly digest food and absorb nutrients.

There are different types of enzymes, based on which kind of macronutrient they help to break down:

  • Amylase: Breaks down carbohydrates 
  • Protease or peptidase: Breaks down proteins
  • Lipase: Breaks down fats
  • Cellulase: Breaks down cellulose fiber

There are also plant-derived compounds that mimic the effects of digestive enzymes, including bromelain (found in pineapples) and papain (found in papaya).  

In a small randomized controlled trial, patients with both IBS and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) who took a supplement containing digestive enzymes saw significant improvements in bloating, gas, and abdominal pain, compared to those who took their regular IBD medication. 

Importantly, a digestive enzyme supplement will need to be taken just before a meal in order for it to work. 

3. Bitter Herbs and Plants

There are dozens of bitter herbs, teas, and tinctures that can help to improve digestion. These botanicals work by stimulating saliva, which helps with carbohydrate breakdown, and bile production, which is necessary to digest fats. In fact, bitters have been used for centuries to help with digestion. The pre-meal aperitif, which means “to open,” originally contained a variety of bitter herbs to aid the gastrointestinal system in digesting dinner. 

Some of the most commonly used bitter botanicals are: 

  • Gentian
  • Goldenseal
  • Wormwood
  • Milk thistle
  • Ginger
  • Peppermint
  • Anise
  • Fennel
  • Dandelion
  • Artichoke. 

In a 2015 study published in Molecules, four types of the gentian plant exhibited the ability to stimulate stomach acid and enzymes, primarily due to the iridoid and flavonoid phytochemicals in plants. Similar to digestive enzymes, digestive bitters should be consumed right before a meal and can be taken as tincture drops, capsules, or made into a tea. 

4. Regulate Stomach Acid

Although it would seem that acid reflux and heartburn would be caused only by excess acid, the opposite can also be true: both low and high amounts of stomach acid can be a cause of indigestion. 

Stomach acid, which is technically called hydrochloric acid, is a necessary part of the digestive process and breaks down food; the acid also kills off potentially harmful bacteria and pathogens. Like digestive enzymes, the amount of stomach acid we secrete also declines with age, suggests a review published in Gut. Another common culprit is the chronic consumption of antacids or prescription drugs, like proton pump inhibitors, which will decrease the body’s ability to produce stomach acid over time. 

If you think you have low stomach acid, betaine hydrochloride can be taken in supplemental form. In addition, the previously mentioned fermented foods and bitter herbs may help to regulate stomach acid. 

5. Rethink Mealtime Practices

Another good way to promote the production and secretion of digestive enzymes and stomach acid is through the simple act of chewing food more thoroughly. Although the majority of digestion takes place inside the gut, the process actually starts in our mouth. 

Also known as mastication, chewing increases saliva output, which helps to regulate stomach acid. In addition, chewing breaks down food physically and chemically, as salivary amylase begins to digest carbohydrate-containing foods before they reach the gut.

Other mealtime practices to reduce indigestion include limiting fluids during the meal and eating mindfully. While we want to drink plenty of water throughout the day, consuming a lot of water during a meal will dilute your stomach acid, contributing to poor digestion. 

Thus, mindful eating is another simple strategy to improve digestion. This practice entails focusing on the food you are eating and nothing else — not working, not reading, and not watching television. Limiting distractions will naturally slow down your eating pace, allow you to focus on chewing well throughout the meal, and reduce stress

Mindful eating, without distractions, can improve digestion and reduce stress. 

6. Manage Stress

Eating while stressed out tends to create stomach aches and indigestion due to the gut-brain axis. The main connection between the gut and the brain is the vagus nerve, a component of the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS, sometimes called the second brain, is housed in the intestinal tract and contains over 100 million neurons, where it regulates the activity of the gut.

When the body is relaxed, the vagus nerve slows down your heart rate and breathing, which increases the rate of digestion. However, when the body is stressed, the vagus nerve switches the nervous system from parasympathetic to sympathetic, halting digestion and creating an uptick in heart rate and cortisol, our stress hormone. . 

Managing stress, especially around mealtimes, can greatly improve digestion. One quick tip is to take five deep inhales and exhales before any meal to calm down the nervous system. 

7. Walk After Eating

Lastly, a short walk after a meal can help increase gastric motility and relieve symptoms of indigestion. In two small studies, healthy adult males and individuals with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) saw improvements in gastric emptying following walking. Delayed gastric emptying is a source of indigestion. Although the participants of these two studies walked for over an hour, other research has indicated that benefits in gastric emptying can occur after just 15 to 20 minutes — a good reason to throw on some comfortable shoes and take an evening stroll.    

Key Takeaway:

  • Indigestion is very common and can cause bloating, gas, acid reflux, heartburn, or abdominal pain.
  • Adding probiotic-containing foods and supplements can help rebalance your gut microbiome and reduce indigestion symptoms.
  • Other tips to improve digestion include adding digestive enzymes or bitter herbs before eating, chewing food well, managing stress, and walking after a meal.
Show references

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