by Joanna Foley, RD, CLT February 22, 2022 4 min read

Contrary to the famous saying – we are what we eat – we're also what we absorb and eliminate. It is through these processes that the digestive system comes into play.

Digestion is a critical process that enables your body to absorb the energy and nutrients it needs from the foods you eat. A robust digestive system will tolerate eating three or more meals per day, break down harder-to-digest foods and avoid common symptoms of digestive upset.

Let's take a closer look at how to optimize digestion.

How Does the Digestive System Work?

Your digestive system involves a collection of organs, starting with the mouth and ending with your colon and anus. In between, many systems and processes occur, which affect the esophagus, the stomach, and the small and large intestines.

When you eat, food is moved from the mouth down the digestive tract, broken down and absorbed. Trillions of bacteria and other microbes in the digestive tract, known as the microbiome, also assist with this process. Nutrients are then extracted from the food, and energy from calories is released into your cells to fuel the body and keep it functioning.

Whatever is not needed or not absorbed during the digestive process is removed from the body via urine and bowel movements. Daily bowel movements are a crucial factor in proper digestion since it helps remove of toxins. Having irregular bowel movements can lead to the reabsorption of toxins and potentially cause further health problems.

What Leads to Poor Digestion?

Because the digestive system is so complex, many things that can go wrong. These issues can lead to symptoms of an unhealthy gut, such as abdominal pain, frequent gas, bloating, belching, heartburn, irregular bowel movements, loose stool, nausea or vomiting.

Common digestive offenders that may be causing this includes:

  • Imbalance of gut bacteria. Your gut bacteria is within in your body's microbiome. Having an imbalance is known as dysbiosis. Dysbiosis interferes with proper digestion and contributes to unpleasant symptoms.

  • Weak digestion. Digestive enzymes and stomach acid helps break down the food you eat. Low or weakened levels can lead to improper breakdown and signs like gas and bloating.

  • Stress. Stress negatively affects the body in many ways, including altering your gut microbiome. Stress also puts the body in a fight-or-flight state, which does not support the rest-and-digest environment required and digestion can be affected.

  • Poor diet. A poor diet that is high in refined carbohydrates, like sugar, and low in fiber can lead to dysbiosis. Imbalances such as these can trigger an immune response that can lead to food allergies or sensitivities.

How To Optimize Digestion

There are many steps you can take to improve and optimize your digestion, here's how:

  • Adjust your meal size and timing. Dinner tends to be the largest meal for most, sometimes followed by additional late-night snacking. Eating too close to bed doesn't allow digestion to complete, which can impact overnight repair -- so try to aim for at least a 2-hour gap between dinner and bedtime. Digestion is also most robust between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. so having lunch as your largest meal can help improve digestion.

  • Movement after eating. Being active is linked to better digestion overall. Participating in light physical activity, such as walking, shortly after eating may help with gas passage and reduce bloating and other negative digestive symptoms.

  • Allow for digestive rest. Waiting three to five hours between meals helps the stomach empty and allows the migrating motor complex to complete an entire cycle. This process helps the digestive system work efficiently. Even short-term fasting can help reduce bloating and other digestive issues. Eating too often can also interfere with digestion by adding undigested food to partially digestive food and upset the process.

  • Eat a whole food diet. Consuming foods in their most natural state and making this the bulk of your diet is ideal. Include lean proteins, like fish and chicken breasts, and a variety of high-fiber plant foods, like beans, legumes, gluten-free grains like wild rice, quinoa or oats, and brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Highly processed foods, alcohol and caffeine, should all be limited for the best digestion.

  • Coffee enemas. These can help clear out your colon and may temporarily improve digestive symptoms.

  • Natural nutrition supplement support. Include things like ginger, a spice widely used as a digestive aid and soothing to the gut, and digestive enzymes that can assist with the breakdown of food and absorption of nutrients. If you have difficulty digesting common food sensitivities like gluten or cows milk dairy, taking a specialized enzyme alongside meals containing these ingredients can help support this process.

  • Probiotics. Probiotics help balance the gut microbiome by introducing beneficial bacteria to support digestion. Probiotics can be taken long-term and have many health benefits.

It is essential to identify what may be causing any digestive upset in the first place to know what you need to do to support optimal digestion moving forward. Working with a certified health coach can help you understand your current health and assist you in taking targeted action so you experience relief as soon as possible.

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