You already know that what you eat affects how well your digestive system functions. Overindulge in processed foods or sugary carbonated beverages, and you might experience gas, bloating, or constipation. But daily habits also play a significant role in digestive health. Here are some small lifestyle adjustments that can lead to big improvements in your overall well-being.
1. Get more sleep.
It’s not just the body and mind that need to unwind at night, it’s the gut, too. “Sleep is critical for good gut health,” says Rahul Dixit, MD, a gastroenterologist in Santa Monica, California. “You need time for the bowel to finish digesting the food you ate for dinner and then rest so it can reset for the next day.” Aim for eight hours per night and allow yourself adequate time to disconnect from electronics and food so that the sleep is restful.
2. Take time to breathe.
The hectic pace of life today isn’t great for your digestion. In fact, according to Gina Jones, RD, a functional medicine registered dietitian in Cleveland, our lack of opportunities to be mindful and relaxed can take a toll. One straightforward solution: Deep breathing. “When you get your body into a more restful state, it switches from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic, taking the body out of its fight-or-flight mode and putting it into a rest-and-digest mode,” explains Jones — and that allow for better digestion and nutrient absorption.
3. Establish regular eating times.
When it comes to eating and digesting, your body likes routine. The reason? It learns to pace itself when converting calories to energy rather than working hard sometimes and hoarding calories at others. So, aim to consume your meals at regular intervals throughout the day, and at roughly the same time daily. Keep in mind that your last meal or snack should fall at least a few hours before you go to bed. “Late-night snacking doesn’t allow your digestive system to recover from always working,” Dixit explains.
4. Chew your food.
It might seem obvious, but chewing your food thoroughly is an easy way to help improve your overall digestion. “When we chew, it releases enzymes in the mouth that start to break down food,” says Jones. If you don’t chew enough, the food isn’t sufficiently exposed to those enzymes, and it can be harder for the gastric juices in the stomach to continue the digestive process, resulting in indigestion. A good rule of thumb, says Jones, is to “chew until your food is the consistency of mashed potatoes.”
5. Drink more water.
Water helps the body break down food so that it can absorb the nutrients in the items we eat. It also aids in the delivery of enzymes to the food so it can be further broken down, helps transport food through the digestive tract, and promotes softer stools, which can prevent constipation. Dixit recommends calculating 50 percent to 60 percent of your body weight and then drinking that amount in ounces of water each day, or more if you frequently enjoy beverages that are diuretics, such as coffee or alcohol. As for whether it’s better to hydrate before or during a meal, Jones advises against chugging large amounts while eating. “Palate-cleansing sips while eating are fine,” she says, but gulping down too much can dilute your gastric juices and prevent thorough digestion.
6. Move your body.
No rocket science here, just a simple fact: Moving your body helps move food along your digestive tract. “If you sit still after dinner, the body doesn’t have anywhere to physically shift that food,” says Jones. “However, if you take a light walk, it can encourage motility in your intestines.” Exercise has also been proven to increase microbial diversity (which aids digestion) and decrease symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome, like gas and bloating.
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, The Complete Guide to Gut Health, in 2022.
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