According to the American Gastroenterological Association, good digestive health is defined as “a digestive system that has appropriate nutrient absorption, intestinal motility, immune function, and a balanced microbiota…” They continue, “Most people with good digestive health do not regularly experience digestive symptoms such as heartburn, rumbling, nausea, bloating, excessive flatulence, constipation, diarrhea, or abdominal pain or discomfort.”1
But as you are probably all too familiar, poor digestion and gut health go well beyond the digestive tract. I’m talking about:
- Lack of well-being
- Brain fog
- Poor sleep quality
- Skin issues
- Hormone imbalances
- Joint discomfort
- Difficulty with weight management
I think it’s safe to say all of us have experienced at least some of these issues. So, where do you go from here? A good place to start is to build your diet around foods that help digestion. Let’s dig in!
What are the foods that help digestion?
When it comes to building an easy-digesting nutrition plan, what you don’t eat is arguably just as important as what you do. Along those lines—and this should come as no surprise—there’s no “one-size-fits-all” food list or menu plan. As always, tune into how food makes YOU feel, and if you identify a “probable suspect”—even if it’s on the list below—eliminate it. It’s not uncommon for some people to have a negative reaction to foods typically considered “good” and “healthy.” So, rule number one is to build your diet around foods that make you feel good. And, eliminate those that don’t. This is key to choosing foods that help digestion.
- Fermented foods. Before we had refrigeration and preservatives, fermentation was the food preparation method of choice for thousands of years. It helped retain shelf-life and prevent food spoilage. In traditional dietary practices, fermented foods and beverages remain widespread. In addition, there is renewed interest in fermented foods, particularly because they contain “probiotics.” You know, the beneficial microbes (such as bacteria and yeasts) with a wide variety of human health benefits. This includes aiding in digestion and nutrient absorption. Fermented foods include an array of probiotics—including strains from the Lactobacillus, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Lactococcus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces families. These microbes essentially break down the carbohydrates found in these foods, ultimately preserving shelf-life and making it one of the foods that help digestion.2,3 Here’s a handful of some of the most common fermented foods:
- Sourdough bread
- Fermented fish
- Fermented sausage
- Low FODMAP foods. Many people with digestive complaints do well when they consume a diet with reduced fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols. Better known as FODMAPS. In short, FODMAPs are carbohydrates—such as fructose, lactose, sugar alcohols (e.g., sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, xylitol, and isomalt), fructans, and galactans. They’re found in a wide range of foods including cereal grains, dairy, legumes, vegetables, and fruits. Undigested in the small intestine, these poorly absorbed FODMAPs draw water into the large intestine where they are fermented by gut bacteria. The result is gas production, which can lead to abdominal discomfort in susceptible people, who are likely “hypersensitive” to intestinal distension.4 In fact, recent research has shown it is very likely FODMAPs—not gluten—that are to blame for symptoms associated with self-diagnosed non-celiac gluten sensitivity.5
Monash University in Australia, which offers a super-handy smartphone app, has emerged as a leader in FODMAP research and education. Here’s a sample table of high- and low-FODMAP foods:
- Fruits and vegetables. Generally speaking, nearly all fresh fruits and vegetables can be included as part of an easy-digesting meal plan. There are some exceptions, including citrus fruits (e.g., orange, lemon, lime) and nightshade vegetables (e.g., tomatoes, eggplant), to which susceptible people may have a sensitivity. Fruits and vegetables are packed with phytonutrients, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and can also beneficially modulate the gut microbiota (the community of microorganisms that make up the digestive tract). What’s more, raw fruits and vegetables contain enzymes, making it one of the key foods that help digestion. In other words, they’re packaged with the tools they need to digest themselves. Pretty nifty! Of course, fruits and vegetables contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, which can both contribute to digestive health by enhancing laxation and supporting a healthy gut microbiota.6 Of course, some people need to be careful with increasing fiber intake too quickly, particularly insoluble fiber, which can have a similar effect as FODMAPs.5 Speaking of which, if you do find that you’re sensitive to FODMAPs, pay heed to that and choose your fruits and vegetables accordingly.
- Coconut oil, butter, and ghee. As we age, many of us lose the ability to digest foods properly (discussed more below), including fats. Compared to other fats and oils, coconut oil, and to a lesser extent, butter and ghee (also known as clarified butter, or pure dairy fat) are relatively high in medium-chain triglycerides. These are easier to digest than more common long-chain triglycerides. Even better, butter and ghee are the best dietary sources of the easy-digesting short-chain triglyceride butyric acid, which may have numerous health benefits. This includes beneficial effects on digestion, the gut microbiota, inflammation, and immunity.7–9
- Bone broth. Bone broth is all the rage these days, and while there may be some hype, it does seem hold its own, especially when it comes to digestion. Heck, meat stock and bone broth are the backbone of the Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s popular GAPS Diet because of their ability to soothe the gut and ward off harmful microbes. What else makes bone broth one of the foods that help digestion? Well, bone broth contains nutrients (e.g., gelatin, glycine, glutamine) that support the intestinal lining, support a healthy gut microbiota, aid in the production of stomach acid and bile (which both play critical roles in digestion), improve gut motility, and more.10–12
- Turkey, chicken, lamb, and wild game. Generally speaking, beef, eggs, fish, and shellfish tend to be a bit more problematic for folks with digestive issues. Not only that, they are typically “off limits”—at least in the early stages—of elimination diets. When it comes to protein sources, poultry, lamb, and wild game are usually safe starting points.
- Hydrolyzed whey protein. While dairy can be tricky for some folks, it is likely that digestive-related issues are the result of the casein (which makes up 80% of the protein in milk) or lactose components found in milk. Conversely, whey protein (which makes up 20% of the protein in milk) tends to be much less problematic, particularly whey isolate, which has nearly all the lactose removed.
Taking it a step further, hydrolyzed whey isolate is pre-digested (into smaller protein components), resulting in a more easily-digested protein. Hydrolyzed whey protein can be used as part of an elemental or semi-elemental diet, which are tools frequently used to help get the gut in order and overcome digestive distress.13
What Causes Food Not to Digest?
On the same lines as foods that help digestion, there are several factors that can hamper digestion. Here are some of the most prominent.
- Mindless eating. Believe it or not, the first step in digestion begins before we even put food in our mouths. The sight, smell, and even the simple thought of food initiates what’s referred to as the cephalic phase of digestion, which signals the release of stomach acid and certain digestive enzymes.
- Insufficient chewing. The mechanical process of digestion begins in the mouth when the food you eat is exposed to your saliva, which contains enzymes that break down carbohydrates (salivary amylase) and fats (lingual lipase). Chewing, which is also part of the cephalic phase, triggers the rest of the digestive process, helps the muscles of the digestive tract work properly, and signals the pancreas to release digestive enzymes. Interestingly, chewing gum is one method that’s been shown to reduce heartburn.14
- Digestive enzyme production. Simply put, digestive enzymes are the keys that unlock foods’ potential. According to enzyme pioneer Dr. Edward Howell, enzymes are essential for proper digestion, which directly correlates with dramatic improvements in health. In his research, Dr. Howell found we produce fewer digestive enzymes as we age. In fact, Dr. Howell coined the Enzyme Nutrition Axiom, which basically states that age is inversely correlated with enzyme production, and as we get older, the organs responsible for producing digestive enzymes become less efficient.15,16
- Stomach acid production. Despite what you may have been told, many digestive-related issues (e.g., heartburn) may actually signal inadequate stomach acid production. I know, that’s a shocker. But the truth is that the body secretes gastric acid (stomach acid) to help digest proteins and as a defense mechanism against “bad” microbes. In fact, inhibiting the body’s production of stomach acid can lead to inadequate digestion and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which can enhance intestinal permeability and increase levels of the endotoxin lipopolysaccharide (LPS).17
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Numerous vitamins and minerals are essential to ensure the digestive system is working optimally. For instance, several B vitamins (Thiamine, Niacin, B6, Biotin, and B12) play important roles in digestion. What’s more, magnesium is a co-factor in over 300 enzymatic reactions, and it can improve gastric motility and enhance laxation. Meanwhile, manganese and copper are essential for the proper breakdown of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
- Gut dysbiosis. The responsibilities of a normal healthy gut microbiota (the vast community of microbes that inhabit the digestive tract) are multi-faceted and far-reaching. Of course, among the chief functions are digestion and absorption.18 Along those lines, in a state of “dysbiosis,” when the “good” microbes are unsuccessful at controlling the “bad” ones, gut- and digestive-related issues almost invariably ensue.19 It’s important to note, however, that gut microbes (e.g., probiotics) play a much more limited role in digestion than enzymes, as they are primarily responsible for breaking down some of the food we can’t digest (e.g., fibers).
- Intestinal permeability. Have you ever heard of “leaky gut,” also referred to as intestinal permeability? It seems to be a culprit of many of the symptoms associated with poor digestion.
- Stress. Stress can do a doozy on digestion, which probably isn’t too surprising given its seemingly limitless reach on all aspects of health. For starters, stress activates the “fight or flight” branch of the nervous system, which can directly inhibit the body’s ability to “rest and digest.”20 What’s more, we now know chronic stress can compromise the gut microbiota, contributing to dysbiosis and intestinal permeability.19 Have you ever noticed that when you’re stressed, hurried, or eating on the run, digestive-related issues seem to stockpile?
How Can I improve My Digestive Health?
Now that you know some of the major players that can impair digestion, I bet you have some ideas of how you can improve your digestive health (outside of just a list of foods that help digestion), don’t you?
- Eat slowly, mindfully, and intentionally.
- Chew your food thoroughly.
- Supplement with digestive enzymes. There are many options when it comes to digestive enzymes. Unless you have very specific needs, consider starting with a broad-spectrum enzyme supplement that promotes digestion of proteins, carbs, and fats. You may also consider using a stomach acid support supplement, such as betaine hydrochloride.
- Address vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
- Regularly eat fermented foods. Because different fermented foods contain unique strains of probiotics, consider incorporating a variety of them in your diet.
- Supplement with a high-quality probiotic. Not all probiotic supplements are created equal. Look for a product whose probiotics are “protected” with technology like Microecapsulation Technology to ensure viability on the shelf and survival through the stomach. Also, because probiotics have unique functions, most people will be best off using a multi-strain probiotic. What’s more, because they are equally important—if not more important—than probiotics, look for a product that contains prebiotics.
- Patch up a leaky gut. The good news is many of the steps outlined here can help, and here are some additional considerations if you’re looking to put an end to leaky gut.
- Regularly practice stress management. Stress isn’t inherently bad, but too much for too long can be problematic when it comes to digestive health. Focus on properly managing stress by:
- Setting boundaries (i.e., learning to say “NO”)
- Exercising (whatever you enjoy doing)
- Practicing yoga
- Taking a walk outdoors
- Get moving to get moving. Not surprisingly, a sedentary lifestyle is associated with constipation. Along those lines, regular exercise is a fundamental recommendation to help get things moving. After all, studies show that physical activity improves digestion (i.e., gastric emptying). Exercise is also associated with improved bowel movement frequency.21 In fact, one large cohort study showed that women who exercised regularly experienced a 44% reduction in the risk of constipation.22 As is often the case, there can be too much of a good thing. While moderate exercise appears to improve digestion and reduce constipation, it’s well known that severe, exhaustive exercise can have negative effects on digestion (e.g., inhibit gastric emptying, interfere with nutrient absorption) and lead to digestive distress.21
- Eat more fiber. Speaking generally, consuming enough fiber (25 – 40 grams per day) is foundational for digestive health and regularity. Most people who aren’t eating enough find that increasing fiber consumption improves digestion (e.g., reduces bloating, constipation, and discomfort), general feelings of well-being (e.g., feeling less fat, more mentally alert, slim, happy, and more energetic while feeling less stressed, tired, or brain fogged), and bowel function (e.g., more ease).5,6,23,24Be careful, however, before ramping up your fiber intake too quickly. Also, as mentioned above, some people seem to be particularly sensitive to increases in insoluble fiber. As has been the theme throughout, make sure you pay attention to how your body responds to any changes you make. It’s best to implement changes systematically so you can identify what’s working—or not.
- Stay hydrated. Although not very glamorous, adequate hydration goes hand-in-hand with fiber intake when it comes to optimizing digestion.25 Although water needs can vary significantly depending on body size, activity levels, environment (e.g., humidity, temperature), sweat rate, etc., the Institute of Medicine suggests that men drink 2.6 liters of water per day (~88 ounces) and women drink 1.8 liters per day (~61 ounces). This is in line with the fairly common recommendation to drink about 8 – 10 eight-ounce glasses of water a day.
- Remove trigger foods. We’ve touched on some “trigger” foods already in the sections above. Just to recap, here are some “probable suspects” that are often associated with digestive complaints. Just keep in mind that any food can be problematic. Just because a food falls on the list below doesn’t mean you have to eliminate it—only if it’s a problem for you. [Note this also includes processed foods that contain ingredients derived from these foods.]
- Milk products
- Wheat and other grains
- Fish and seafood
- FODMAP-containing foods
- Histamine-releasing foods
- Foods containing biogenic amines
- Spicy foods
- Fried foods
- Supplement with Berberine. Frequently used to support glycemic control and insulin sensitivity—for which it is quite effective—berberine has a long history of use to combat digestive-related issues due to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Berberine may help support gut barrier function, promote a healthy intestinal lining, improve gut motility, and reduce digestive discomfort.26
- Supplement with Curcumin. Because of its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties, curcumin is thought to be beneficial for digestive-related issues. It preferentially accumulates in the intestines and colon, fortifying its promise in soothing digestive-related issues.27,28 Keep in mind that curcumin has very poor bioavailability. Based on the most recent research, a water-soluble form of curcumin (CurcuWIN®) seems to be the most bioavailable option.29
How Do I Get Healthy Gut Flora?
There’s no question that healthy gut flora is a linchpin when it comes to digestive health and function. As we’ve discussed above, there are many steps to take to improve digestive system health and function. Many similar strategies can be implemented to promote a healthy gut flora, including the following:
- Ditch the Western-style diet. Speaking generally, a “Western-style” diet is characterized by ultra-processed, “fast” foods and particularly high contents of added sugars, refined fats (e.g., omega-6-rich vegetable oils, saturated fats, trans fats), poor-quality meat, and salt.30 Not surprisingly, this way of eating appears to directly lead to dysbiosis, intestinal permeability, and impaired gut barrier function.19 In case there’s any ambiguity there, let me be abundantly clear: Processed “foods,” which are synonymous with refined sugars and poor-quality oils, essentially serve as fuel for bad, opportunistic microbes, causing dysbiosis.31 On the other hand, a gut-friendly diet emphasizes whole, nourishing, minimally processed foods.
- Regularly eat fermented foods.
- Supplement with a high-quality probiotic.
- Consume foods and/or use supplements containing prebiotics. Certain types of fiber (such as oligosaccharides, β-glucans, gums, some hemicelluloses, and resistant starches) are fermented by the good bacteria in the large intestine. These fibers, often referred to as “prebiotics” (such as FOS, GOS, XOS, and inulin), are primarily regarded for their capacity to preferentially influence the composition of the gut microbiota.32 In other words, prebiotics serve as food for the healthy bugs that reside inside us. Prebiotics occur naturally in foods such as leeks, asparagus, chicory, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions, whole wheat, raw oats, and soybeans.33 While there’s little debate that both probiotics and prebiotics are immensely important, some have speculated that “the advantages of prebiotics outweigh those of probiotics.”34
- Practice stress management.
- Strengthen your gut with exercise. There’s not too much that regular exercise isn’t good for. And, believe it or not, it can always play a substantial role in improving the gut flora. For instance, recent research suggests that exercise can enhance the number of beneficial microbial species, enrich the diversity of the microbiota, and improve the development of good microbes. This is all highly beneficial for the gut flora and the host (that’s YOU)!35 Having said that, severe, exhaustive exercise (such as with endurance athletes) can be a significant source of physical and emotional stress. Along those lines, multiple studies have shown that the majority of hard-training athletes report digestive disturbances. This may be traced back to exercise-induced leaky gut and potential changes to the composition of the gut microbiota..36
- Be mindful of medications. By no means is this intended to be misconstrued as medical advice. Rather, it’s simply to raise your awareness that certain medications, such as antibiotics and proton pump inhibitors, can have a negative effect on the digestive system and gut microbiota.37–39
- Remove trigger foods. While gluten may not be the devil some make it out to be, the research from Dr. Alessio Fasano, one of the world’s leading researchers and experts in the area of gluten sensitivity, has also shown that gluten contributes to leaky gut. In fact, Dr. Fasano’s work has shown that, after gluten exposure, intestinal permeability increases in all individuals—not just those with gluten sensitivity.40 Having said that, all the same “trigger” foods mentioned above (e.g., soy, grains, dairy, corn, etc.) apply here as well—not just wheat-containing foods.
- Go easy on artificial sweeteners. Emerging evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners may have a negative effect on the gut microbiota. In a study published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Duke University researchers found that consumption of the artificial sweetener sucralose for 12 weeks altered the gut microbiome in rats by significantly reducing the amount of good bacteria (i.e., probiotics), which remained significantly depressed after a 12-week recovery period.41 In a recent study published in the journal Nature, a team of researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that humans consuming the artificial sweetener saccharin for JUST 5 days demonstrated significant changes in the composition and function of their gut microbiome (i.e., dysbiosis).42
- Drink alcohol in moderation. Studies show that moderate consumption of certain types of alcoholic beverages can have a beneficial impact on the gut microbiota, as wine and beer contain certain polyphenols that can have a prebiotic-like effect, stimulating the growth of “good” microbes while subsequently inhibiting “bad” ones. As with most things alcohol-related, when alcohol consumption is excessive, problems arise. For instance, excessive alcohol consumption may contribute to dysbiosis, leaky gut, SIBO, and high levels of the endotoxin LPS.43–45
As you can tell by this rather in-depth article, gut health can be a complicated endeavor, yet it’s well worth the effort. If improving gut health is a goal for you (and since you’ve made it this far, I’m sure it is!), I recommend taking it slowly and making small changes to enjoy the long-lasting advantages a healthy gut imparts.