Judging by statistics, millions of people in the United States want to know how to have better digestive health.
According to the National Institutes of Health, digestive diseases affect an estimated 60 to 70 million people in the U.S. and include the following: (1)
- Chronic constipation. (Constipation is the most common digestive complaint.)
- Diverticular disease
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
- Gastrointestinal infections
- Celiac disease
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
What is Digestive Health?
Digestive health is a state in which all parts of the body that digest foods and expel waste function properly. That’s a tall order because the digestive system is one of the most sensitive and complex components of the body.
Organs of the digestive system include:
- Lower esophageal sphincter
- Small intestine
- Large intestine
These organs work together to break down foods, absorb nutrients, and expel wastes. Without the digestive system, you couldn’t survive. And they couldn’t do their jobs properly without gut bacteria.
The Digestive System and Gut Bacteria
The digestive system contains trillions of bacteria collectively called the “gut microbiome.” These bacteria break down foods, extract nutrients from them, synthesize essential vitamins, and maintain the integrity of the intestinal barrier. So, they are crucial for proper digestion and gut health. (2)
The ENS comprises 100 million nerve cells lining the gastrointestinal tract. It’s sometimes called the “second brain” because it sends messages to the brain and other major organs via the vagus nerve. This bidirectional communication affects physical, mental, and emotional health.
So, improving digestive health is essential for overall good health.
How to Have Better Digestive Health
Here are six scientifically-backed tips for improving gut health and digestive tract performance.
Chew Your Food Thoroughly
Digestion begins in your mouth.
Chewing not only breaks foods down into smaller, more digestible pieces but also releases saliva that contains digestive enzymes. These enzymes pre-digest your food into smaller pieces and partially liquefy it, making it easier to digest. The longer you chew your food, the more saliva is released and the easier it will be on the digestive process.
Evidence suggests that chewing food thoroughly may decrease hunger and food intake by altering gut hormones that regulate appetite. (3) Thus, chewing your food well may help with weight control, reducing the risk of obesity-related diseases.
How long should you chew? Experts recommend that you chew each bite of food an average of 30 times, but it depends on how tough the food is. For example, you’ll probably need to chew a piece of steak more than 35 to 40 times and a banana 10 to 15 times.
Eat More Fiber Foods.
Fiber occurs naturally in plants and is essential for health.
A high-fiber diet is crucial to proper digestion and is associated with a reduced risk of constipation, acid reflux, IBS, hemorrhoids, diverticulitis, and more. Through its apparent ability to defend against gut inflammation, fiber may also reduce the risk of inflammatory bowel diseases. Research suggests that high fiber intake may also significantly lower the risk for developing hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and some cancers. (4, 5)
There are two types of dietary fiber, and you need both of them for digestive health. Though fibrous foods contain a mixture of soluble and insoluble fiber, they usually have a higher amount of one type.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water, forming a gel-like substance inside the digestive tract that slows down digestion and the absorption of sugars. Consequently, it can regulate blood glucose levels. It also adds bulk to your stool promoting regular bowel movements.
Beneficial gut bacteria also ferment soluble fiber in the lower colon and excrete short-chain fatty acids and other POSTBiotic metabolites that have a tremendously positive effect on health.
Rich sources of soluble fiber include avocado, flaxseeds, apples, beans, oats, oranges, and nuts.
Insoluble fiber cannot be digested and is excreted from your body relatively intact. Because it is not digested, it does not contribute any calories to the diet.
This type of fiber increases the bulk of your stool and speeds up the transit of waste through your digestive system, helping prevent constipation. It also cleans out your digestive tract and removes toxins.
Rich sources of insoluble fiber include green beans, oat bran, beans, avocado, walnuts, almonds, spinach, whole grains, and berries.
How Much Fiber Should I Eat?
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends getting at least 25 grams of fiber per day, 38 grams for men. (6)
For best results — and less gas and bloating — please increase your fiber intake slowly until you reach the minimum amount recommended.
Switch to a Whole-Food Diet
Many people routinely eat what has become known as the Standard American Diet (SAD), i.e., significant amounts of ultra-processed foods, refined carbs, sugars, saturated fats, and chemicals — and little to no fiber or nutrients.
Unfortunately, this type of diet has been shown to disturb the composition of gut bacteria. Specifically, it kills the good bacteria and creates more harmful bacteria. This, of course, can negatively impact health.
According to Harvard Medical School, researchers “found that those who consumed more ultra-processed foods had higher risks of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease…Although large observational studies do not prove cause and effect, the research does suggest an association between ultra-processed diets and heart disease.” (7)
Other research suggests that routinely eating a poor quality diet can increase the risk of dying of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. (8)
And finally, research suggests that a poor-quality diet like this may increase the risk of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and other digestive issues. (9)
To support digestive health and stave off disease, try to switch to a predominately whole-food diet, i.e., unprocessed or minimally processed foods. A whole food diet includes lots of nonstarchy vegetables, a moderate amount of lean protein, some healthy fats, and a small amount of low-sugar fruits. In addition, you should reduce or eliminate grains — even whole grains — and sugars.
Have you ever known someone who gets a stomach ache or nausea when they’re stressed? How about “butterflies” in their stomach when they get nervous? There’s a scientific reason for that.
When you’re stressed, all nonessential systems are shut down to allow more energy. As a result, blood is diverted to your skeletal muscles from your digestive system and other areas to prepare your body to survive the danger. This is the “fight-or-flight” response, and it significantly impacts proper digestion.
Consequently, numerous research studies show an association between stress and stomach ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and constipation. (9, 10, 11)
People under stress have also been found to have impaired immune systems, increasing their risk of ill health. (12)
To avoid these issues, please make an effort to de-stress regularly.
Activities that reduce stress include:
- Deep-breathing exercises
- Aerobic exercises (13)
- Watching comedy TV shows or movies
- Cuddling with your dog or cat
- Yoga or Tai Chi
- Help someone out. (Studies show that helping others relieves stress, and it doesn’t have to be a huge favor. A small act of kindness like holding open a door for someone can do the trick.) (14)
Studies suggest that exercise can significantly improve digestion. Why? For starters, moderate-intensity exercise may help speed food transit time. (15) (The longer food remains in the intestines, the more likely you will experience constipation, gas, bloating, and other gastrointestinal issues.)
Further, exercise has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body relieve symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases. (16, 17)
So, if you want to improve digestive health, try to exercise regularly. Brisk walking, cycling, and jogging are great moderate-intensity exercises that can help reduce digestive issues.
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