Diet and lifestyle changes, such as eating whole foods and avoiding late-night meals, can have a positive impact on your gut health.
Everyone experiences occasional digestive symptoms such as upset stomach, gas, heartburn, nausea, constipation or diarrhea.
However, when these symptoms occur frequently, they can cause major disruptions to your life.
Whole foods are minimally processed, rich in nutrients, and linked to a wide range of health benefits.
On the other hand, the highly-processed foods found in a typical Western diet are often high in refined carbs, saturated fat, and food additives. Processed foods have been linked to an increased risk of developing digestive disorders (
Food additives, including glucose, salt and other chemicals, have been suggested to contribute to increased gut inflammation.
Inflammation may impair the barrier function of your intestines, leading to increased gut permeabilility. In turn, increased gut permeability may contribute to a range of health conditions (
Some processed foods may contain harmful trans fats. In the past, most of the trans fats found in processed foods came from partially-hydrogenated oils.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned partially-hydrogenated oils in 2018, small amounts of trans fats may still be found in processed foods (
It’s important to read the labels on processed foods to be sure they’re free of trans fats. These fats are well-known for their negative effects on heart health but have also been associated with an increased risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease (
What’s more, processed foods like low-calorie drinks and ice creams often contain low-calorie or no-calorie sugar substititutes. Some of these sweeteners may cause digestive problems.
Sugar alcohols such as xylitol and erythritol are sugar substitutes that can cause bloating and diarrhea. One study found that eating 50 grams of xylitol led to bloating and diarrhea in 70% of people, while 75 grams of erythritol caused the same symptoms in 60% of people (
Studies also suggest that artificial sweeteners may increase your number of harmful gut bacteria (
Gut bacteria imbalances have been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease (
Fortunately, scientific evidence suggests that diets high in nutrients protect against digestive diseases (
Therefore, eating a diet based on whole foods and limiting the intake of processed foods may be best for optimal digestion.
Diets high in processed foods have been linked to a higher risk of digestive disorders. Eating a diet low in food additives, trans fats and artificial sweeteners may improve your digestion and protect against digestive diseases.
It’s common knowledge that fiber is beneficial for good digestion.
Soluble fiber absorbs water and helps add bulk to your stool. Insoluble fiber acts like a giant toothbrush, helping your digestive tract keep everything moving along (
Soluble fiber is found in oats, barley, and legumes, while whole grains, nuts, and seeds are good sources of insoluble fiber. Fruits and vegetables can be rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber, so eating a variety of these foods will ensure you’re getting plenty of each type (
The daily reference intake (DRI) for fiber is 25 grams for females aged 19 to 50. For males aged 19 to 50, the DRI for fiber is 38 grams. However, most people in the United States consume only half of the daily recommended amount (
A high-fiber diet has been linked to a reduced risk of digestive conditions, including constipation, inflammatory bowel disease, and colorectal cancel (
Prebiotics are another type of fiber that feed your healthy gut bacteria. Diets high in this fiber have been shown to improve barrier function and reduce inflammation in the gut (
Prebiotics are found in many fruits, vegetables and grains.
A high-fiber diet promotes regular bowel movements and may protect against many digestive disorders. Three common types of fiber are soluble and insoluble fiber, as well as prebiotics.
Good digestion may require eating enough fat. Fat helps you feel satisfied after a meal and is needed for proper absorption of certain nutrients, such as vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Some studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may decrease your risk of developing inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis, though more research is needed (
Foods high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseeds, chia seeds, nuts (especially walnuts), as well as fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines (
Adequate fat intake improves the absorption of some fat-soluble nutrients. What’s more, omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, which may prevent inflammatory bowel diseases.
Low fluid intake is a common cause of constipation (
Your total fluid intake comes from plain water, other beverages, and foods you eat. Experts recommend drinking plenty of water each day to make sure you are getting as much fluid as you need without extra sugar and calories.
You may need more water than usual if you’re in a warm climate or exercise strenuously, and when you’re feeling sick (
In addition to water, you can also meet your fluid intake with herbal teas and other non-caffeinated beverages such as seltzer water.
Another way to help meet your fluid intake needs is to include fruits and vegetables that are high in water, such as cucumber, peppers, broccoli, strawberries, apples, and oranges (20).
Insufficient fluid intake is a common cause of constipation. Increase your fluid intake by drinking water and non-caffeinated beverages and eating fruits and vegetables that have a high water content.
Stress can have a negative impact on your digestive system.
It has been associated with stomach ulcers, diarrhea, constipation and IBS (
Stress hormones directly affect your digestion. When your body is in fight-or-flight mode, it thinks you don’t have time to rest and digest. During periods of stress, blood and energy are diverted away from your digestive system.
Additionally, your gut and brain are intricately connected — what affects your brain may also impact your digestion (
Stress management, meditation and relaxation training have all been shown to improve symptoms in people with IBS (
Other studies have found that cognitive behavioral therapy, acupuncture and yoga have improved digestive symptoms (
Therefore, incorporating stress management techniques, such as deep belly breathing, meditation or yoga, may improve not only your mindset but also your digestion.
Stress negatively impacts your digestion and has been linked to IBS, ulcers, constipation and diarrhea. Reducing stress can improve digestive symptoms.
It’s easy to eat too much too quickly if you’re not paying attention, which can lead to bloating, gas and indigestion.
Mindful eating is the practice of paying attention to all aspects of your food and the process of eating (
Studies have shown that mindfulness may reduce digestive symptoms in people with ulcerative colitis and IBS (
To eat mindfully:
- Eat slowly.
- Focus on your food by turning off your TV and putting away your phone.
- Notice how your food looks on your plate and how it smells.
- Select each bite of food consciously.
- Pay attention to the texture, temperature and taste of your food.
Eating slowly and mindfully and paying attention to every aspect of your food, such as texture, temperature and taste, may help prevent common digestive issues such as indigestion, bloating and gas.
Digestion starts in your mouth. Your teeth break down the food into smaller pieces so that the enzymes in your digestive tract are better able to break it down.
Poor chewing has been linked to decreased nutrient absorption (
When you chew your food thoroughly, your stomach has to do less work to turn the solid food into the liquid mixture that enters your small intestine.
Chewing produces saliva, and the longer you chew, the more saliva is made. Saliva helps start the digestive process in your mouth by breaking down some of the carbs and fats in your meal.
In your stomach, saliva acts as a fluid, which is mixed with the solid food so that it smoothly passes into your intestines.
Chewing your food thoroughly ensures that you have plenty of saliva for digestion. This may help prevent symptoms such as indigestion and heartburn.
What’s more, the act of chewing has even been shown to reduce stress, which may also improve digestion (
Chewing food thoroughly breaks it down so that it can be digested more easily. The act also produces saliva, which is needed for proper mixing of food in your stomach.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to improve your digestion.
Exercise and gravity help food travel through your digestive system. Therefore, taking a walk after a meal may assist your body in moving things along.
Research suggests that short periods of low to moderate exercise may speed up your digestion, while longer and more intense exercise may slow things down (
In one review, gentle exercises such as Qigong, walking and physical movement significantly improved constipation symptoms (
Additionally, studies suggest that exercise may reduce symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases due to anti-inflammatory effects, such as decreasing inflammatory compounds in your body (35,
Exercise may improve your digestion and reduce symptoms of constipation. It can also help reduce inflammation, which may be beneficial in preventing inflammatory bowel conditions.
When you’re not paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues, it’s easy to overeat and experience gas, bloating and indigestion.
It’s a commonly held belief that it takes 20 minutes for your brain to realize that your stomach is full.
While there’s not a lot of hard science to back up this claim, it does take time for hormones released by your stomach in response to food to reach your brain (37).
Therefore, taking the time to eat slowly and pay attention to how full you’re getting is one way to prevent common digestive problems.
Additionally, eating at a moderate-to-fast pace is associated with higher levels of indigestion, which can cause symptoms such as pain, bloating, nausea, and gas (38).
Taking your time when eating a meal may improve your digestive symptoms.
Not paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues can negatively impact digestion. Taking time to slow down and pay attention to your body’s cues may help reduce digestive symptoms after a meal.
Certain habits such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and eating late at night are associated with negative effects for your overall health.
And, in fact, they may also be responsible for some common digestive issues.
Smoking is a risk factor for the development of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD (39).
Furthermore, studies have shown that quitting smoking improves acid reflux symptoms (
Smoking has also been associated with stomach ulcers, increased surgeries in people with ulcerative colitis and gastrointestinal cancers (
If you have digestive issues and smoke cigarettes, keep in mind that quitting may be beneficial.
Alcohol can increase acid production in your stomach and may lead to heartburn, acid reflux and stomach ulcers.
Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract (
Alcohol has also been associated with inflammatory bowel diseases, increased gut permeability, and harmful changes in gut bacteria (
Reducing your consumption of alcohol may help your digestion.
Eating late at night and then lying down to sleep can lead to heartburn and indigestion.
Your body needs time to digest, and gravity helps keep the food you eat moving in the right direction.
Additionally, when you lie down, the contents of your stomach may rise up and cause heartburn. Lying down after eating is strongly associated with an increase in reflux symptoms (
If you experience digestive issues at bedtime, try waiting three to four hours after eating before going to bed, to give the food time to move from your stomach to your small intestine.
Habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating late at night can contribute to digestive issues. To improve digestion, consider changing these lifestyle factors.
Certain nutrients may help support your digestive tract.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that may improve digestive health when taken as supplements.
These healthy bacteria assist in digestion by breaking down indigestible fibers that can otherwise cause gas and bloating.
Studies have shown that probiotics may improve symptoms of bloating, gas and pain in people with IBS (
What’s more, they may improve symptoms of constipation and diarrhea (
Probiotics are found in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and miso, as well as yogurts that have live and active cultures.
They’re also available in capsule form. While research is ongoing, studies suggest that certain types of probiotic supplements may improve IBS symptoms.
For example, one meta-analysis found that three types of beneficial bacteria found in supplements — Bifidobacterium breve, Bifidobacterium longum, and Lactobacillus acidophilus — were associated with reduced IBS pain (
Glutamine is an amino acid that supports gut health. Some studies suggest that glutamine supplementation may reduce intestinal permeability and inflammation, though more research is needed (50).
You can increase your glutamine levels by eating foods such as beef, eggs and tofu (
Glutamine can also be taken in supplement form, but talk to your healthcare practitioner first to ensure that it’s an appropriate treatment strategy for you.
Zinc is a mineral that is critical for a healthy gut, and a deficiency can lead to various gastrointestinal disorders (
Supplementing with zinc has been shown to be beneficial in treating diarrhea, colitis, increased gut permeability, and other digestive issues (
The recommended daily intake (RDI) for zinc is 8 mg for women and 11 mg for men.
Foods high in zinc include meat, fish, seafood, fortified cereals, and pumpkin seeds (
Certain nutrients are necessary for a healthy digestive tract. Ensuring that your body gets enough probiotics, glutamine and zinc may improve your digestion.
Simple diet and lifestyle changes may help improve your digestion if you experience occasional, frequent or long-term digestive symptoms.
Eating a whole-foods diet high in fiber, healthy fat and nutrients is the first step toward good digestion.
Practices such as mindful eating, stress reduction and exercise can also be beneficial.
Finally, changing habits that may affect your digestion — such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and late-night eating — may help relieve symptoms as well.