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Megan Best
Megan Best

RDN, CPT

How to improve your digestion

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Do you have digestive issues? If you’re experiencing bloating, pain after eating, diarrhea, constipation or gas at regular intervals, something might be awry in your digestive tract. 

How your digestive system functions (or doesn’t function) can have a huge impact on many areas of your life. This system is responsible for breaking down the food you eat, distributing nutrients to your body and excreting waste products. If one area is disrupted, this could have long lasting and uncomfortable side effects for you. 

Sometimes digestive complications can be caused by more serious conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s Disease, or Diverticulitis.  But other times, our digestive woes are caused by poor diet and lifestyle choices that can be easily remedied! Today we’re going to focus on those. 

The anatomy of digestion

To understand how to help digestion function optimally, we must first understand what constitutes the digestive system.  It’s more than just your stomach! There are many organs involved in the process.  The main organs that make up the digestive system (in order of their function) are the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum and anus. Organs that assist them are the pancreas, gallbladder and liver.

Basic functions of the digestive system include:

  • Digestion
  • Absorption
  • Excretion
  • Important part of detoxification
  • Immune system surveillance + tolerance
  • Vitamin synthesis
  • Neurotransmitter production
  • Houses Microbiome

Our body’s digestive process includes two phases- mechanical digestion and chemical digestion. They actually happen simultaneously! When we take a bite of food we start the mechanical digestion process just by chewing it. Chemical digestion also begins in the mouth as we release the enzyme amylase, which is responsible for carbohydrate digestion. 

Next our food travels through the esophagus and into the stomach where gastric juices are released (chemical) to break food down further. The stomach will also churn its contents and push it forward through a process called peristalsis (mechanical).

From the stomach, our food is pushed into the small intestine where nutrients begin to be absorbed. The liver and pancreas assist here by secreting enzymes (chemical) that further assist digestion. Once the food has passed through the small intestine it then enters the large intestine. Here, any remaining nutrients and water are absorbed, leaving only waste products. This becomes stool that passes out of our body through our rectum.

Where things can go wrong

Digestion can go awry at various stages of the food breakdown process. Below are some major (and common) issues:

  • Digestive secretions are not at appropriate levels: aka we either do not have enough stomach acid or enzymes to assist in that first phase of breakdown. This is incredibly common and often due to prolonged use of medications like proton pump inhibitors. Fun fact: often reflux is caused by a mechanical issue with the sphincter between the esophagus and stomach NOT by an abundance of acid. 
  • Dietary components are not effectively assimilated: meaning we have something preventing us from absorbing nutrients properly
  • The stomach’s lining is compromised: often this has to do with the aforementioned low stomach acid. Stomach acid is our body’s first line of defense against opportunistic bacteria, so when we lower it (again, stay OFF the PPIs and antacids people) we are removing that defense. We will usually see an overgrowth of bad bacteria causing discomfort in this case.
  • The individual does not have a good digestive defense to kill pathogens: just as we don’t want an overgrowth of opportunistic bacteria, we don’t want low numbers of good, protective bacteria. This good bacteria, as well as stomach acid and immunoglobulins like Secretory IgA assist in keeping the bad guys out.

Signs of gut function decline

Unsure if you’re got a true digestive problem? If you are experiencing any of the below symptoms, it might be worth looking into:

  • Bloating
  • Belching
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Gas
  • Reflux
  • Greasy stool
  • Nausea or diarrhea after taking supplements
  • Systemic reactions after eating
  • Weak or cracked fingernails
  • Dilated capillaries on cheeks/nose
  • Acne or rosacea
  • Chronic infections, parasites, yeast
  • Easily bruised
  • Undigested food in stool
  • Chronic UTIs or yeast infections
  • Fatigue
  • Iron deficiency

What you can do

Think you might have an issue? Try some of these (somewhat) simple lifestyle changes below and note if you see improvements.

  • Sit down for meals: undistracted
  • Chew your food: like…way more than you think you should. 
  • Eat prebiotics and probiotics: such as garlic, onion, leeks, asparagus, dandelion greens, artichoke (prebiotics), sauerkraut, kimchi, or yogurt (probiotics).
  • Reduce sugary, processed, fried foods: start by eating more at home and using more single ingredient foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, meat, whole grains).
  • Maintain anti inflammatory fatty acid balance: by increasing omega-3 food sources like fish.
  • Avoid alcohol, NSAIDs/anti-inflammatories, antibiotics
  • Avoid drinking fluids between bites
  • Manage stress: especially around eating (this means no work emails during your lunch break)!

Higher level needs

Many people go through the day with digestive discomfort thinking it’s simply a normal part of life, but I want you to understand that it doesn’t have to be this way!  If you’ve been experiencing digestive woes for a long time, or if you’re having issues that impact your quality of life (pain, incontinence, diarrhea, constipation) it may be time for some more targeted and dedicated help. Consider 1:1 nutrition coaching or a specialized test like the GI Map to help identify the root cause of your issues. 

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