Healthy digestion is essential for your body to receive nutrients from the food you eat and for your overall health and wellbeing. Your digestive system breaks down the food you eat and delivers nutrients to every cell in the body, via the bloodstream. The digestive tract is like a long muscular tube, up to 10 metres long, starting in the mouth and ending at the anus, with digestive organs attached along the way. The organs of the digestive system include the stomach, small intestine, pancreas, liver and large intestine (bowel).1

With so many organs involved and so much going on, it’s not surprising that things can sometimes go wrong, causing uncomfortable or embarrassing symptoms. Everyone has digestive problems from time to time; however the health of your digestive system can be improved with simple diet and lifestyle modifications. The cause of poor digestion may include:

  • Anxiety or stress – psychological factors can greatly influence your gastrointestinal function and the secretion of digestive juices
  • Eating too much or too quickly
  • Food intolerances such as lactose or gluten intolerance (from dairy or wheat)
  • Exercising with a full stomach
  • Going to bed with a full stomach – may increase symptoms of heartburn and indigestion
  • Some medicines – talk to your healthcare practitioner if you have concerns
  • Conditions affecting the gallbladder or liver
  • Smoking – symptoms of indigestion are more common in people who smoke
  • Excess weight – Symptoms of indigestion are more common in people who are overweight
  • Aerophagia (swallowing excessive amounts of air)2
  • Poor diet – such as too much fried and fatty food, or too much processed foods, can cause poor digestive health.2
  • Pregnancy can increase symptoms of indigestion
  • Inadequate fibre – fibre is required for proper elimination, poor elimination of waste products can lead to constipation and/or haemorrhoids3
  • Poor hydration – inadequate water intake can lead to constipation and/or haemorrhoids.3
  • Lack of exercise – can lead to constipation3 and sluggish digestion
  • Contaminated food – foods contaminated with harmful bacteria can cause vomiting and digestive disturbance3
  • Flu or short term illness – can affect the digestive system and cause vomiting and indigestion.3

These causes can be linked with symptoms that can affect your quality of life. Some symptoms of poor digestion include:

  • Indigestion
  • Belching
  • Flatulence
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhoea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Pain or discomfort in the abdominal area
  • Medically diagnosed Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Food intolerance e.g. lactose intolerance
  • Heartburn- a burning sensation behind your breastbone, rising up towards your throat2
  • Irritation and inflammation

The requirements for prevention of poor digestion as well as the maintenance of a healthy digestive system are very similar. Although as always, prevention is better than trying to treat it, so it is worth considering the following tips:

  • Maintain a good quality diet – include plenty of fiber-rich foods like fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Adequate fibre intake will assist the passage of food through the digestive system and may reduce digestive problems. Avoid processed foods that often lack fibre and may have poor nutritional content. You may like to consider a fibre food supplement such as psyllium husks.
  • Keep moving – daily exercise will help improve digestive sluggishness and avoid constipation.3 Choose something you enjoy.
  • Keep hydrated – make sure you are getting enough fluids to help avoid constipation and soften stools.3 Constipation is commonly caused by lack of fluids.
  • Pay attention to your eating habits – it can be easy to overeat, your digestive system will love you for eating smaller meals more regularly, rather than large meals.2 This eases the burden on your digestive system.
  • Chew your food – make sure you chew your food carefully and slowly – to ensure you do not swallow excess air which can cause digestive disturbance.2 Also, digestion begins in the mouth with chewing. The food is ground up and moistened with saliva, which has important enzymes to break down food and make it easy to swallow.1
  • Reduce alcohol, caffeine and smoking2– these can cause irritation and digestive symptoms such as indigestion and heartburn.
  • Keep a diary – if you regularly experience poor digestion, it is worth recording what you eat as well as any relevant symptoms- to see if there is a connection. Once you work out which foods do not agree with you, find suitable alternatives.
  • Avoid bending and lying down – this is important after a meal, to help prevent stomach contents being pushed upwards, which may exacerbate symptoms of heartburn.2
  • Watch your sleeping position – if you experience heartburn at night, try sleeping with your upper body propped up and avoid eating two hours before bedtime.2
  • Maintain a healthy weight – excess weight may put additional pressure on the digestive organs.3
  • Manage your stress levelsstress can upset the delicate balance involved in digestion and lead to bloating, flatulence, pain and constipation. Consider relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, counselling or deep breathing.3 It is also important to eat in a relaxed environment, eating on the go can affect your digestive processes.

To assist in maintaining good digestion and managing symptoms of poor digestion you may like to consider the following for digestive support:

  • Probiotics supplements – these good bacteria encourage good digestion by maintaining the beneficial bacteria of the small and large intestines. They are useful for anyone who has just had a course of antibiotics, which commonly reduces beneficial bacteria.
  • Slippery Elm – Traditionally used in Western herbal medicine to help soothe and relieve irritation and inflammation- especially of the mucous surfaces such as the lining of the digestive tract, stomach and throat. It is a demulcent which means that it coats, soothes and protects mucous membranes.
  • Ginger – Traditionally used in Western herbal medicine to help relieve dyspepsia (indigestion) and flatulence. It may act as a digestive aid and has mild anti-emetic properties. This means it may relieve nausea and vomiting associated with morning sickness or motion sickness.
  • Digestive enzymes – enzyme support may help to aid digestion and alleviate bloating, dyspepsia or flatulence. It may support the breakdown of proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
  • Dandelion – traditionally used in western herbal medicine as a liver tonic, mild laxative, digestive aid and a diuretic to assist with fluid retention. It may help improve bile flow and assist in the relief of non-specific dyspepsia (indigestion).
  • Fenugreek – traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to aid digestion and help maintain a healthy appetite. It is also popularly used in traditional Western herbal medicine for soothing the mucous membranes of the stomach and intestines. It may help with gastric discomfort and provide relief from non-specific dyspepsia (indigestion).

Frequently asked questions:

When should I see a Doctor for my symptoms of indigestion?

Most people suffer from symptoms of poor digestion from time to time, however if you have a recurring problem, you may consider seeing your doctor or healthcare practitioner. If your indigestion persists for more than a few weeks and doesn’t respond to digestive support, if you start to lose weight, have nausea or vomiting or pain in the top right hand side of the abdomen you should discuss with your Doctor. Seek medical attention urgently if you have black tarry stools, prolonged vomiting, pain in the upper chest, jaw or back, or difficulty swallowing.2

How can a liver tonic or liver detoxification supplement help support my symptoms of indigestion?

The liver plays a very important role in the digestive process. Among other things a healthy liver is required to produce bile which is required to break down dietary fats and absorb important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. It also ensures a steady supply of energy by converting carbohydrates into glucose for instant energy.1

What is the difference between a prebiotic and a probiotic?

Probiotics are known as “good bacteria” while prebiotics encourage the growth of these good bacteria. Eating foods with probiotics and prebiotics may encourage good digestion. Good food sources of probiotics are fermented dairy and vegetable foods such as yoghurt or sauerkraut.4 Examples of foods containing prebiotics are bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, cabbage, artichoke and legumes.