According to Dr Anton Emmanuel, consultant gastroenterologist at University College Hospital in London, around 40% of British people suffer from at least one digestive symptom at any one moment in time. Indeed, more than 10 percent of a GP’s working life is estimated to be spent in treating common digestive disorders, such as constipation, diarrhea, heartburn and bloating. However, poor digestive health is not merely an inconvenience – it can have a significant impact on your quality of life. Fortunately there are a number of simple steps that you can start taking immediately, in order to enjoy improved digestive health today.
But, before we explore seven top tips for better digestive health, let’s first take a closer look at the digestive system, discover how it works and find out why it’s so important for your general health and wellbeing.
Your digestive system – what does it do?
Your digestive system is designed to break the foods that you eat down into the individual nutrients that your body requires for energy, growth and cell repair. It does this by changing food and drink into carbohydrates, protein, fats, and vitamins, which can be subsequently absorbed into the bloodstream for transportation around your body.
The digestive process begins in your mouth and ends in the small intestine, taking the following route:
Your mouth is effectively the starting point of your digestive tract. When you chew food, you break it down into smaller pieces. The saliva that is secreted from your salivary glands begins the process of breaking down carbohydrates in your food into a more readily absorbable form.
Your throat allows food to travel from your mouth to your oesophagus.
Your oesophagus is a muscular tube that extends from your throat to your stomach. It delivers food to your stomach via a series of contractions, where the process of digestion continues.
Your stomach acts as a mixer and grinder – it secretes powerful acids and digestive enzymes that continue the process of breaking down food until it resembles a liquid or paste.
Your food passes from your stomach to your small intestine – a long, coiled tube, measuring more than twenty feet in length. Your small intestine uses pancreatic enzymes and bile from your liver to further breakdown food into protein, fat, and carbohydrates. It consists of three parts:
- The duodenum – which is responsible for the breakdown of food.
- The jejenum – which is responsible for the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream.
- The ilieum – which is also responsible for the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream.
Once your small intestine has absorbed as many nutrients as possible, the leftover fluid moves to your large intestine. Also known as the ‘colon’, the large intestine is a muscular tube that absorbs water and any remaining nutrients, before expelling the waste matter via your rectum in the form of a stool.
Your digestive system – why is it so important?
As already mentioned, digestion breaks down the food that you eat into nutrients that can be used for energy, growth and repair. If you fail to look after your digestive health properly, you will inevitably experience problems with digesting food and absorbing nutrients that are essential for your general health and wellbeing.
This can lead to some of the most common digestive complaints, including:
- Abdominal pain
- Constipation or diarrhoea
Left unchecked, it can also trigger chronic bowel conditions, such as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and Chrohn’s disease, not to mention nutrient deficiencies resulting from poor absorption.
The good news is, that making just a few simple changes to your diet and lifestyle, can improve your digestive health demonstrably.
7 Top tips for improved digestive health
Below are seven top tips for improved digestive health – incorporate as many of these as possible for optimum results:
1) Enjoy a fibre-rich diet
According to the NHS, fibre is an important part of a healthy diet – it not only helps to prevent heart disease, diabetes, weight gain and certain types of cancer, it also actively improves your digestive health.
Try to consume foods that are rich in both soluble and insoluble fibre:
- Soluble fibre – absorbs water, prevents your stools from becoming too watery and may help to reduce cholesterol from your bloodstream. Soluble fibre can be found in fresh and dried fruit, root vegetables and seeds.
- Insoluble fibre – helps food move through your digestive system more easily, maintains healthy bowels and can help to prevent digestive problems. Also known as ‘roughage’, insoluble fibre can be found in abundance in cereals, nuts and seeds.
There are a number of nutrient-dense superfoods that contain particularly high quantities of fibre and are thus known for their ability to improve digestive health.
- Dried superfruits – especially organic dried figs, which are loaded with both soluble and insoluble fibre. In fact, one small serving of organic dried figs (three to five dried figs) contains 3.5 grams of insoluble fibre and 1.5 grams of soluble fibre. The recommended daily fibre intake for adults is 18 grams a day.
- Supergreens – such as organic spirulina powder, organic chlorella powder, organic barley grass powder, organic wheatgrass powder and live wheatgrass juice, which not only contain lots of fibre, but also digestive enzymes that further aid your body’s digestive process.
- Organic cacao nibs – believe it or not enjoying a small amount of delicious raw cacao nibs will do wonders for your digestive health! Indeed, the type of fibre found in organic cacao nibs helps to cleanse your intestines and regulate your bowel movements.
2) Consume probiotics
Probiotic foods, such as fermented food and drinks, contain the same live bacteria and yeast (e.g. lactobacillus and bifidobacterium) that live in your gut, where they enhance nutrient absorption and promote bowel health.
Add one or more of the following probiotic foods to your daily diet for considerably improved digestive health:
- Pickled vegetables – such as sauerkraut, which is not only packed with probiotics; it’s also a great source of fibre.
- Kefir – a fermented milk drink that boasts a similar flavour to yoghurt, is loaded with probiotics, and makes a sensible alternative to cow’s milk.
- Tempeh – a meat substitute made from naturally fermented soybeans, which is rich in probiotics and a complete source of vegetable protein.
- Kombucha – a refreshing tea drink that’s crammed with ‘friendly’ bacteria and regarded as a treasured source of Chi (the revitalising life force that harmonises body, mind and soul) in traditional Chinese medicine.
3) Avoid foods that are high in fat
Foods that are high in fat, such as chips, burgers and fried foods, tend to be harder for your body to digest and can cause stomach pain and heartburn. Cutting down on fatty food will ease your stomach’s workload and be better for your health in general. Select lean cuts of meat and swap your usual cooking oil or butter for healthier oils, such as extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil.
4) Keep hydrated
Staying hydrated is crucial for digestive health – fluids, such as water, help to dissolve fat and soluble fibre, allowing them to pass through your digestive system more easily. Avoid drinking too much alcohol as it not only dehydrates, it also contains zero beneficial nutrients, is toxic to your stomach lining and alters liver metabolism, which can lead to indigestion.
5) Stick to regular mealtimes
Establishing regular mealtimes for breakfast, lunch and dinner helps to encourage regular bowel movements and promotes optimal digestive health. Remember to chew your food thoroughly too, as this helps to break your food down into smaller, more digestible chunks. Aim to chew each mouthful at least 30 times before swallowing and never ‘bolt’ your food.
6) Combat stress
Stress activates your central nervous system’s ‘flight or fight’ response, which affects the contractions of your digestive muscles and decreases the secretions required for digestion. In addition, stress can cause inflammation of the gastrointestinal system, and chronic exposure to stress may lead to the development of a variety of gastrointestinal diseases, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer disease, IBS, and food allergies.
Pursue stress-relieving activities, such as yoga, and incorporate a few carefully chosen stress-busting superfoods into your diet, including:
- Organic Incan berries – adaptogenic berries that contain B vitamins, which help to relieve stress, and melatonin, which helps to regulate your biorhythm and promote a sound night’s sleep.
- Organic maca powder – again, an adaptogen that can help to significantly reduce anxiety.
- Organic matcha green tea powder – contains the amino acid, L-theanine, which relieves stress without the drowsiness typically associated with anti-depressant medications. Matcha green tea powder has remained a prized aid to meditation for generations of Japanese Zen Buddhist monks.
- Organic Ashwagandha powder – another adaptogen, which improves the health of your adrenal system, the system that’s directly responsible for managing your body’s hormonal response to stress and fatigue. In a recent human clinical trial, those regularly taking ashwagandha witnessed a 26 percent reduction in their cortisol levels (elevated cortisol levels are a clear indication of chronic stress).
7) Take plenty of exercise
Regular exercise slows down your digestive process, in order to conserve energy. In turn, this improves digestion, aids elimination and reduces constipation. Different types of exercise offer different rewards for your digestive health – cycling for example, can help to relieve heartburn, whilst light exercise, such as walking, which gently increases breathing and heart rate, stimulates the natural contraction of your intestinal muscles, helps food move through your intestines more rhythmically and encourages healthy bowel movements.