Supporting healthy digestion
Your diet and nutrition choices can impact your life in a variety of ways, including the way they affect your digestion. We all have different profiles and sensitivities when it comes to how we digest and process the foods we eat, and this can also change over time as we get older.
More often than not, we spend more time thinking about what foods to put in our mouth, and less time about how our bodies will absorb and process it. Yet by paying attention to the foods you eat you can impact and see positive benefits for your digestion – and your wellbeing as a result.
All foods you consume have to be digested before your body can fully absorb them and make use of the nutrients they provide. That’s where your digestive system comes into play. The digestive system consists of the digestive tract – a long tube that runs from your mouth to your bottom – and digestive organs, such as the liver and pancreas.
As food you’ve eaten passes along the digestive tract, the liver and pancreas, plus your stomach and intestines, it provides digestive juices, such as enzymes and acids, that help to break down food into different nutrients. The nutrients broken down from food include amino acids (which come from protein), vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and cholesterol (from fats) and simple sugars (from carbohydrates). 1
Digestion technically begins in your mouth when you chew food and ends in your small intestine, when all the nutrients have been extracted. Different parts of your body produce different outputs to break down food:
• Salivary glands – your saliva contains an enzyme that helps break down starch.
• Stomach lining – the glands in your stomach lining produce acid and an enzyme that works on protein.
• Pancreas – your pancreas produces several enzymes that help break down carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
• Liver – your liver produces bile, which is stored in your gallbladder and helps dissolve fat.
• Small intestine – your small intestine provides the last part of the digestive process, breaking down proteins and starches.
If you don’t have enough of any of the above, it limits your body’s ability to break down and properly absorb the nutritional value of the foods.
Digestive enzyme production can be affected by health and illness, as well as stress. Some of the common signs that you could have a problem with your digestion and digestive enzymes include:
• Feeling bloated after meals
• Feeling gassy after meals
• Heartburn or indigestion
• A heavy feeling in your stomach
• Discomfort when going to the toilet
Improving your digestive health
Even before considering what you eat, note that stress is shown to impact digestion. Taking practical steps to try and combat stress, or manage the symptoms, can help ease digestive discomforts.
How you eat plays a role too. Avoid eating too quickly or while you’re on the move, as neither of these practices provides any benefit to your digestive system – the food you consume will be jostled around and your metabolism will also be working to support your movement, rather than digestion.
On a dietary level, there are also ways in which you can improve your digestive health, namely including particular foods in your diet.
First and foremost, one of the essential components of good digestive health is a diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables. There’s also much to be said for the Mediterranean style approach, incorporating healthy olive oils and oily fish.
The anti-inflammatory properties of oily fish 2 have heart health benefits, but fish such as tuna and salmon may also aid your digestive tract. In fact, research has suggested that some people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) had lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids – which are found in oily fish.
For a healthy digestive system, and especially to support and care for your bowels, fiber is essential. Dietary recommendations suggest consuming about 25 g of fiber per day for healthy digestion. If you want to make changes to the amount of fiber you eat, then do so slowly, rather than suddenly eating loads more. Remember to drink plenty of fluids as well to help prevent gas, bloating and stomach cramps.
Foods rich in fiber include wholegrains, wholemeal bread, apples, figs, pears, spinach, cauliflower, carrots, beans and broccoli.
Your digestive system, and particularly your liver, can be helped by including what’s known as choleretic3 foods in your diet.
Choleretic foods work specifically by helping to stimulate the production of bile in your liver. Bile helps to transport toxins out of your body; the greater the volume of bile, the more effective it will be at releasing those toxins and the greater the benefit to your digestion.
Foods known for their choleretic benefits include artichokes, chicory, the greens of young beets, turmeric and chamomile.
Probiotics and prebiotics
Probiotics – friendly live bacteria and yeasts – normally occur naturally in your gut. However, if you don’t have enough of them, they can disrupt your digestion.
Probiotics, such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, can be found in products such as live yogurts, as well as in food supplements, and studies have linked their use to helping conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. If your probiotic intake is a bit off kilter, a short-term course of using them daily for a month or so can help boost your digestion.
To support the growth of probiotic bacteria in your gut, you can also actively choose to consume foods known as prebiotics. Examples include bananas, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onions, honey and asparagus.
Also useful for your digestion are fermented foods, like sauerkraut, sourdough, buttermilk or miso. Including them in your diet might not immediately spring to mind as being beneficial for your digestion, but in reality, these superfoods may be good for you.
As fermented foods, they all contain beneficial bacteria. As well as making them easier for your body to digest, the good bacteria in them travels through the gastric acid to your colon, where they’re put to good work.
Other digestive-friendly ingredients
In Asia, ginger is renowned for its digestive benefits. Research has shown that consuming ginger actively plays a part in digestive health, as it helps speed up the digestive process. 4 It helps food move quicker from your stomach to your upper small intestine, plus it’s good for easing nausea. Drink it as a tea, use it fresh in stir fries or try ginger supplements.
Ginger is known as a soothing food, or a carminative. Another similar ingredient in this category include peppermint leaf and oil, which can help relax your stomach muscles and help relieve digestive problems (although if you have heartburn, it can be counterproductive). Try a cup of soothing peppermint tea.
Experiment to find your balance
It’s never pleasant to experience digestive problems, but by being careful with the foods and drinks you consume, and the lifestyle habits you have, you can do your best to reduce the impact on your digestion and improve your health.