Digestive complaints are one of the most common grievances I hear from patients in my clinic. Digestion is a basic function we need to survive, and yet this is very challenging for many of us. Our busy lifestyles have made it difficult for us to spend time preparing and enjoying our meals, and in Canada, where I am, about 20 million people are grappling with some kind of digestive disorder. When you consider our population is only about 35 million, that’s more than half of us! Fortunately, there are many ways we can address digestive problems, including the use of herbs, supplements and foods to help digestion.
Best Foods To Help Digestion
Bone Broth or Vegetable Broth
Bone broth, simmered with animal bones, herbs and vegetables, is an easy-to-digest liquid that is rich in amino acids to support digestion and draw digestive enzymes to the gut. You can amp up the digestive and anti-inflammatory benefits by adding ingredients such as ginger, dill, fennel, garlic, onion, goji berries, mushrooms and carrots. It is also soothing to drink.
If you’re vegan or vegetarian a veggie-packed broth is also simple to digest, it simply won’t have the same amino acid profile as bone broth.
These small seeds are extremely nutrient-dense, filled with digestive-enhancing protein, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, and minerals like iron, calcium and magnesium, the latter of which helps the digestive tract relax. Chia seeds are an outstanding source of fibre, important for keeping us regular and keeping our insides clean. Cultures that have more bowel movements per day and eat more fibre have less degenerative disease.
The texture of chia seeds adds digestive benefit, too. They are mucilaginous, helping to soothe the digestive tract and reduce inflammation. Ensure you add plenty of liquid to whole or ground chia seeds as this is what helps create the mucilage.
This is one of my favourite foods. If you’re dealing with any sort of digestive issue, healing your gut lining is an important first step. Ghee is rich in butyric acid, a short-chain fatty acid that nourishes the cells of the intestines. Research on butyric acid shows it helps prevent irritable bowel syndrome symptoms and diarrhea, protects against inflammatory bowel diseases, alleviates constipation and inhibits colon cancer cells. Ghee is dairy-free, as the milk proteins are removed in the cooking process. It’s easy (and much less expensive) to make it at home.
Coconut oil is a nutritious saturated fat that is also a great kitchen remedy. It’s anti-microbial, anti-viral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, all of which benefit the digestive tract, and it’s a plant-based fat for those who are vegan or vegetarian. Coconut oil contains a lot of medium-chain fats and these are very easy for us to digest and absorb. Coconut oil is great when spread on gluten-free bread or other baked goods, it’s stable for high-heat cooking, and is perfect for elixirs and smoothies.
Winter squash contain a wide range of carotenoids, which are plant pigments that have antioxidant effects in our bodies – that means they can help protect the digestive tract from damage. These carotenoids also help to form Vitamin A, a vitamin that greatly aids with mucosal healing in the digestive tract. Squashes are a great source of anti-inflammatory compounds called curcubitacins, as well as Vitamin C and fibre for digestive support.
Berries are another one of my favourite foods! They contain a broad spectrum of nutrients, and some specific ones that help the digestive system such as antioxidants, Vitamin C, and especially fibre. If you are experiencing severe troubles with digestion, some berries with rough seeds – such as raspberries and blackberries – may be difficult to tolerate. You can blend or cook them, or focus on softer berries like blueberries, strawberries or goji berries. Get my full guide to berries here.
Fermented foods are rich in probiotics, the good bacteria in our digestive tract (more on that in the probiotic section below). Cultures around the world have been using fermented foods for centuries to build good health, even before the science around them began. Sauerkraut, kimchi, apple cider vinegar, kombucha, dairy-free yogurt, cultured nut cheese, kefir, fermented vegetables and more can all help to support digestion.
Fermented foods are simple and inexpensive to make at home (they are much cheaper than buying a good probiotic) and I like to have a tablespoon or two as a condiment with my meals.
Best Supplements to Help Digestion
Bitters have been used for thousands of years to stimulate and tone the digestive system. Bitter foods and herbs enhance digestion by stimulating the taste receptors on the tongue, increase the flow of bile and support secretions in the liver, pancreas, stomach and small intestine. They aid with the entire digestive process, improve nutrient absorption and help with our body’s natural cleansing processes.
My blend of digestive bitters is a popular aid for my clients, but you can also try doing a small shot of apple cider vinegar before a meal, drinking fresh lemon or lime juice with some water, eating dandelion greens or arugula, or consuming fresh ginger.
We have one chance to break down food mechanically and this is accomplished by chewing. The rest is carried out by chemicals that we secrete called enzymes. Enzymes are the workers that help to break down the food that we eat, including proteins, fats and carbohydrates. If we can’t produce enough enzymes on our own, or with the help of digestive bitters, digestive enzyme supplements can help fill in the gap.
Studies show that enzymes can help with a number of common gastrointestinal complaints like heartburn, stomach pain, gas, nausea and bloating. They can also address more serious or chronic conditions such as celiac disease, lactose intolerance, pancreatic insufficiency, autism spectrum disorders, inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
Plant-based enzymes are available, as well as formulas that include bile from animal sources.
Probiotic means “for life”. These are the good bacteria that inhabit our digestive tract. We are outnumbered by microbes ten to one. They are a key part of our immune system and have hundreds of beneficial effects in our body. Probiotic supplements can help populate the digestive tract with beneficial bacteria and help to modulate both the healthy and harmful bacteria. Probiotics have been studied for their beneficial effects in the digestive tract, benefiting digestive disorders and supporting regular bowel movements.
Yet probiotics have many advantages beyond digestion. They can help boost the immune system, protect against allergies and skin conditions and support female reproductive health. As our gut microbiome is intricately connected to our nervous system on what’s known as the gut-brain axis, probiotics play a role in anxiety, mood and depression, and support brain health.
There are many different strains of probiotic cultures, so it’s useful to work with a practitioner or visit a health food store for targeted advice about which formulations are best for your needs.
Proteins are long chains of single amino acids. Amino acids are like different coloured beads on a necklace. Each colour is a different amino acid. L-glutamine is one amino acid and has a very important role along the digestive tract. It is the primary fuel for all of our digestive cells and is extremely effective at addressing an inflamed or damaged digestive tract like we see in people with Crohn’s, colitis, or ulcers.
Protein is crucial for digestion, aiding with the production of digestive enzymes and it’s used for healing and repair. During times of digestive distress, it can be challenging to consume, break down and absorb protein from food. Using a high quality protein powder in an elixir or a smoothie helps to amp up the amount of protein without making your body to do a ton of extra work.
Best Herbs + Spices to Help Digestion
Ginger is a powerful anti-inflammatory that can lower inflammation in the digestive tract, encourage gastric emptying (food leaving the stomach), reduce nausea and vomiting, prevent gastric ulcers and reduce pain.
Ginger can easily be added to soups, stews, dips, smoothies and juices, or you can grate some into hot water with lemon for post-meal digestive help.
Another powerful anti-inflammatory agent, turmeric’s main active constituent – curcumin – has been widely studied for its ability to reduce pain, improve IBS symptoms, help address inflammatory bowel diseases and prevent colon cancer. It also protects the liver, an important organ that secretes bile to help us digest and absorb fats and fat-soluble vitamins.
A sweet spice that contains an anti-inflammatory compound called anethole. Fennel helps to reduce bloating and gas, and improves IBS symptoms. There are many cultures who enjoy chewing on fennel seeds after a meal. You can also use it in cooking or brew it into a tea.
Mint helps to relax the smooth muscles of the intestines, which can lead to fewer spasms or pain. It’s been shown to reduce symptoms of IBS, prevent dyspepsia and reduce abdominal pain. It has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, too, and this can potentially prevent any infections from developing in the gut.
Mint is available fresh, dried and in oil form. Any can be used to improve digestion and you may want to include multiple forms of it. Add fresh mint to juices, smoothies, pestos or salads, or steep it in hot water for tea. Dried mint can be steeped for tea and peppermint oil is simple to add to elixirs – just ensure you choose an essential oil that is food grade and safe for internal consumption.
Aloe is soothing to the digestive tract, healing ulcers and other irritations, as well as easing symptoms of IBS, constipation and inflammatory bowel disease. You can add aloe to smoothies or elixirs to mask the taste, as it can be bitter.
Marshmallow is a demulcent herb, which means that it soothes inflammation and irritation. It has a mucilaginous texture, aiding with pain relief, ulcers and repairing of the gut lining. You can find marshmallow whole, in powdered or tincture form.
Additional Tips To Help Digestion
Chew Your Food!
I always say you don’t have teeth in your stomach. Chewing is one of the first steps in digestion and the mechanical breakdown of food happens in the mouth. The more you chew, the less work your stomach has to do to dismantle everything. Chew solids thoroughly and even chew liquids to begin the digestive cascade.
Eat In ‘Rest and Digest’ Mode
Our bodies need to be in a parasympathetic, or ‘rest and digest’ mode, to absorb and assimilate food properly. When we’re stressed, our resources and blood flow are diverted away from our digestive tract to our limbs so we can be ready to run. Try not to eat while standing, walking, in your car, having stressful conversations, or anything else that might distract you from your food. Try taking deep breaths before meals and snacks, eat food at a table, and enjoy your meal.
Avoid Common Gut Irritants
The first two things I recommend clients avoid are gluten and dairy products. Aside from these, some common ingredients that disrupt gut function include refined sugars, refined oils, genetically modified foods, and highly processed foods.
Have A Little Bit of Raw Food With Meals
A small amount of raw food can help provide necessary enzymes that will help us to digest. Fermented foods are great for this!
Begin Digestion Before Eating Food
This may seem like an odd concept to grasp, but digestion begins well before we sit down to eat. There is an important aspect to digestion called the cephalic phase, which involves thinking about food as well as using our senses to kickstart digestion. That might mean talking about food, meal planning, smelling and touching ingredients, listening to the sizzle of a pan. You can learn all about how to encourage the cephalic phase of digestion here.
Improving or restoring good digestive function can be daunting as there are many different ways to approach digestive ailments. Adding the best foods to help with digestion, along with herbs, spices and key supplements, can help provide symptom relief, encourage natural digestive processes and bolster gut health for the present and future.
Gain a deep level of understanding of the digestive process and how to apply targeted evidence-based interventions for common conditions.