In our first article on this topic, we explained why digestion is so important. You can thank digestion for giving your body all of the nutrition and energy it needs. Optimum digestion sets you up for a healthy immune response. It is one of the 4 pillars of gut health, meaning it leads the way for a healthy, happy gut.
One misstep in the digestion process means that food won’t get broken down, nutrients won’t get into your blood and tissues, your gut goes on strike, and your immune system can go rogue. Once we realize this process is so fundamental to health, what do we do next? Keep reading to see our favorite ways to improve digestive issues and bring your gut back into harmony.
How Can I Improve My Digestion?
There are many factors to poor digestion and many ways to try and improve your digestion and overall gastrointestinal health. If you find that you are taking in the proper nutrients but not benefitting from them, it is a sure sign that you are not digesting your food well. Stress, dietary changes, the method you eat your food, low stomach acid, poor pancreatic function, and other factors are all possible explanations for why your digestion isn’t working correctly. When the vagus nerve isn’t sending the proper signals from the digestive system to the brain, digestion is also impacted. Many of these problems can be identified with functional lab tests, which we will discuss later.
When stress happens, our body reacts physically by triggering our sympathetic nervous system to experience the “fight-or-flight” response. After the stressor subsides, our parasympathetic nervous system helps our body calm down. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are part of the enteric nervous system, which regulates our digestion. Have you ever heard that your gut is your “second brain”? That is because you have neurons (like in your brain) that line the digestive tract. When your gut senses food has been eaten and the digestive process has started, these neurons signal muscle cells in the gut to start intestinal contractions. This helps food move through the phases of digestion.
Stress can cause digestive issues, including spasms in the esophagus, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, increased stomach acid, and indigestion.
Reducing stress is the best way to help with stress-induced digestive problems. Ways to reduce stress include:
- Counseling or therapy
- Deep breathing
- Eat a variety of whole foods
- Reduce stress triggers
- Schedule relaxation
- Stay hydrated
- Stop smoking
Improve vagus nerve tone
When the vagus nerve is damaged, it cannot send signals to your stomach muscles, causing food to collect in your stomach instead of moving along the digestive tract.
Vagus nerve tone helps to put your body in the parasympathetic (rest and digest) state so it can focus on digestion. Healthy vagus nerve tone moves you out of fight-or-flight stress mode. Ways to strengthen your vagus nerve tone before eating include:
- Mindful eating
- 4-7-8 Breathing
- Humming loudly
- Singing at the top of your lungs
- Yoga practice
- Essential oils
Address low stomach acid
Low stomach acid, also known as hypochlorhydria, can cause poor digestion. Your stomach acid is a digestive fluid called hydrochloric acid and has several roles in your gastrointestinal health, including:
- Activates pepsin – your stomach’s primary enzyme
- Breaks down proteins into easy-to-absorb amino acids
- Stimulates the pancreas to release enzymes that break down food
- Kills harmful bacteria before it gets to the intestines
- Prevents your food from backing up into your esophagus
Symptoms of low stomach acid include diarrhea, gas, acid reflux, heartburn, bloating, undigested food in stool, nutritional deficiencies, hair loss, and brittle fingernails.
Baking soda test for stomach acid
1. Mix ¼ tsp baking soda into 6 oz. of cold water.
2. Drink the solution.
3. Time how long it takes to burp; if you do not burp within 3 minutes – you may have low stomach acid
Natural approaches to low stomach acid
• Apple cider vinegar – dilute in water and drink before meals
• Betaine-HCL– follow your practitioner’s recommendations; hydrochloric acid capsules are taken before meals
• Digestive bitters – helps with stomach acid and stimulates pancreatic enzymes
• Do not drink alkaline water – may lower natural stomach acidity because it renders pepsin inactive
• Enzymes with pepsin – to replenish stomach acid
Try fasting and an elimination diet
Fasting can be beneficial for acute gastrointestinal illnesses that do not respond to the usual functional medicine treatments. Fasting removes the role of food in gastrointestinal illness. By refraining from food, your gut has a chance to rest and heal, potentially unhealthy gut bacteria or fungi don’t have fuel to grow, and problem foods can’t harm the gut.
If you’re not digesting your food properly, you may have food sensitivities. These are not the same thing as food allergies. Food sensitivities are immune-mediated reactions to foods that are often delayed for 48 to 72 hours after eating an offending food. These reactions can include headaches, bloating, stomach pain, skin problems, diarrhea, runny nose, or fatigue.
Elimination diets can help pinpoint food triggers in digestive upset, especially dairy, gluten, and other food sensitivities.
Practice mindful eating
Mindful eating means focusing your attention completely on eating during a meal or snack.
- Truly savor your food and allow all your senses to be immersed in the act of eating
- Take small bites and put down utensils between bites
- Sit down while eating and eat slowly
- Be mindful of the foods you eat – reach for whole foods rather than processed foods
- Eat when you have an appetite and don’t allow yourself to feel famished before eating
- Take the time to chew your food thoroughly – approximately 20 to 40 times
- Don’t eat on the go – your body will not make enzymes to help digest and absorb your food
Digestion and Gut Health Testing
If you have chronic digestion issues or need to get to the root cause of symptoms, you may need further testing. Functional testing for gut health may include:
- Comprehensive stool testing – This can determine if you have any parasites and identify gut dysbiosis. It measures digestion, immune function, inflammation, and how much good bacteria are present.
- Comprehensive metabolic panel – To assess overall health as well as liver health and other markers that could affect digestion.
- Food sensitivity testing – This test can pinpoint the foods that are getting in the way of gut healing. It can also double as a leaky gut test.
- Testing for leaky gut – A common test for intestinal permeability is the lactulose mannitol test. You drink a solution and if the large sugar lactulose molecule is found in urine, then there is gut permeability. Stool test markers can also indicate leaky gut such as secretory IgA and short chain fatty acids.
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) testing – The most common test for SIBO measures hydrogen or methane in the breath at specific timeframes after drinking a liquid containing a sugar solution.
Good digestion is essential to your overall health, but if you are experiencing digestion problems it can really get in the way of your quality of life. Digestive problems can be painful, frustrating, and embarrassing. Starting a discussion with your functional medicine doctor and making even a few small changes can make a huge difference in your digestive health. We can help you discover the root cause of symptoms and improve your digestion with stool testing, dietary changes, digestive support supplements, and gut-healing supplements. With healthy digestion, you will notice bathroom habits become more regular, and bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea will fade away. It can even improve your joint health and mood.
If you haven’t yet, check out the companion article to this one called, “Digestion-Why It’s so Important to Feeling Your Best.”