3 Ways To Improve Digestion & Gut Health — Without Changing Your Diet
Stress has a direct impact on digestion, making it important to examine how you eat, in addition to what you eat, if gut health is your goal.
When I say how we eat, I am talking about our behaviors before, during, and after meal times. The health of our mealtime habits can determine if we experience digestive symptoms or not. This is because digestion doesn't start in the mouth. It starts in the brain.
Our brain and gut are connected by the enteric nervous system6. When this system is in a rested state (rest and digest), the brain signals to the gut that it is ready to digest food. If the nervous system is in a stressed state (fight or flight), the brain signals to the body that it must prioritize survival. This can disrupt digestion and lead to uncomfortable symptoms after eating.
The beautiful thing is that we have the ability to help guide our nervous system out of the stressed fight-or-flight mode and into rest-and-digest mode using a few key lifestyle strategies. Try out this three-step relaxation plan before your next meal to improve digestion in mere minutes. Build these strategies into your daily routine to experience smoother digestion and improved gut health over time:
Step 1: Set up your environment.
If we try to eat while multitasking, answering stressful emails, watching TV, etc., our bodies cannot completely prioritize digestion. In my practice, I've found that these distractions can lead to uncomfortable post-meal digestive symptoms. We have to make sure our bodies and environment are calm and focused on the food in front of us before we even start to eat. Here's how to set the scene for drama-free digestion:
- Sit down in a comfortable space where you can find stillness to focus on your meal.
- Pause distractions during mealtimes such as email or TV.
- Take four to seven deep belly breaths to calm your body and help transition your nervous system into the rest-and-digest mode to promote optimal digestion.
Step 2: Do a mealtime check-in.
Check in with yourself during your meal: Are you racing through your food, barely chewing, chugging water, and never putting down your fork? The habits we have during meals impact how we feel after and can lead to burping, bloating, gas, and other gut symptoms. Focus on how you are eating by checking in on these key habits throughout mealtime:
- Chew your food 15 to 30 times, minimum. Aim for food to be the consistency of baby food!
- Pause in between bites to slow your eating and allow time for your brain and gut to communicate proper hunger and satiety cues.
- Only drink to quench thirst while eating. This will optimize concentrations of stomach acid, digestive enzymes, and bile—three chemical compounds that are hugely important for healthy digestion.
Step 3: Be thoughtful about meal timing.
Finally, the timing of your meals influences digestion. The goal is to give your gut and brain enough time to communicate hunger and satiety signals. Here's how:
- Set a 20-minute timer when you sit down to eat. It takes roughly 20 minutes7 for the brain and gut to determine if you are satisfied, so aim for meals to last 20 minutes or longer.
- Leave three to four hours to fast between meals (no snacking or grazing if you can help it). This gives the gut time to run its self-cleaning mechanisms8, which only happens when we are not eating.
- Stop eating when you are 80% full9. Fullness is a gradual process; it takes time to register the hormonal signals that communicate satiety. Stopping at 80% will help you avoid overfullness (and the uncomfortable symptoms that come with it). Remember you can always go back for seconds if you are still hungry.
In my practice, I find the most overlooked aspect of digestive health is how we eat. If you are struggling with digestive symptoms or just looking to optimize your gut health, focus on these three steps. Implementing just some of these strategies in your day-to-day can help ease frustrating digestive symptoms—and provide some much-needed stress relief at the same time.
Abigail Hueber, RD, LDN is an Integrative Functional Dietitian and owner of the private practice Above Health Nutrition. Abigail is an expert in digestive health working with clients through one-on-one programs as well as creator of the No Drama Digestion Program (NDD). An online program that guides clients to heal their gut and finally eliminate frustrating digestive symptoms, IBS, fatigue, brain fog and skin conditions once and for all. Through the tools of functional medicine, Abby works to identify and eliminate the root cause of gut symptoms in the body through nutrition, lifestyle and personalized supplementation to provide long term digestive healing and optimize overall health in both her one-on-one programs and online program.