six ways to naturally support your digestion
Funny tummy. Extra gassy. Blocked up. Bloated. Feeling queasy. Tummy tantrum.
Everyone, at some point, experiences digestive problems. Whether it’s an upset stomach, diarrhea, gas, and bloating, or the feeling like you ate an entire watermelon – you’re not alone.
The interesting thing is that most of us never talk about what’s going on with what’s coming out. You know, the inner ecosystem of digestion and elimination. For some reason, we’re shy about this. Well, this blog will help relieve any stigma and change that today.
Digestive problems are too important to ignore and be embarrassed about. Number one, if you have trouble with number two, you need to talk to your doctor. No ifs, ands, or butts – you need to tell your doctor that you’re having problems.
Symptoms like stomach cramps, constipation, diarrhea, bloody stools, bloating, and pain can be signs and symptoms of serious health conditions.
You shouldn’t be suffering in silence. There are solutions to help ease your digestive problems and challenges.
Whether it’s taking digestive supplements, changing your diet (hint: fiber is crucial), drinking more water, reducing your stress, or moving more – there is lots to be done to help your guts and you feel better.
How Digestion Works*
You likely learned about digestion in grade school health class. Now, this was a very long time ago – the details on how digestion works are probably a bit fuzzy.
Understanding digestion is super helpful, especially when you’re tempted to skip your digestive supplements, a fiber rich meal, or that extra glass of water.
So, here’s a refresher on how digestion works:1,2 *
- Digestion starts with properly chewing your food. The chewing process is essential to good digestion – make sure you chew your food thoroughly and give the enzymes in your saliva a chance to start breaking down your food into an absorbable and usable format before you swallow.
- The more you chew your food, the easier it is for it to pass through your esophagus and into your stomach. When food reaches your stomach, the cells lining your stomach secrete acid and enzymes to turn this chewed food or bolus into a semi-solid consistency.
- This bolus travels into your small intestine and this 22-foot organ gets to work. The small intestine uses enzymes released by your pancreas, combined with bile from your liver to continue the break-down process. This break-down process is essential for nutrient absorption in the small intestine.
- All remaining food matter and liquid is then moved to the 6-foot-long, large intestine, also called the colon or bowel. Your body is not done taking all it can from your original mouthful of food. Now, the large intestine absorbs water and electrolytes from the leftover food. The remaining food matter is considered waste or stool, during this phase, the remaining water is removed, and the stool is ultimately stored in the s-shaped part of your colon, called the sigmoid colon. Everyone is unique, but typically your bowel empties twice a day.
- The elimination process can take up to 36 hours, with your stool eventually making it to your rectum. Your rectum alerts you when it’s time to have a bowel movement or it can store this stool until you’re ready. Your rectum and anus are very smart and have the crucial job of determining the consistency of your stool, informing your brain if it’s liquid, solid, or gas. When you’re ready to go to the bathroom, the stool moves from your rectum to your anus and is eliminated.
Phew – now that was more than a mouthful! Our bodies are simply amazing, not to mention complex and efficient. So much to consider after you take a bite of your sandwich or apple!
And there is a lot that can go wrong with this very involved digestive process. This is exactly why we want you to understand it (at a high level). It’s essential that you know how your body works so you can take good care of it.
6 Common Digestion Challenges You Cannot Ignore
The first thing we want you to know is this: do not ignore these digestion challenges. Don’t assume you should just live with them.
They are challenges because they should not be happening on a regular basis. While it’s normal to have an occasional bout of diarrhea or constipation – this should not be a regular, consistent, ongoing occurrence. Your quality-of-life matters!
In fact, minor digestive problems, can turn into serious problems and potentially lead to severe health conditions.
Common digestion challenges you need to know about and cannot ignore if they occur frequently include:1, 3 *
- Constipation is one of the most common digestive challenges for Americans. This happens when your colon cannot move stool to your rectum and anus. Constipation can be painful and may be associated with cramping, bloating, or gas.
- Heartburn occurs when stomach acid backs up into your esophagus, causing a burning sensation and chest pain. Consistent or frequent heartburn might actually be gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is a serious condition and may damage your esophagus.
- Diarrhea may be caused by bacteria, food poisoning, parasites, or be a symptom of another underlying condition. Frequent diarrhea or diarrhea with blood should never be ignored, this can be a sign of serious health conditions including ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), some types of cancers, and other concerns.
- Ulcers can occur in the lining of your small intestine, stomach, or esophagus. Ulcers may be caused by a H. pylori bacterial infection or frequent and long-term use of ibuprofen as well as other anti-inflammatory drugs.
- Bloating happens when you have gas trapped in your digestive tract, causing your abdomen to become swollen or distended. It can feel like you swallowed a watermelon, causing an overwhelming feeling of fullness. Chronic bloating may be a sign of serious digestive disorders and health conditions.
- Food intolerances can be hard to identify because these display as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, heartburn, gas, cramps, or vomiting. Food intolerances can be a symptom of an underlying condition such as Celiac disease or lactose intolerance.
Do not ignore these digestive problems. Contact your healthcare practitioner if you have any changes to your bowel movements, new stomach pain, bloating, or problems digesting food.
Understanding Digestive Enzyme Supplements
Digestive supplements are specifically formulated to support healthy digestion and help overcome digestion challenges. These supplements may contain a combination of digestive enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and other supportive ingredients. *
Digestive enzymes are specialized proteins made by your mouth, stomach, small intestines, and pancreas. Your body uses these to break down macronutrients into their easier to assimilate components to help support a healthy digestion and nutrient absorption process.4, 5 *
The pancreas makes digestive enzymes essential for breaking down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. The primary digestive enzymes made by the pancreas include:4, 5 *
- Amylase breaks down carbohydrates and is also made by the mouth
- Lipase breaks down fats
- Protease breaks down proteins
The main digestive enzymes made by the small intestine include:4, 5 *
- Lactase breaks down lactose
- Sucrase breaks down sucrose
Some people struggle with health conditions that limit or interrupt the body’s production of digestive enzymes. Digestive enzyme insufficiency can result in malnutrition and poor digestion. People diagnosed with digestive enzyme insufficiency often need to take prescription digestive enzymes.4, 5 *
Over-the-counter digestive enzyme supplements may help ease occasional occurrences of diarrhea, bloating, gas, acid reflux, food intolerances, and constipation. Quality digestive enzyme supplements contain the enzymes your body uses and creates naturally to break down and digest food to support nutrient absorption. *
Many people contact us confused about the differences between digestive enzyme supplements and probiotics. While both supplements support healthy digestion, they function differently: *
- Digestive enzyme supplements help support the break down and digestion of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
- Probiotics are live microorganisms that help maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria, to support digestive, immune, and brain health.
How to Naturally Support a Healthy Digestive System
No one wants to live with frequent or urgent trips to the bathroom, unexpected stomach cramps, bloating, painful gas, or uncomfortable constipation.
The reality is – you shouldn’t be dealing with any of these conditions on an occasional or especially daily basis.
The good news is there are easy and natural approaches to support a regular, reliable, and easeful digestion process:1, 6, 7
- Eat slowly and mindfully. When we eat too quickly or while doing other things like watching television, driving, reading, or browsing the Internet, we tend to forget we’re actually eating. This can cause us to overeat, feel bloated, forget to chew, and generally not feel great. Being in a hurry does nothing helpful for digestion and can actually reduce nutrient absorption.
- Stay hydrated. Constipation can happen when you’re dehydrated. Make sure you’re drinking water throughout the day. Your bowel relies on water to help make easy-to-eliminate stool.
- Eat high fiber foods daily. Your digestive system needs soluble and insoluble fiber to keep the digestive process moving along smoothly. Foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds, barley, oats, fruits, and vegetables are rich sources of soluble fiber. As an extra bonus, some fruits and vegetables are also sources of insoluble fiber. Eating a balanced diet is one of the best things you can do to support your digestive system.
- Manage your stress. Stress is linked to common digestive challenges including diarrhea, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Your stress level and associated stress hormones, such as cortisol, can interrupt or slow your digestive process.
- Move your body. Not only is exercise great for relieving stress, but it also helps stimulate your digestive system. Light exercise after eating such as walking, relaxed yoga, or stretching can help you relax and get your digestive system moving before bedtime.
- Gut supportive supplements. Supplements such as probiotics and digestive enzyme supplements can help fill in nutritional gaps and ease occasional digestive challenges. Probiotics provide your gut microbiome with healthy bacteria, may help reduce IBS symptoms, and reduce occurrences of constipation and diarrhea. Digestive enzyme supplements help your body naturally break down food for nutrient absorption and healthy digestion.
If you take one thing away from this blog – please know that you should not live with digestion challenges. Consistent, frequent, and regular diarrhea, constipation, bloating, cramps, gas, or heartburn can be signs of serious underlying conditions.
Do not ignore these. Talk to your doctor. Do not be shy about talking about what happens in the bathroom. Your whole-body health is connected to your digestive health. Talking about your digestion with your healthcare practitioner is key to taking care of yourself.
Consult your healthcare team before making changes to your nutrition, exercise, or supplements. Discuss all supplements, including the vitamins and minerals you take or plan to take, as these may interact differently with underlying health conditions and medication. Always follow the suggested use instructions and read the warnings on the supplement product label before consumption.
- Digestive System: Cleveland Clinic (Accessed October 4, 2023) https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/7041-digestive-system
- Your Digestive System & How it Works: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (Accessed October 4, 2023) https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/digestive-system-how-it-works
- Understanding Digestion Problems: Healthline.com (Accessed October 4, 2023) https://www.healthline.com/health/digestion-problems
- Digestive Enzymes and Digestive Enzyme Supplements: John Hopkins Medicine (Accessed October 4, 2023) https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/digestive-enzymes-and-digestive-enzyme-supplements
- What are Digestive Enzymes and How Do They Work?: Healthline.com (Accessed October 4, 2023) https://www.healthline.com/health/exocrine-pancreatic-insufficiency/the-role-of-digestive-enzymes-in-gi-disorders
- 11 Best Ways to Improve Your Digestion Naturally: Healthline.com (Accessed October 4, 2023) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/ways-to-improve-digestion
- Your Digestive System: 5 Ways to Support Gut Health: John Hopkins Medicine (Accessed October 4, 2023) https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/your-digestive-system-5-ways-to-support-gut-health
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Jenny Perez is an herbal educator, researcher, and writer who has been immersed in the field of nutrition and botanical medicine for more than 20 years. Jenny has created curriculum, content, and educational materials for Quantum Nutrition Labs, Premier Research Labs, the American Botanical Council, and Bastyr University’s Botanical Medicine Department where she was Adjunct Faculty, Herb Garden Manager, and Director of the Holistic Landscape Design certificate program.