Health

What is the secret to better digestive health?

woman on sofa holding stomach ache

How can we improve digestion?

Here in the UK, research suggests that as many as 43% of us will experience an issue with digestion at some point in our lives. From what I’ve learned through both my medical education and my experience speaking to many patients throughout my years as a GP, it’s not a statistic I’m at all surprised by.

Be it circumstantial or down to chronic or predisposed genetic conditions, there are many reasons why people might find themselves facing digestive issues as food moves through the body – with symptoms ranging from heartburn to constipation.

While it’s always advised that you speak to your GP if you’re experiencing ongoing issues, there are ways you can begin to take your digestive health into your own hands. Read on to find out more about how your digestive system works, why you might be experiencing discomfort, and how you can improve your digestion.

What is digestion, and how does it work?

Let’s start with the basics: the role of the digestive system is to break down food into its simplest forms so that nutrients can be absorbed into the body, and waste can pass through. Organs such as the liver, gallbladder, pancreas and stomach produce and store digestive fluids such as bile to help break down foods, while the small and large intestines help us to absorb the much-needed nutrients and fluids, and turn the rest into waste.

On average, this whole process – from consuming food to opening your bowels – can take anywhere between 24 and 72 hours. The time depends on the amount and types of foods consumed.

What are the signs we’re not digesting our food properly?

Digestion isn’t always simple for everyone. Some of us may have medical reasons why we’re not digesting our food well (more of which later). At other times, the effectiveness of our digestion directly correlates with our eating and lifestyle habits.

Key things to be mindful of include:

  • a change in bowel movements
  • heartburn
  • indigestion
  • abdominal discomfort
  • nausea
  • quick feelings of fullness after eating

These are all possible signs that our digestive system is struggling.

Which foods are hard to digest?

There are some types of food that are harder to digest than others, and some that our bodies can reject outright if we have an intolerance or allergy. It’s best to speak to your GP if you think you fit into the latter two categories and you’re advised to keep a food diary to try to pin down which foods are triggering a reaction.

In general, foods that are harder to digest include protein-rich foods, red meat, dairy products, and fatty or fried foods. So if someone wants their digestive system to be working as efficiently as possible, I would recommend limiting such foods and introducing more fibrous fruit and vegetables into their diets.

woman pours fruit smoothie into bowl

There are many things we can do to help improve our digestion – first, looking at our diet. As mentioned, fibrous fruit and vegetables make a good addition to your diet if you’re struggling with your digestion. Those that are particularly recommended include apples, which are rich in soluble fibre that feeds ‘good bacteria’ in your gut, and fennel, shown in studies to help reduce gassiness and signs of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Switching out white pasta, bread and rice for wholewheat or brown alternatives also delivers more fibre to your system. Essentially, higher fibre intake correlates with more regularity when it comes to bowel movements and a lower risk of constipation.

Probiotic foods that contain ‘friendly’ live bacteria and yeasts can also support better digestion – including foods such as kefir (a fermented milk drink) and kombucha (fermented tea). They can help balance bacteria in the gut, reduce digestive symptoms such as gas, and even aid with the absorption of key vitamins. You could also add a probiotic supplement to your routine if you find it hard to get them from diet alone.

However, it’s not just what we eat but how we eat that can help. Eating mindfully by chewing food slowly can actually assist the digestive process in the mouth – our saliva gets things started thanks to the enzymes it contains (which break down carbohydrates into simple sugars).

Drinking plenty of water and keeping ourselves hydrated also aids the digestive system. Taking in water and other liquids helps break down food and help soften stools, which can prevent constipation.

As always, you also shouldn’t underestimate the importance of movement and exercise. This increases the blood flow to essential muscles and organs within the gastrointestinal tract, stimulating peristalsis – muscle contractions that help to move food along the digestive tract. As always, aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise, five days a week.

Which supplements can help with digestion?

It’s best to look at your diet and lifestyle first when it comes to improving your digestive health. However, some key nutrients can help to support your digestive system, such as probiotics. Nature’s Truth Bio Cultures 1 Billion can help to support gut health, bringing together several strains of ‘good’ bacteria.

Nature’s Truth Digestive Enzymes Complex brings together a blend of enzymes such as amylase, protease and lipase, which can help to break down different food types.

The B vitamin family is important for healthy digestion while there is evidence that vitamin D and vitamin C also help, so it may be worth adding these to your supplement routine if you don’t get adequate amounts from food alone.

What are some common digestion problems?

There are lots of potential medical conditions associated with the digestive system. Common digestion-related illnesses include:

Gastritis

This occurs when the lining of the stomach has been eroded, leading to inflammation and irritation. It can occur after excessive consumption of alcohol or painkillers, be linked to stress or be brought on by a bacterial infection. Gastritis can come on suddenly (acute gastritis) or develop over time (chronic gastritis).

Symptoms include:

  • a burning or aching feeling in the stomach
  • indigestion
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • a full sensation in the upper abdomen after eating

Heartburn and acid reflux

Heartburn is characterised by a burning feeling in the chest, which occurs when stomach acid travels upwards towards the throat (acid reflux). It’s very common and can happen for no reason, but it’s often a result of lifestyle factors such as the types of foods consumed (things like alcohol, coffee, tomatoes and fatty or spicy foods can all contribute) and whether someone is a smoker or not. Stress, smoking and pregnancy can also make it worse.

Symptoms include:

  • an acidic taste in the mouth
  • a burning pain in the chest after eating
  • pain that worsens when lying down

Regular sensations of heartburn are known as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) and can lead to wider issues – if heartburn or acid reflux is an ongoing problem for you, see your GP.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Another common digestive issue is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This can be triggered by stress or by certain foods we eat, and typically, people either have constipation-dominant or diarrhoea-dominant IBS.

Symptoms of IBS include:

  • abdominal pain
  • cramping
  • bloating
  • gas
  • diarrhoea
  • constipation

Foods that are sometimes linked to IBS include processed products, alcohol, caffeine, dairy, and breads and cereals made from refined (not whole) grains. Some nutrition experts also believe that a high-protein diet can contribute.

If you find dairy products trigger such symptoms, you may be suffering from an intolerance to lactose (the sugar found in milk and milk products).

If you experience any of the above symptoms, it’s best to speak to your GP.

Read more from Doctor Shireen and the Nature’s Truth’s Expert Panel here.



Dr Shireen

Dr Shireen

General Practitioner

A GP working in the NHS, you might have already seen her online or featured in magazines as a health educator and communicator. Doctor Shireen takes a holistic approach to wellbeing and is passionate about supporting her patients’ mental health and physical health. She’ll be helping us bring you clear and helpful information and ideas for taking care of your general health.