Good digestion boosts your energy level and libido, improves your overall physical and mental health. Illness and wellness begins in your gut!
It’s that time again! Many of us are setting goals for the year ahead, some of which revolve around health and wellness.
It is typical to set aesthetic goals at the beginning of a New Year. In my vain opinion, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Being happy with your appearance is not selfish or shallow; however, looking internally is the most efficient way of creating long-term waves in your overall health and appearance.
The single most impactful decision I have made regarding my own physical health has been focusing on good digestion.
With good digestion comes high energy, good mood, improved metabolism, hormonal balance, and healthy weight maintenance. All systems in our bodies are interconnected, and our wellness thrives in our gut.
In this sense, rather being laser focused on my body’s aesthetic on the outside, I try to stay mindful about looking internally at the state of my gut health. The happier my gut, the better I look and feel all around.
There is a lot of talk in the health community about whether or not to follow specific strict diets, and the terms “food freedom,” and “intuitive eating” get tossed around like candy at a parade. Everyone has opinions on how we should be eating and moving.
This post is not about that. This post is about the science of digestion and how turning your attention to the factual way your body operates can be more healing than any other tool you’ve tried.
Many of my friends and family suffer from digestive issues of some sort, whether the frequency of GI upset is occasional, frequent, or daily. For this reason, I thought it would be useful to share some tips on proper digestion to help ease any sort of digestive unrest and also set the stage for long-term wellness.
In my cookbook, Paleo Power Bowls, I touch on some of the fundamentals of good digestion. Because GI discomfort seems to be a very common source of discontent lately, I wanted to dive deeper into the concept of improving digestion.
Disclosure: I am not a healthcare professional and have no ground to stand on in the health community. What I have years of experience figuring out my own digestion. I simply have years of my own trial and error and the assistance of Western, functional, and holistic doctors. Not to mention a ridiculous amount of googling, book and article reading, and podcast listening.
This is Part One of a two-part mini series on digestion. Part One (right here) includes very basic tips, many of which are intuitive. In Part Two, I dive deeper by discussing specific medical tests that can help you pinpoint the root cause of any digestive ailments.
Here are some tips on…
HOW TO IMPROVE DIGESTION
Let’s start with the basics.
Basic Tips For Good Digestion:
Eat Real Food – I don’t care how you eat (vegan, paleo,keto, 80/20, diet-less etc.), just so long as you avoid food that is overly processed for the most part. Bonus points: Discover which foods your body tolerates famously and which don’t process so smoothly.
Monitor Stress – Have you ever gotten nervous and shit your brains out? That is because your digestion is closely tied with your emotions. If you’re constantly stressed, healthy digestion is the last thing your body cares about because it is in fight or flight mode and is just trying to survive.
Sleep, Sleep, Sleep! – Sleep at least 7 to 9 hours per night. Your body heals and digests while you sleep, so ensuring you get enough is crucial to all systems in your body. There is more science behind this than I feel comfortable articulating, so if you want to learn more about JUST how important sleep is to your digestion and overall health, listen to, or watch this podcast.
Chew Your Food – It’s true. Digestion begins in your mouth. If you eat to quickly and swallow food whole, you’re skipping an entire stage of digestion, thus giving your stomach and intestines more work. Try to get it almost liquid before swallowing. I know, I hate chewing too…but it works wonders for your digestion.
Lean Toward Cooked Foods – Raw meat, vegetables, and fruit can contain parasites and bacteria that can cause havoc in your GI. If you’re going through a gut flair (i.e. are experiencing gas, constipation, or diarrhea), it is best to stick with cooked foods at least until the flair is over. In addition, your body doesn’t love processing food that is vastly different from your internal body temperature, so erring on the warm or hot side will throw your GI a bone.
Drink Warm Liquids – Sorry ice water lovers…your water should be room temp or warmer. In ayurvedic practice, it is suggested that you continuously sip on warm liquids, such as tea, broth, or water, throughout the day.
Eat an Appropriate Amount – Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you are ¾ of the way full, and wait at least 15 minutes before eating more. Avoid both under-eating and over-eating. We often misjudge our hunger signals based on stress and hormones. A good practice is to wait until you feel your belly growling before eating, as this is a sure signal your digestive enzymes are active and ready to take on food.
Avoid Eating When Stressed. Wait until you calm down, then eat a nourishing whole food meal (avoid the stress eating behavior of going off the deep end on processed or less-than-stellar food and alcohol).
Exercise Regularly – Figure out how your body likes to move and move it often. Do something active every day but try to not over-do it. Remember that less can be more. The general recommendation is to do something for 30 to 45 minutes per day. Depending on your fitness level, this could be decreased to 3 to 5 times per week. Women: walking and lifting weights are incredible for your hormone health. If you’d like to learn more about how to move for your hormone health, check out Steph Guadreau’s podcast as well as Alisa Vitti’s book, Woman Code and her website, FloLiving.
I read a study that showed running more than 90 minutes at a stretch can increase intestinal permeability (in other words, cause leaky gut), so be mindful about the way your body feels pre and post exercise. You should never feel completely drained after a workout. Doing so can deplete your adrenals and cause hormonal imbalances.
Watch Your Electrolytes – if you’re dehydrated, there won’t be enough water in your bowel to produce regular bowel movements. I source my sodium, magnesium, and potassium separately, but there are tons of electrolyte pills and powders available that do it all for you. My bud, Robb Wolf suggests LMNT.
A novel can be written on each topic above; however, I encourage you to dive deeper by doing your own research and marinating on how to implement a few of the concepts into your own life. Remember, you don’t need to hit it perfectly all the time, and one or two minor adjustments go a long way!
Let’s go deeper.
Focusing on fiber alone may be your golden ticket to figuring out your optimal digestion. Many people track their macros (protein, fat, and carbohydrate), but tracking fiber can be a game changer. Apps like Cronometer give you a breakdown of your macronutrients as well as your micronutrients and fiber. Taking a fiber-first approach to your diet may be all you need for efficient digestion.
The general recommendation for men is 30 to 38 grams of fiber daily, and what is generally recommended for women is 21 to 25 grams of fiber daily.
That said, there is absolutely such a thing as too much fiber, which is why tracking it can be beneficial.
Some people can eat fiber to their heart’s delight without giving it a second thought, whereas some people can tolerate very little without having gastrointestinal repercussions. Discovering which sources and how much fiber work best for your body requires some patience, time and experimentation. Once you uncover how much and what type of fiber your body likes, your poo life will be smooth sailing.
Good sources of fiber:
- Whole grains (rice, oats, barley, wheat if you can tolerate it)
- Beans and legumes
- Winter squash (spaghetti squash, delicata squash, butternut squash, etc).
- Root vegetables (beets, carrots, parsnips, etc)
Some people do very well with fiber pills or supplementing their fiber with sources like Metamucil or psyllium husk. I personally do best with regular food sources (carrots and brown rice are my jam) and do not tolerate fiber supplements well.
Get cozy with the concept that your digestive system needs a certain amount of fiber in order to function optimally. Wrap your mindset around what your body needs versus what it wants. Within the parameters of what your body needs, there is a great deal of freedom!
BLOOD SUGAR REGULATION:
There’s no mystery about it – high blood sugar generally makes you crave processed, sugary, fatty foods and tends to make you feel hungrier.
When blood sugar goes un-monitored, your dietary decisions may not be stellar, which can in turn affect your digestion…if you’re putting overly processed food in your body regularly, your GI will be under stress. Not to mention, swings in blood sugar have an adverse impact on hormone health, especially in women. Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep is also a side effect of peaks and troughs in blood sugar.
For these reasons, Trying to maintain an even blood glucose level is a great way of eliminating many health concerns. Buy a blood glucose monitor (I use Accu-Chek) and test your blood sugar 2 hours after eating. Aiming for balanced meals with plenty of protein and little to no processed sugar will help your body maintain regular blood sugar levels.
Testing your blood glucose 2 hours after eating can also help you uncover food sensitives, as your blood sugar will spike when you consume foods it doesn’t tolerate well. If you notice certain foods cause a jump in blood sugar, that is a clear indication you would benefit from lowering or eliminating your intake of that food.
Want to learn more about blood sugar regulation? Listen to this podcast from Robb Wolf.
THE KETO (LOW-CARB) DIET AND DIGESTION:
Are you going keto to trim some fat or to get your blood sugar under control? Great! But hold on a tick.
If you eat a ketogenic diet and have noticed your poop life is less than stellar (in other words, your stool is consistently very lose, OR you’re constipated), consider adding more fiber and/or carbohydrate to your diet (depending upon what you’re lacking). Having good digestion is far more important than killing yourself over dropping body fat quickly.
Going low-carb temporarily to get your blood sugar under control can be a very powerful tool. For those who have a high fasted blood sugar or notice big spikes in blood sugar after eating meals, a low-carb diet may be a great method to bring energy back into your life and stabilizing your insulin levels.
Remember, when making adjustments to your diet, you are asking your body to do a lot. Stressing your body can stimulate autophagy (healing), but it can also cause unnecessary damage. Figuring out a balancing point is crucial so you aren’t providing so much stress to your body that it never fully recovers.
Unless there is a compelling reason to stick with a low-carb diet in spite of GI repercussions (such as managing an autoimmune disease, epilepsy, mental issues, etc), figure out a better, sustainable way of eating. I say this from years of over-eating protein and under-eating carbs. I personally live my best life when I eat 3 to 4 well-balanced meals per day under a 8 to 12 hour feeding window.
Can Intermittent fasting improve your digestion? For some people, absolutely! Training your body to accept food under a specified window of time can help regulate your blood sugar and get your bowels moving efficiently.
The caveat to this is if you go too hard with fasting intermittently, your digestion can absolutely be thrown off, as can your hormones. This is where listening to your body comes into play. Generally, men do better with longer intermittent fasts than women do, as women’s hormones are sensitive to blood sugar dysregulation.
So when should you fast? That is completely you-dependent.
If you have blood sugar issues, your hormones aren’t spot on, or if fasting simply does not feel right, I’d highly suggest speaking with an RD before implementing a fasting protocol.
I do well with regular 12-hour intermittent fasting overnight as long as I’m eating enough food throughout the day. My digestion is superb when I eat within an 8 to 12-hour feeding window. If I stretch that out, my food doesn’t process as well. I don’t hold myself to this protocol. If 8pm rolls around and I’m super hungry, I eat. Remember, one of the keys to getting great sleep is not going to bed too hungry or too full.
The only time I do okay with a 24-hour fast is when I have plenty of fat reserves (like, when I go to all-you-can-eat sushi and really take it seriously) and don’t have important things to do on the day I’m fasting. So, essentially, I rarely go more than 16 hours without eating.
Summary: Fasting can mess with your bowel movements or it can improve them. Be intentional with your eating habits so you aren’t overly stressing your body and putting it into chronic starvation mode. Generally, three to four well-balanced meals per day in a 8 to 12-hour feeding window is great for most people. If you find this to be too restrictive for your body, don’t do it…do the thing that works best for you. And do it consistently.
Resistant starch plays an important role in digestion. Resistant starch is called such because it is resistant to digestion. It moves along your digestive system and arrives in your colon intact.
If you’ve dabbled in paleo, whole30 or keto and have noticed your GI absolutely hated it, it could be that you weren’t getting enough resistant starch. Potatoes, white rice, carrots, nuts and bananas are excellent sources of resistant starch.
I wrote a little ditty called Is Rice Paleo a while back, as many folks in the paleo community learned along the way that rice and potatoes weren’t as devilish as they thought.
Resistant starch may help prevent colon cancer (due to its ability to bind food together to help it move through your body), improves your insulin resistance, makes you feel full and helps you sleep at night.
We need both digestible and indigestible foods in order to keep our bowel movements regular and well-formed.
In a culture where you can have anything arrive at your doorstep in two days or less and entertainment is quite literally at your fingertips 24/7, we are a highly impatient society. We are living in a very interesting, fast-paced time. Because of this, we often forget how long it can take for our actual body to process changes and to heal.
If you go into a goal thinking you will notice results immediately, you are short-changing yourself and setting yourself up for disappointment and/or failure.
Implementing a dietary change, an exercise plan, adding a new supplement, and/or removing a food or food group all require a great deal of time before you notice any affects. To use myself as an example, it took me about 3 months to notice any changes in my digestive health after implementing a supplement protocol prescribed by my RD. During this time, I was emotional, frustrated, wiped out, and ready to give up. I’m so happy I didn’t, because sticking with the protocol has not only made me tolerant to foods I used to be intolerant to, but it has caused my energy level to skyrocket and my depression and anxiety are basically nonexistent now. Basically, I feel bulletproof. BUT it took time!
As a side note…
One of the common mistakes people make with their health is they will layer too many tools on top of each other. For instance, intermittent fasting + working out daily + eating a ketogenic diet may work well for some people for a short period of time, whereas it may be the kiss of death for others.
Short term gains feel great in the short term, but they often result in backlash when we go to fast out the gate. Life is a journey and Rome wasn’t created in a day.
Determine the life you want, then live that life every single day (but give yourself grace when you don’t hit everything perfectly). The results will follow.
WHEN TO SEE A DOCTOR
Point blank, if something doesn’t feel right, consult a professional.
If any of the following pertain to you, it could be time to stop troubleshooting this on your own and get some help, as there may be more going on.
- Consistent Diarrhea
- Consistent Constipation and/or gas
- Improper digestion (i.e. your food comes out the way it goes in)
- Blood in your stool
- Frequent stomach or GI pain
- Headaches, nausea, insomnia
- Skin rashes or severe acne
- Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
- Low libido in comparison to your normal libido
- Low energy
- You just feel like something is off
While I give kudos to your warriors who are on a mission to biohack your own health, there comes a time when you need to put your pride to the side and ask for help.
Some folks have found certain styles of eating to be highly beneficial to their digestion. Not to be confused with diets, these styles of eating are meant to be custom to your personal body chemistry or DNA.
These tools are all controversial as there isn’t a lot of scientific backing behind them. For this reason, I encourage you to look into them on your own if you feel you could benefit from implementing a new style. I have included resources that will help you on your journey if you do decide to try one out.
- Ayruveda – If you’re interested in Ayruvedic diets, check out Depack Chopra’s book, Perfect Digestion or The Hot Belly Diet.
- Blood Type Diet – Eat Right 4 Your Type
- Food Combining – The Complete Book of Food Combining
- Low Histamine Diet – Histamine Intolerance
Start here. For many of you, all of the above is just a reminder of information you already had but perhaps sometimes forget to put into practice.
For those of you who aren’t new to troubleshooting your digestion and this post feels elementary to you, I gotchu!
Read Part Two of this series, which dives deeper into testing, supplements and mindset.
Best of luck!
You May Also Enjoy Reading:
- How to Improve Your Digestion (Part Two)
- My Journey With Gut Health
- 8 Natural Remedies That Help Relieve IBS Symptoms
- 10 Common IBS Myths