How you eat may be just as important as WHAT you eat.
Most of us have digestive trouble at times. We’re talking about heartburn, painful (and sometimes embarrassing) gas, cramping, or diarrhea. It can be a result of a food intolerance or sensitivity (see our Digestive enzyme blog post this month), or it can be a result of the way in which you are eating.
If you’ve ruled out food intolerance and you’re still seeking digestive help, read on. We have described a number of items on a checklist of actions for better digestion.
1. Eat sitting down
Whether you have a crazy schedule or a toddler who never stops, we all have a reason to eat on the go (or standing over the kitchen sink) every once in a while. We should, however, try not to make it a habit.
The digestive system is designed to do its best work at rest, but gravity and the alignment of your digestive tract can help too. Therefore, sitting to eat (without device or tv distractions) is the best choice for effective digestion. Distractions are associated with overeating, which is yet another opponent of effective digestion .
Standing to eat is often associated with eating as quickly as possible (not healthy; see next tip), and those who stand to eat will often eat more than those who sit and eat slowly .
2. Eat slowly
Eating slowly means chewing food well. Chewing is an important part of digestion. Your teeth are specifically adapted to break food particles as small as possible. This maximizes the surface area upon which enzymes and microorganisms in the gut can attach and further break down macronutrients for absorption.
Speaking of enzymes, the longer each bite stays in your mouth, the more amylase from the saliva can work on carbohydrate breakdown. Yes, digestion starts before you swallow!
If you’re wondering, “how slowly?” The answer is: at least 20 minutes. It takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register a combination of satiation messages from the gut, so it is a good rule-of-thumb for minimum meal duration. There are physical cues, like the stomach expanding, and chemical cues, like early digested material entering the small intestine triggering leptin and cholecystokinin release, that tell the brain you’ve had enough to eat .
If you know it is going to take 20 minutes for your brain to switch from hungry to satisfied, use that information in your decision of how much to put on your plate. Wait and listen to your body before serving yourself more food. Overeating, again, is a typical culprit in digestion issues.
Too much food in the digestive tract at once means enzymes, acid, and microorganisms get outnumbered and cannot work effectively. Food moves from the stomach to the gut without complete digestion, and valuable nutrients remain sequestered in particles that cannot be absorbed. Undigested food sitting in the gut is a breeding ground for undesirable bacterial species and the creation of painful, foul-smelling gas.
3. Eat when you are relaxed, when possible
If we could, we would actually title this section “Don’t eat when stressed”, but that wouldn’t be fair. Many of us feel stressed often and can’t avoid eating when stressed.
Here’s the deal with stress and digestion. Acute stress (when something suddenly scary happens) puts us into “fight or flight” mode. Our bodies literally prepare to run or fight by shunting all of the energy and oxygen to our limbs and away from our core, shutting down power to the digestive system .
If we were living in the wild and being chased by saber-tooth tigers, this makes absolute sense. Why waste any energy on digestion if you’re potentially about to become tiger food? Unfortunately, your body systems can’t differentiate between this type of stress and work or relationship stress.
In a modern scenario, say your boss suddenly moves up a deadline, threatening your employment. Your fight or flight mode is activated and your digestive system shuts down leaving you crampy and bloated if you just ate lunch. However, you really shouldn’t flee or fight. You just need to burn the midnight oil to get the project done.
If you need to eat to keep your energy up, try small, easily digestible snacks or a smoothie. When the major stress feelings pass, then have your next meal. Breathing exercises or a guided meditation may help.
What about chronic stress? If you’re living in an unsafe environment, working multiple jobs, or have another reason stress relief never seems to come, this can wreak havoc on your digestive system too. Stress can weaken tight junctions between gut cells, causing “leaky gut syndrome” and associated health issues .
Being stressed can actually increase the perception of pain associated with indigestion, and having indigestion can worsen the perception of pain and anxiety . If you think this may be a vicious cycle you are caught in, you may need professional help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and stress management techniques are a research-supported solution .
4. Add a digestive aid
A digestive aid is a supplement that supports your natural abilities to break foods down. Perhaps your body isn’t producing enough lactase to break down dairy products like it used to, or you notice fatty foods seem to “go right through” you. A digestive enzyme formula can support more complete food breakdown to increase nutrient absorption and reduce the uncomfortable side effects of indigestion.
Some products (such as Metabolic Maintenance’s GluDaZymeTM) contain a mixture of enzymes. Typical food components that give people trouble are lactose, gluten, plant fibers, and fats. A good, general digestive aid will contain enzymes that target each of these food components.
Bromelain, isolated from pineapple cores, is rich in proteases, specifically. It also works as a potent digestive aid when taken with meals.
If protein breakdown is your digestive issue, you may need support maintaining an appropriate level of acidity in the stomach. Betaine Hydrochloride with Pepsin is a popular natural product that supports a lower pH/more acidic stomach environment. Some people, especially in their later years, experience trouble breaking down proteins due to insufficient stomach acid.
5. Easy on the beverages
Staying hydrated is good, and there is no evidence that a glass or two of water with your meal will negatively affect your digestion. In fact, being well-hydrated is important for healthy stool formation and general movement of digesta through the gut .
Ayurvedic medicine and some others suggest that too much water can dilute digestive enzymes and gastric juices, making them less effective. Stay in the safe zone by drinking just enough to quench your thirst without going overboard (no pun intended).
There is no controversy, however, about the fact that alcohol reduces saliva secretion . We need the enzyme amylase in saliva to start breaking down carbohydrates while we chew. Skip the booze completely if your goal is great digestion.
6. Rest after eating
Remember Mom saying, “NO swimming for at least 30 minutes after eating”? Frustrating, maybe, but science supports this rule.
Digestion and exercise both require blood flow and energy. If your body has to choose, the muscles in the limbs will win. If you get cramps, heartburn, or diarrhea during strenuous exercise right after eating, these are symptoms of the digestive system’s shutdown response to energy partitioning in the body . Again, it makes sense evolutionarily. If you just finished a big meal and a predator approaches, which is more important: digesting or getting away quickly?
It is important to note that moderate exercise –post digestion, of course– benefits the overall health of the digestive system . Regular exercise can help bowel regularity (it speeds the transit time of food through the gut) and is associated with lower rates of colon cancer, cholelithiasis, diverticulitis, and inflammatory bowel disease . So keep moving! …Just not right after your meal.
- Wansink, Brian, and Pierre Chandon. “Slim by design: Redirecting the accidental drivers of mindless overeating.” Journal of Consumer Psychology 24.3 (2014): 413-431.
- Guyenet, Stephan J. The hungry brain: outsmarting the instincts that make us overeat. Macmillan, 2017.
- MacDonald, Ann. “Why eating slowly may help you feel full faster.” Harvard Health Blog (2010).
- Harvard Health Publishing. “Stress and the Sensitive Gut.” Harvard Medical School. August 21, 2019. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/stress-and-the-sensitive-gut
- APA. “Stress effects on the body. American Psychological Association. November 1, 2018. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body
- Fisher, ROBERT S., et al. “Gastric emptying of a physiologic mixed solid-liquid meal.” Clinical nuclear medicine 7.5 (1982): 215-221.
- Enberg, Nina, et al. “Saliva flow rate, amylase activity, and protein and electrolyte concentrations in saliva after acute alcohol consumption.” Oral Surgery, Oral Medicine, Oral Pathology, Oral Radiology, and Endodontology 92.3 (2001): 292-298.
- Peters, H. P. F., et al. “Potential benefits and hazards of physical activity and exercise on the gastrointestinal tract.” Gut 48.3 (2001): 435-439.