How Do I Support My Digestion? The Basics Our Registered Dietitians Want You To Know!Nov 19, 2021
Occasional run-ins with digestive symptoms like an upset stomach, gas, heartburn, nausea, constipation, or diarrhea are a normal part of life! However, when these symptoms occur frequently, they can cause major disruptions to your life, and indicate that something isn't working optimally. Regardless of how frequently you experience unpleasant digestive symptoms, there are nutrition and lifestyle changes we as Registered Dietitians know can positively impact your gut health (and daily comfort!). In this article and accompanying 'Nutrition Unpeeled Podcast' episode, we'll review the most impactful and evidence-based strategies to support gut health!
DIGESTIVE HEALTH FOUNDATIONS
Let's start the conversation with our Dietitian-approved list of digestive health foundations. While individual approaches to digestive health are necessary to troubleshoot specific symptoms, these foundational recommendations are the habits we recommend for all clients inside of our Comprehensive Nutrition Coaching program as the building blocks for optimal digestion and gut health!
1. EAT ENOUGH FIBRE (but not too much!)
While fibre offers many benefits for our health, there are two main ways that fibre contributes to a healthy gut:
- Fibre aids in regular bowel movements:
When working well, you can think of your gut like a garbage disposal unit: It effectively rids your body of waste products. Fibre is a non-digestible form of carbohydrate that adds bulk to the digestive tract, therefor increasing the rate at which stools moves through the intestines. Consuming adequate fibre increases the efficiency and rate of waste passing through the body.
- Fibre feeds your gut bacteria:
Dietary fibres are food for the microbiome (ie., the 'good' bacteria) that live in your intestines. A healthy, diverse gut microbiome benefits digestion by breaking down food particles and allowing for easier absorption of nutrients. Consuming a variety of foods that are rich in fibre is one strategy to support the gut microbiome!
How much fibre?
While each nutrition coaching client is unique, we generally recommend that our clients consume a minimum of 25g of fibre per day. Some clients experience optimal digestion when their fibre intake is higher than 25g per day! You can determine how much fibre you consume by tracking your intake or reading Nutrition Facts tables. Fibre is found in a variety of plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, starches (eg., oats, popcorn, whole-grain bread, sweet potatoes, and more), beans and lentils, and plant-based fats (eg., chia seeds, ground flax, avocado, dark chocolate, and others).
What happens when you don't eat enough fibre:
Too little fibre may lead to digestive health-related symptoms like infrequent bowel movements (ie., less than one movement per day) and/or constipation.
What happens if you eat too much:
Too much fibre may also cause undesirable digestive symptoms like bloating, cramping, or irregular bowel movements (eg., more than three trips to the washroom at sporadic times). As Registered Dietitians, we find that our clients have unique tolerances to fibre where some clients feel best with a lot of fibre and others feel best with a moderate intake.
DIETITIAN TIP: Watch out for fibre added products!
The fibres added to products like Smart Sweets, Quest Bars or other protein bars, low-carb breads, and certain cereals can cause digestive upset, bloating, constipation, or cramping. When considering your fibre intake, monitor how your body responds to foods that naturally contain fibre versus foods with added fibres.
2. STAY HYDRATED
Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water is a simple way to support your digestive processes for two key reasons:
- Lubrication: Fluids help lubricate the digestive tract to more easily pass stool through.
- Works with fibre: Certain types of fibres (ie., soluble fibre) absorb water in the gut. For this reason, those who consume a higher-fibre diet require more fluids to efficiently pass the fibre through their digestive tract.
How much fluid should you be consuming:
As Registered Dietitians know, there is no specific recommendation for the amount of fluid one should consume, as hydration requirements depend on many factors such as body composition, activity level, climate, fibre intake, and more. However, if you are looking for a guideline to get started you may consider consuming half your body weight (in pounds) in ounces of water. For example, a 150 pound person may aim for 75 ounces of water which is about 2L of water per day. Don't forget that we also obtain fluids from fruits, vegetables, and some meals like soups or smoothies!
How to tell if you are drinking enough:
While there are many factors unrelated to digestive health that may cue you to consume more fluids (eg., fatigue or cramping), when it comes to digestive health the most common symptom is constipation or hard, difficult to pass stool (ie., stool types 1 through 3 as shown in the graphic below).
3. CHEW YOUR FOOD
Why it's important:
Many people think that digestion starts when food enters your stomach. However, digestion actually begins in the mouth! 'Mechanical digestion' is the act of chewing food in your mouth which breaks food into smaller particles making your meal easier to digest. Additionally, when you chew your food thoroughly, your body releases digestive enzymes that help to break down food so that your body can more easily absorb nutrients. If you're experiencing indigestion, bloating, or constipation it may be worthwhile to slow down and chew well. Here are some tips for doing so:
- Count your bites and chew between 10-20 times per mouthful (of course, this depends on the type of food you are eating!)
- Make time for meals so you can slow down and chew well (aim to take at least 10 minutes to enjoy a meal!)
- Take breaks for water (breaking for water can slow down your eating speed while obtaining the fluids you need for smoother digestion)
4. GET MOVING
Exercise stimulates peristalsis, which is the process of moving digested food through the digestive tract. Walking before or after a meal can speed up the time it takes food to move from the stomach to the small intestines which can improve energy by increasing the digestion and absorption of nutrients. Daily movement before or after meals can even relieve symptoms related to acid reflux, heartburn, or constipation.
More rigorous or high-impact exercise can interfere with digestive processes. For this reason, our Dietitians recommend allowing around 60 minutes to digest a meal prior to more strenuous exercise, or have an easy-to-digest snack if you have less than 60 minutes before exercise and are in need of an energy boost. Foods that are easily digestible and provide energy for high-impact training include carbohydrate foods that are low in fibre (eg., homemade banana muffin, banana, rice cakes, or fruit squeeze pouch).
SUPPORTING HABITS FOR DIGESTIVE HEALTH
After mastering the foundational digestive health habits, many of our clients look to our team of Registered Dietitians to further support their digestion with individualized food and lifestyle considerations. Here are a few our favourite supportive habits:
1. MANAGE YOUR STRESS
A common cause of digestive upset is an imbalance in your central nervous system wherein you are spending more time in the sympathetic nervous system state (ie., fight or flight) than the parasympathetic nervous system state (ie., rest and digest). You can visualize the central nervous system as a teeter totter with two opposing sides:
- SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM (SNS): The “flight or flight” system prepares the body to protect itself when it interprets a real or perceived threat. The system leaps into action to immediately divert resources to the parts of our body needed to fight danger. For example, you may trigger your sympathetic nervous system with the negative stress of being stuck in traffic or the positive stress of doing a high impact workout!
- PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM (PNS): The “rest and digest” system is the default setting when we are not 'in danger'. The PNS directly sends blood and nutrients to our organs for a sense of relaxation and repair. For example, you may trigger your parasympathetic nervous system while you're enjoying a distraction-free meal in a relaxed setting, or as you read a book before bed.
While both systems are important and vital to our survival, when our goal is optimizing digestion, we want to promote the 'rest and digest' division of our nervous system at meal-time and throughout the day. When in a relaxed state our body's digestive processes are optimized for improved nutrient absorption and regular bowel movements.
2. GIVE YOUR DIGESTIVE TRACT A BREAK
Giving your digestive tract breaks in between periods of eating can support its optimal function and health. The team of Registered Dietitians at Vitality Nutrition recommend scheduling your meals 3-5 hours apart and/or taking a break from eating for 12-14 hours overnight in order to effectively achieve this. For example, if you have your last meal at 8pm this would mean waiting to eat until between 8am to 10am the next morning. Giving your digestive tract a break between meals supports the migrating motor complex (MMC) which is a process that takes into account the muscles of the gastrointestinal tract.
The MMC is often referred to as the “housekeeper” of the digestive tract, as its primary function is to sweep residual, undigested material through the digestive tube and out of the body. The MMC is activated between meals or during periods of fasting. Giving your gut a 'break' activates this important housekeeping function which helps keep your body free from debris that can cause 'bad' bacteria and dysfunction!
3. EAT ENOUGH
Eating enough is an often under-looked strategy for improving digestive health. Under-eating can present as bloating or constipation when your metabolism is 'down- regulated' – discouraging the healthy motility of the gut. Eating enough means fuelling your body with enough total calories to maintain metabolism but also consuming enough fibrous foods to stimulate the muscles in the gut!
4. ADD FERMENTED FOODS OR PROBIOTICS
Consuming fibre, as mentioned earlier, is a key habit for feeding the 'good' bacteria that live in our gut. While many of these bacteria are naturally present in the gut, we can increase their diversity by adding fermented foods or probiotic foods to our diet. A diverse microbiome ensures our body can more easily digest food particles and absorb key nutrients from our meal. Some examples of fermented foods and probiotics that our team of Dietitians love to add to their clients' diets for gut health include:
- Plain kefir
- Greek yogurt
- Unpasteurized sauerkraut
- Unpasteurized kimchi
- Kefir water
In addition to adding foundational and supporting digestive health habits, it is important to be aware of specifics foods and scenarios that may alter digestion.
1. SUGAR ALCOHOLS
Sugar alcohols are sweeteners that have about half the calories of regular sugar. They occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, but some are manufactured and added to processed foods to reduce their caloric content.
Many foods labeled "sugar free" or "no sugar added" have sugar alcohols in them. You can find sugar alcohols on the label by watching for sweeteners that end in 'ol'. For example: erythritol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol. You'll often see these ingredients added to protein bars or sugar-free candies.
Because the body cannot digest most sugar alcohols, they travel to the large intestine where they are metabolized by your gut bacteria. When the sugar alcohols are fermented in the colon, they can cause significant digestive distress including diarrhea, bloating, and gas.
2. MENSTRUAL CYCLE
In the luteal phase of the cycle (ie., the 10-14 days before your period), a hormone called progesterone dominates the cycle. Progesterone has a relaxing effect on smooth muscles, including the gut, which can slow gut motility. For this reason, many of the clients we meet through our Comprehensive Nutrition Coaching Program experience constipation and/or bloating in the days leading up to their period. You can support this natural body rhythm by drinking plenty of water and eating enough fibre to add bulk to the stool and aid in regular digestion.
3. INDIVIDUAL INTOLERANCES
All bodies are unique. As a result, some people may have intolerances to certain foods whereby avoiding these foods is beneficial for maintaining the health and integrity of the gut. Common food intolerances that cause digestive upset include high FODMAP foods, dairy, gluten, and meals that are high in fat. If you suspect you have a food intolerance it is important to reach out to a Registered Dietitian for careful assessment and planning. We maintain a healthy gut by eating a wide variety of foods – so our goal as Dietitians is to help our clients maintain as much variety in their diet as possible and to avoid adopting a permanent food restriction unless absolutely necessary.
As Registered Dietitians we are often asked these common questions as they relate to digestive health:
- Should I take collagen for my gut health?
- Should I add a probiotic supplement?
- Is it necessary to eliminate gluten and dairy for optimal digestion?
We answer these questions (and more!) on Episode 4 of the Nutrition Unpeeled Podcast. You can listen in here for our perspective!
THE BOTTOM LINE
While there are many factors influencing digestive health that require individualized recommendations and planning, there are a number of central foundations and habits that the Registered Dietitians at Vitality Nutrition recommended as you get started promoting your digestive health:
- Eat enough fibre (but not too much!)
- Stay hydrated
- Chew your food well
- Move your body
- Manage your stress
- Give your digestive tract a break
- Eat enough
- Add fermented foods or probiotics
Don't forget that our team of Registered Dietitians address gut health as a key component of the Comprehensive Nutrition Coaching program. You can learn more online, or contact us directly for more information!
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