If you’re struggling with gas, bloating, and heartburn you’re not alone. Digestive issues are one of the top complaints I hear from my patients—and these issues can lead to symptom development in other parts of the body. Poor digestion is often a root cause of other health issues, from fatigue to immune system dysfunction, to joint pain, to skin manifestations.
Plus, many of the quick-fix medications sold in your grocery store or pharmacy can do more harm than good. Antacids, for example, can give you relief in a pinch, and they can be incredibly helpful for relieving heartburn almost immediately. But long-term use can backfire on you by causing downstream effects like gas, bloating, burping, and even diarrhea or constipation. Whenever you shut down or suppress a physiological mechanism in the body, side effects can occur. So, when taken acutely, antacids can be helpful, but long-term use can worsen the very issues you’re trying to solve.
Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to achieve healthy digestion, naturally—and the secret is giving your body the components it needs to support each stage of digestion. Here’s what I tell my patients.
1: Pay Attention to How You Eat
Many people don’t realize it, but digestion begins in your mouth, not your stomach. Mechanical digestion is the first step, which involves thoroughly chewing food to physically break it down into smaller pieces. Next, chemical digestion begins as the digestive enzyme amylase is secreted in your saliva, which breaks down carbohydrates into simpler molecules that are easier for your body to digest. A general rule of thumb is to make sure you chew each bite of food at least 10-20 times—which can often help reduce a common symptom like indigestion, with no further intervention needed.
Stress can also affect digestion because stress can activate your sympathetic nervous system, which is the “fight or flight” branch of your nervous system responsible for keeping you alive in emergency conditions like running from a bear. To properly digest food, the “rest and digest” arm of the nervous system–the parasympathetic nervous system–needs to be primed and ready to go. The parasympathetic nervous system allows the digestive system to function optimally by supporting enzyme release, vagal tone, and motility.
My Recommendation: Create a relaxed space for dining. Turn off the news and avoid scrolling through your phone. Instead, focus on being present for the meal in front of you and chew each bite at least 20 times. You can try putting on some relaxing music to calm your nervous system while you eat, or look out your window and observe the trees, birds, sunshine, or whatever it is that helps bring a sense of peace within. Then, if possible, follow up your meal with a walk to increase blood flow to help facilitate the digestive process.
2: Take Probiotics to Improve Digestion
Your entire digestive tract, from your mouth to your anus, contains trillions of living microorganisms called gut microflora that support healthy digestion and elimination. Yet, many things in our environment can upset the balance of these microorganisms—including chemicals in the foods we eat, the medications we take, and even the water we drink.
One of the best solutions is to take probiotics that promote healthy microflora and crowd out bad bacteria—supporting the digestive process. Plus, probiotics support the cells that line your digestive tract, promoting the integrity of the gut barrier. They also help to break down and aid the absorption of nutrients from the foods you eat.
Another benefit of probiotics is that they support healthy elimination. They do that by rebalancing the healthy microorganisms in your colon, which helps with everything from constipation to diarrhea. For this reason, taking probiotics can help ease symptoms for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
My Recommendation: Include probiotic-rich foods in your diet, such as sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and more. It’s also important to take a good probiotic supplement. You want to look for one with clinical studies that show it works. Plus, examine the label to see how many colony-forming units (CFU’s) are in the formula. I recommend looking for one that contains at least 2 billion CFU’s.
It’s also important to note that when you begin taking probiotics, you may temporarily develop more gas and bloating. If this happens to you, reduce the dose for a few days and within two weeks the symptoms should resolve.
3: Add Prebiotics to Fortify the Probiotics
To fully support healthy digestion, you want to pair your probiotics with prebiotics. Prebiotics are a specialized form of fiber your body can’t digest, which allows it to bypass the acids in your stomach and make its way to your intestines where it feeds and fuels the good bacteria that support healthy digestion. I’ve often referred to prebiotics as the “fertilizer” that allows the healthy digestive-supporting bacteria in your gut to multiply and thrive.
Plus, prebiotics help to improve gut-barrier function, helping to support the mucous layer and thin layer of cells lining your intestines. They also support immune health as well.
My Recommendation: Add prebiotic-rich foods to your diet, including garlic, onions, leeks, artichokes, asparagus, bananas, and sugar beets, to name a few. I also recommend taking a good prebiotic supplement. There are several types, including FOS, GOS, inulin, and XOS. XOS helps to energize and promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Plus, unlike other forms of prebiotics, it’s well tolerated with fewer side effects.
If there is underlying dysbiosis or an imbalance of gut flora, prebiotics in food or supplement form can often exacerbate symptoms like gas and bloating. If you continue to bloat post-consumption of prebiotic foods or supplements, I suggest talking to your health care provider about testing for dysbiosis like small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) for example.
4: Take Enzymes to Aid Digestion
Your body produces digestive enzymes throughout your digestive system—in the mouth, pancreas, stomach, salivary glands, and small intestine. The role of enzymes in digestion is to chemically break down the foods you eat into components that can be absorbed and used by your body.
So, what enzymes digest carbohydrates, protein, and fats? There are three main classes of enzymes your gastrointestinal tract produces and releases to digest these different types of macromolecules:
- Amylases break down carbohydrates into simple sugars, such as glucose, which is your body’s primary fuel source.
- Proteases break down proteins into amino acids your body then uses to stimulate muscle growth and repair, skin and connective tissue, support immune function, and more.
- Lipases break down fats into fatty acids and glycerol, which are energy-storage molecules that are involved with metabolism.
Without digestive enzymes, none of these processes would occur. While your body produces enzymes, many things can impede enzyme creation—such as aging or chronic stress. Whole foods including fruits and vegetables naturally contain enzymes to help aid digestion, whereas processed foods are devoid of enzymes that increase the body’s enzyme requirements for digestion. This is another reason to avoid processed foods as they really are “empty” of not only nutrients but also naturally occurring enzymes.
Signs of an enzyme deficiency can include the feeling that you have a “rock” in your stomach after eating a big meal, gas and bloating, fatigue after eating, abdominal cramping, heartburn, and constipation, and/or diarrhea. Plus, if you notice floating stools it may be a signal that you’re having trouble absorbing fats.
My Recommendation: Take a good digestive enzyme supplement at the beginning of your meal to help facilitate digestion. I recommend looking for one with a broad spectrum of enzymes including amylases, proteases, and lipases—as well as other enzymes like bromelain, cellulase, lactase, peptidase, and alpha-galactosidase.
So, What’s the Bottom Line?
Digestion is a complicated process that we, fortunately, don’t need to consciously think about–it just happens. The first tip for optimal digestive function is to eat a whole food diet and eliminate foods that don’t agree with you (food allergies, or food intolerances like gluten or dairy for example).
You can also improve the gut terrain and digestive function by eating foods rich in probiotics and/or taking a probiotic supplement, taking digestive enzymes with meals, choosing prebiotic-rich foods, and/or taking prebiotic supplements.
Lastly, choosing HOW to eat your food can make all the world of difference in whether you digest your food well. Create a peaceful, quiet, and low-stress environment (and mental state) to eat your food as the setting can be just as important as the foods you put into your mouth.