Your digestive system breaks down the foods you eat into the nutrients your body needs. Many people suffer from digestive woes and uncomfortable symptoms such as gas, bloating, pain, and irregular bowel movements.
If these digestive issues persist over time, your body could run into problems absorbing those essential nutrients. This can lead to even worse issues over time (such as nutrient deficiencies), which can cause fatigue, depression, poor immunity, and more.
Here are the top reasons for poor digestion and what you can do about it:
1. Excessive processed and refined food intake.
Consumption of too many highly refined foods, such as candy, chips, ice cream, chocolate, fast food, baked goods, etc., can put our gut in what is called ‘dysbiosis’ which is a reduction of microbial diversity and loss of beneficial bacteria in the gut, which leads to poor digestive heath (especially when there is also a lack of foods that promote gut health such as probiotic-containing foods, fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds).
Some people consume nutritious diets and still suffer from digestive woes such as gas, bloating, pain, and irregular bowel movements – this is completely normal, and is likely due to one or more of the following reasons:
2. Digestive Health Condition.
There are many digestive conditions that can cause digestive problems, including but not limited to: Celiac disease; Crohn’s; ulcerative colitis; gastroparesis; diverticulosis; gall stones; Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, etc. It is important to consult with your healthcare provider and other specialists to rule these out.
3. Low intake of probiotics.
Probiotics are also referred to as our ‘healthy gut bacteria’ and if we don’t have enough in our gut can lead to poor digestion and digestive issues such as gas, bloating, constipation, etc. They are found mainly in dairy foods (some yogurts but only in small amounts, kefir in higher amounts) and fermented foods (e.g., kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc.). Most people do not get enough in diet, and if this is the case a supplement is recommended.
4. Lack of fibre in the diet.
There are two types of fibre – soluble and insoluble fibre. Both work together to help improve digestion and keep you regular so it is important to get both in the diet.
Soluble fiber is found in oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, psyllium husk, and some fruit and vegetables. Insoluble fibre is found in foods such as wheat bran, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and certain fruits and vegetables.
Women need 25 grams of fibre daily, and men should aim for 35-40 grams of fibre per day. You can also take a fibre supplement to help (e.g.psyllium husk, metamucil).
Many fibre-containing foods are also good sources of prebiotics - which are food for probiotics, and help our gut microbiota thrive. Examples include whole grains, leeks, bananas, flax, chicory root, oats, onions, etc.
5. Too much fibre/not enough fluid.
With fiber intake, as with many things in life, there’s a point where too much can also be an issue (for some people). Although it is more common for people to get too little fiber than it is to get too much. It is more common in vegan diets, when people eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, etc.
When you are increasing fiber, it is important to increase it slowly in the diet. For example, if you currently only get 10 grams daily on average (which is common for a lot of people!)aim for 15 grams daily for one week, then increase to 20 the next week, until you get to the recommended amount.
It’s also very important to get adequate fluid when you increase your fibre, as not getting enough can lead to constipation.
6. Stress/Mental Health.
The 'gut-brain connection' is no joke; it can link anxiety to stomach problems and vice versa. Have you ever had a "gut-wrenching" experience? Do certain situations make you "feel nauseous"? Have you ever felt "butterflies" in your stomach? The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Anger, anxiety, sadness, elation — all these feelings (and others) can trigger symptoms in the gut.
If this is a concern for you, try managing stress by talking to a therapist, meditating, reading self-help books, getting outside, exercise, or other means.
7. Antibiotic use.
Antibiotics wipe out the harmful bacteria, but they also wipe out our beneficial healthy gut bacteria. This can put our gut in what is called ‘dysbiosis’ which is a reduction of microbial diversity and loss of beneficial bacteria in the gut. This can lead to poor digestion and uncomfortable symptoms.
Only use antibiotics when necessary, and when you do, ensure to get adequate probiotics in the diet or implement a probiotic supplement after you run your full antibiotic course.
8. Food intolerance.
A person with a food intolerance has difficulty digesting certain foods. It is important to note that a food intolerance is different than a food allergy. Food intolerance is a digestive issue and causes symptoms such gas, bloating, pain, and irregular bowel movements. Food allergy is an immune response and symptoms would be those that come from an allergic reaction, such as itchiness, hives, and difficulty breathing.
There are many foods (not just the commonly heard ones such as gluten and dairy) that can cause digestive issues in some people but others can consume them with no issues. Most of these foods are classified as ‘FODMAPs’, such as apples, garlic,onions, mushrooms, asparagus, certain berries, barley,cashews, cauliflower, beans, peas, cabbage, coconut, and many more.
Everyone is unique, and what might trigger one person with digestive issues another person may be able to eat with no issues.
The gold standards for identifying food intolerances are:
Keeping a food and symptom journal. This is the easiest and less ‘life-impacting’ way to identify triggers. Become familiar with moderate to high FODMAP foods and track your food intake as well as your symptoms. Try to find trends in what foods you are eating that may be moderate to high in FODMAPs that consistently lead to symptoms after eating.
Elimination diet (such as the 'low FODMAP diet’). This is a more rigorous approach and should only be used as a last resort. It involves eliminating all potential triggers for 4-6 weeks until symptoms improve, and then strategically add back in one category at a time under the supervision of a dietitian. It is a short-term diet and is not meant to be followed for life, because it is too restrictive and is restrictive of prebiotics(which feed the probiotics, our healthy gut bacteria) and fiber.
Be careful of blood tests that claim to test for food intolerances. Many major allergy and immunology societies have position statements advising against their use because they are not accurate, and ultimately a waste of your hard-earned dollars.
‘The dose makes the poison’. For many people with digestive issues, portion size matters. Eating meals and portions that are large can make it more difficult to digest. Try eating smaller portions throughout the day and see if this helps.
Digestion starts in the mouth. Rushing through meals and not eating well enough can also lead to poor digestion. Our saliva contains enzymes that start the digestive process and begin breaking down food molecules. Chew your food well, this can make it easier for the stomach to digest and lead to less uncomfortable symptoms.
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Felicia Newell is a Registered Dietitian, Nutritionist, Food and Nutrition Expert, Health Coach, and a mom of 4 kids under 12. She is also the owner of Sustain Nutrition/FN Health. Felicia wears many hats, and knows what it is like to try and live healthy in a busy world, where our environments aren't always supportive of making healthy choices. Life is busy, confusing at times, and full of contradictions, especially in the world of health and wellness. Felicia is passionate in helping others fight through the misinformation out there, and to navigate life and health, but most importantly, to enjoy it while doing it. She has over 12 years of education and experience in Nutritional Sciences. Between completing her Bachelor and Masters in Nutritional Sciences, working at a research centre, teaching university courses, years of nutrition counselling helping people crush their goals, and being a busy mom of 4, she has the passion, skills, education, and experience to help you reach your health and wellness in a way that works for YOU.