10 Ways To Improve Digestive Health

by Ann Marie Michaels on August 3, 2009

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10 Ways to Improve Digestive Health

Are you plagued by bad digestion? Do you have chronic constipation, hemorrhoids, diarrhea? Do you have acne or other skin issues? Do you have heartburn or gas?

I used to think these issues were all just a normal part of life. I think most people do. In fact, one time I was watching Dr. Oz on Oprah counsel a woman who wrote in to ask how she could resolve her flatulence. He told her it was normal to pass gas. I can’t remember how much (so don’t quote me), but I think I recall him saying it was normal to pass about a liter of gas a day.

Could this really be normal? I don’t think so. But perhaps it has become common in our culture.

It’s also common to see drugstore shelves that look like this:

10 Ways to Improve Digestive Health

I read an interesting article a while back on the Weston A. Price Foundation website. It was about traditional diets in Africa. The people there enjoyed vibrant health and excellent digestion:

In his lectures, Burkitt was fond of pointing out that the typical African stool specimen was large and soft, and that stool transit times were rapid, compared to the puny hard fecal deposits and slow transit times of hapless Europeans. The large amount of fermented food, easy to digest and contributing to the health of intestinal flora, is the most likely explanation for this phenomena — fermented dairy products in European groups and fermented fish among the Eskimos accomplish the same results.

The problem with digestive issues is not just the immediate discomfort. Bad digestion affects everything connected to health. When you don’t properly digest your food, you don’t absorb the nutrients. This can lead to all kinds of health problems. There is also a lot of research being done about the connection between behavior and mood and digestion.

Lastly, restoring the proper balance of intestinal flora helps build immunity. What do good bacteria do? They kill bad bacteria!

I’ve had my own personal journey of recovery in this arena. I’m amazed at how much better I feel now that I eat fermented foods, soak my grains, and eat lots of raw dairy products. It’s not hard to overcome digestive issues, but it can take time. For me, when I was in my twenties, suffering from all kinds of health problems stemming from a candida overgrowth, it took me about two years to correct it. It was so worth it, though. I think I’m as healthy as I am today because I took the time to work on my digestion.

From what I have read, it’s easier for children to recover more quickly. So if you have a child with digestive issues, start now — not later — on the path to recovery.

10 Ways To Improve Digestive Health

1. Eat more fermented foods. Fermented foods are naturally probiotic and help to repopulate the gut with beneficial bacteria. There is a tremendously long list of fermented foods from around the world. Some examples include yogurt, cultured butter, creme fraiche, sauerkraut, kimchi, and naturally fermented pickles. Fermented beverages include: kefir, kombucha, kefir soda pop, and beet kvass. Read more about fermented foods in this post. There are lots of good recipes for fermented foods in Sally Fallon-Morell’s book, Nourishing Traditions or Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation. Check the listings on my resources page for sources of fermented foods and starter cultures.

2. Drink and cook with filtered water, not tap water. Why is this important? Because tap water is chlorinated. Chlorine kills bacteria — good and bad. If you are working to put good bacteria into your digestive tract, you don’t want to douse chlorine on it. If you swim in a chlorinated pool, try to limit it to once or twice a week.

3. Use bone broth instead of water for your cooking. Bone broths include chicken, beef, and fish stock. Stock can be used to make soup — but it’s not just for soup. I use bone broth instead of water to cook my rice and beans. I make reduction sauces. Not only is cooking with bone broth more nutritious, it’s more flavorful and you get all the health benefits of bone broth. It’s very soothing to the gut lining. See my post on how to make chicken stock.

4. Eat coconut oil and cook with it. According to Jordan Rubin, author of The Maker’s Diet, “Coconut oil is anti-viral, and contains lauric, capric and caprylic acids — recommended to combat candida.” (Source)

5. Eat at least 50% of your food raw (or raw and fermented). Enzymes help you digest your food. When I say “raw”, I don’t just mean raw fruits and vegetables. I mean raw milk, raw cheese and cream, even raw or fermented fish and meats like sushi, ceviche and beef tartare. A good idea is to start meals with a salad. You can also use condiments that are raw fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, salsa, relish and salad dressings. Check the listings on my resources page for sources of raw, fermented foods.

6. Limit fiber. That’s right – I said limit. Decrease, not increase. High fiber foods are very hard on your digestive tract and can damage your gut lining. To learn more about the dangers of a high-fiber diet, check out this informative website: Gutsense.org. If you eat grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, make sure they are properly prepared (see # 7).

7. Soak, sprout or ferment your grains, nuts, legumes, and seeds. Avoid white flour that has not been naturally leavened with sourdough. Commercial yeast does not properly ferment the grains like traditional sourdough or wild yeasts. Every time I eat white flour — like when we are on vacation — I get constipated. We come back home and we’re eating sourdough and soaked oats and I don’t have that problem anymore. Read this post I wrote about the benefits of naturally fermented sourdough bread. Visit my resources page for sources of sprouted flour and sourdough cultures.

8. Do an elimination diet. If your digestion is very bad or you have other health problems related to digestive issues, and none of the above has worked, try going on an elimination diet. This is not for everyone, but it may solve your problems. It was what I had to do in my twenties to recover from digestive ills.

Elimination diets require you to remove all common allergens from your diet for 3-4 weeks. This includes wheat, dairy, corn, soy, etc. Also you have to avoid all sugar – pathogenic bacteria thrives on sugar and white flour. I personally went off all grains, all dairy, all sugar, and eggs for one month. And you know what — my symptoms disappeared. It took me another couple years to fully heal but that was the beginning for me.

I had a friend at the time who had a bad case of persistent acne. She did an elimination diet and her skin cleared up within a matter of days. She found out dairy was the culprit.

A book that helped me was The Yeast Connection by William Crook. You may want to look into the GAPS Diet. For resources on the GAPS method of digestive health, check out the listings on my Resources page.

9. Consume prebiotics. Prebiotics feed probiotics, or good bacteria. Many foods are prebiotics, including onions, garlic, leeks, apples and bananas, and herbs like chicory root or dandelion root (try drinking Dandy Blend or other coffee alternative — or dandelion root tea). Raw, unpasteurized Apple Cider Vinegar is also a prebiotic and is said to help w/ heartburn. It has helped me — ever since I got my pregnant with my daughter, I’ve had heartburn for the first time in my life. The apple cider vinegar really has helped. (Source)

10. Take a probiotic supplement. There are some cases where you need to bring on the big guns. The Maker’s Diet author, Jordan Rubin, explains, “Lacto-fermented foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut also provided healthy bacteria in traditional diets and these should be part of the diet of any person suffering from digestive problems. But probiotic formulations can help “jump start” the system in those with serious digestive problems as they will quickly populate the gut with beneficial organisims.” (Source)

However, not all supplements are the same. I have tried all kinds of probiotic supplements and have been disappointed by the run-of-the-mill store-bought variety. They just didn’t work for me. If you’re going to spring for probiotic supplements (and in many situations, I believe it is necessary), make sure you use ones that really work. Check my Resources page for sources of probiotic supplements.

This post is a part of the Natural Cures blog carnival, happening every Tuesday at Hartke is Online.


Photo credit: Pepto Bismol on Flickr

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Shannon August 4, 2009 at 4:07 AM

Regarding the ACV… our ND has said that heartburn is actually caused by a lack of stomach acid, not too much. So all of those heartburn medicines that reduce stomach acid are actually making the problem worse. I believe that’s why acv works.

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cheeseslave August 4, 2009 at 5:15 AM

Shannon –

Yes! That’s exactly right! I was going to add that to my post but didn’t get around to it. It’s low stomach acid, not excess acid.

I read that as we age, we have less stomach acid so heartburn and acid reflux can become more common for older people.

Also, it has to be RAW apple cider vinegar. I don’t think it works with pasteurized apple cider vinegar.

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Vin - NaturalBias August 4, 2009 at 6:00 AM

Great suggestions, Ann Marie! I particularly like the one about the elimination diet. It’s so important for people to identify and eliminate foods that they’re sensitive to, and it’s equally important to eliminate unhealthy processed foods as they can impact intestinal health and contribute to the development of sensitivities. A clean diet is the foundation of good digestion and most of the other tips won’t do much good without it!

Another tip that few people consider is to relax and take your time while you eat. Stress can shut down digestion and many of us rush through our meals or eat them while we watch television (which usually isn’t relaxing).

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Kimberly Hartke August 4, 2009 at 6:04 AM

Thanks so much Ann Marie for submitting this to the Natural Cures blog carnival today! I also used to be gassy every evening. Since changing my diet to the WAPF guidelines, I don’t have that problem anymore! This is great advice. As for me, I prefer to get all my probiotics from food, raw milk, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and pickles.

Pills and I don’t get along (I forget to take them!!)

Kimberly

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Leanne August 4, 2009 at 7:26 AM

Thank you sooooo much for this list (and all the other information you publish.) I am slowly making changes in my diet, but I had not yet heard about the “need more fiber” hoax. Sometimes I get so angry when I learn about all the false information about healthy eating that’s been promoted for years. For example, I am one of those who believed the more fiber for health lie and have *not* gotten healthier with it! For several years I was on meds for GERD and now I’m trying to rebuild my health from that (as well as various unhealthy eating habits). Fortunately I never bought into butter is bad – I did at least recognize that margarine was totally fake and tasted awful as well. I have a very hard time convincing friends however that good fat is good for you – they have been so brainwashed into believing that all fat is bad. As I’ve started adding more healthy fat to my diet I’m finding that I am more satisfied and don’t get hungry again so fast. And I’m starting to lose weight now too (as opposed to when I was mostly eating veggies, fruit, and whole grain bread and constantly hungry and irritable because of that and lethargic because I wasn’t getting enough energy from my food!)

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cheeseslave August 4, 2009 at 7:43 AM

Leanne –

I agree, margarine is gross!

I think a lot of people rely on fiber because they are so constipated and can’t seem to get by without it. I know that was true for me before I started eating a traditional diet. I used to have to eat whole grain high-fiber cereal in the morning. Now I know that probiotics and about sprouting & fermenting grains, nuts & seeds, I don’t have the problem of constipation anymore.

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coconutfreek July 22, 2011 at 3:08 AM

properly prepared foods sure help digestion. w/ all the processed foods and improperly prepared grains, beans etc that people eat, its no wonder colon cancer is so prevalent today. I really think that is a cause of colon cancer, when peeps done’ eliminate properly and often enough.

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Pamela August 4, 2009 at 12:03 PM

Ann Marie………I’ve been over at the GAPS site looking it over. One thing I have not found nor have read it anywhere else is – What does GAPS stand for? And why does Dr. McBride call her book The Gut & Psychology (???) Syndrome ?

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Bay August 4, 2009 at 5:39 PM

AnnMarie – you write the BEST and most imformative posts! This one is great. I too have found that less fiber is better for my system. In college all I ate was the typical “low fat” diet of low fat yogurt, salads, fruit and little meat. I was always tired, always struggling to keep my weight off and ALWAYS gassy!

Since eating more protein and real fat over the last few years I can not believe the change. I rarely ever have gas unless I eat sugar and don’t have digestive issues unless I am stressed.

Thanks for a great post! (and sorry to be talking about “gas” I sound like a grandma)

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Earth Friendly Goodies August 4, 2009 at 7:10 PM

I’m just discovering this whole new world of real foods (I stumbled across The Food Renegade and have been following the tracks to new worlds [blogs] ever since) – it is so interesting, and a bit overwhelming. The more I learn the more there is to learn. :)

I’ve been slowly incorporating real foods into my, and my family’s diet like the apple cider vinegar and the coconut oil, but there is plenty more to explore. I need a magic time stopping device so I can tack on a few extra hours a day. ;)

By the way is lactose intolerance perhaps a symptom of bad digestion? And potentially cured by introducing some of these top ten mentioned ways to improve digestive health and restore the stomach enzymes.

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Michelle August 4, 2009 at 7:59 PM

Thank you for such an important message. I sure wish I had known some of this before I developed Crohn’s disease 4 years ago. The gutsense.info site is right on about fiber and bacteria. To cure myself I found the SCDiet – Specific Carbohydrate Diet which has no sugars or starches for 2 years. I urge anyone with problems to check it out at http://www.breakingtheviciouscycle.info. and for children with ASD, http://www.pecanbread.com. Continue spreading the word.
Big hugs to you,
Michelle

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carla | green and chic August 5, 2009 at 12:14 PM

I do very well taking raw unfiltered apply cider vinegar several times a day. In addition to digestion, it also helps with blood sugar balance.

Since I started eating fermented foods daily with each meal, I haven’t had a problem with elimination.

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cheeseslave August 5, 2009 at 12:19 PM

Pamela – Gut & Psychology Syndrome is about the connection between mood & behavior and digestive health. Dr. Campbell-McBride reversed all signs of her own son’s autism by healing his digestion.

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Pamela August 5, 2009 at 12:25 PM

Thank you Ann Marie.
It’s amazing how changing all of our eating what can happen to reverse so much.
Is GAPS and acronym?? If so what does it stand for?

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cheeseslave August 5, 2009 at 12:34 PM

Earth Friendly Goodies -

Lactose intolerance is caused by not having the enzymes to digest the food. Lactase is the enzyme necessary to digest lactose.

Interestingly, the process of pasteurization inactivates lactase, so many people who can’t digest pasteurized milk find that they can digest raw milk just fine. My father-in-law had this experience.

And yes, healing the digestive system with any or all of the above tips can help you with lactose or gluten intolerance. Many people have reversed gluten or lactose intolerance by doing these things. Myself included.

When I was in my twenties I became gluten intolerant. I had to go off wheat and sugar and take strong probiotics for about 2 years. Now I have no issues w/ gluten intolerance.

Dr. Campbell McBride writes in her book “Gut & Psychology Syndrome” (see my resources page to order a copy of the book http://villagegreennetwork.com/marketplace/supplements-superfoods?pid=1” target=”_blank” ) that we all have microvilli — tiny microscopic hairs — that line our digestive tract.

She says that over time these microvilli get damaged and “flattened” due to a lack of good bacteria in the gut and also eating things that damage the lining of the gut (unfermented grains and nuts, etc.). I think I explained that right.

Anyway one of the jobs of microvilli is to secrete enzymes which help us digest complex sugars (disaccharides and polysaccharides). Dairy and grains are complex sugars which is why we need microvilli to secrete the enzymes to break them down.

If you have damaged microvilli, you’re not secreting the enzymes you need to break down those foods — which is why you have symptoms of intolerance.

It can take months to years for the microvilli to grow back — and it’s all about helping create a hospitable environment for them. Which is why Dr. C-McB recommends bone broth, probiotics, fermented foods, etc.

That’s the short version!

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cheeseslave August 5, 2009 at 12:35 PM

Pamela yes GAPS Diet stands for Gut And Psychology Syndrome Diet.

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cheeseslave August 5, 2009 at 12:37 PM

Hi, Michelle,

Thank you for sharing those links.

Yes, GAPS is based on SCD. Dr. C-McB started with SCD. She did make some changes to the protocol which is why she wrote The Gut & Psychology Syndrome book.

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cheeseslave August 5, 2009 at 12:40 PM

Here’s a video with Dr. Campbell McBride talking about The Gut & Psychology Syndrome at last year’s WAPF conference:

http://www.cheeseslave.com/2008/12/03/videos-from-wise-traditions-2008-dr-campbell-mcbride-gaps/

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Kieran Adams September 9, 2010 at 10:28 PM

my sister has lactose intolerance and she can’t stand drinking too much milk:”.

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coconutfreek July 22, 2011 at 3:01 AM

does she drink fermented dairy? kefir. piima. villia

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Robin December 7, 2010 at 11:27 AM

Speaking of heartburn, I’ve been trying to incorporate more homemade sourdough foods at home, but my husband says they give him heartburn. Any idea why this may be happening or how I can help aleviate it? He did try the raw ACV once (even though he hates ACV, he still tried it), and he said it didn’t help at all. Anything?

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coconutfreek July 22, 2011 at 3:01 AM

try some apple cider vingar w/ stevia for sweeetener w/ some ginger and dilute w/ water. that did wonders for some stomach pain I had for years after eating in the morning. maybe I had acid reflux and didnt’ know it………not sure, but it’s gone.

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rex @ digestive enzymes supplement April 11, 2011 at 8:20 PM

You have a great post, and I found the “10 ways to improve digestive health” very helpful. You have given us great tips. Very informative!

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LeahS July 20, 2011 at 9:58 AM

Great list. What I want to comment on is that picture of the store isle. I rarely go into a supermarket anymore but when I do, I am definitely struck by the vastness of the heartburn isle, and the canned crap isle and the chip isle….

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coconutfreek July 22, 2011 at 2:59 AM

I sill hvae big digestive issues……… :-( I am going to up my intake of fermetned foods and see if I can shake this. I have soaked grains, beans, etc for sev. years now. I take digestive enzymes every time I eat, but it’s still a fight. I take probiotics also.

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Linda March 6, 2013 at 8:57 PM

I have a 7 yr old who has a very hard time with constipation. I’ve been giving her some kefir (not much) sauerkraut with her lunch, but according to what your saying I not giving her enough fermented food. Thank you for mentioning to aim for 50%. I would not have thought it was that high.

Right now I have to give her 2 stool softeners with each meal just to keep things moving. Is this ok for now, or do you have a better idea than what I’m doing?

I really want to get this fixed. She is way too young to be dealing with this!!!

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Brett April 21, 2013 at 7:24 PM

I have been doing all of the above yet I am still having dig.estive problems. I a weston prce diet with whole natural foods. I eat a two gallons of homeade fermented foods every week. I take pancratic enzymes 30 minutes before each meal. I take hcl and digestive enzymes with each meal. I try to relaz while eating and for at least an hour afterwards. I have 2-3 bowel movements per day. I get pleanty of sleep and avoid all stimulants and chemicals. I only work 20-30 hours per week at a job I enjoy. I have also studied and eat only foods appropiate to my metabolic type. I feel l am doing most every thing right yet a few months ago I began having digestive problems. If I do the slightest physical activity after eating I immediatly start having gas and digestive upset. I am in very good shape so I am not straining my self.

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Best healthy cleanse detox December 11, 2013 at 2:08 AM

I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great.
I don’t know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if
you aren’t already ;) Cheers!

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Nancy January 18, 2014 at 4:11 PM

If you are over 21 years old, your stomach acid levels are beginning to drop. By 50, you have almost 1/2 than you did in your 20′s. Taking Betaine Hydrochloride will improve digestion & reduce heartburn. WARNING: Heal your gut first, though, BEFORE you begin a Betaine HCL regimen. Heal it with L-Glutamine and/or cabbage juice. D-Limonene is also helpful. STOP taking acid blockers! They prevent your stomach from creating the acid that it is supposed to create! Your stomach acid is your friend! It kills the bad stuff. I healed my GERD 100% using this protocol!

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Joyce February 10, 2014 at 7:56 PM

I recommend you below an other site about How to Improve Digestion Naturally
and extremely helpful and well explain. – See more at:
http://www.liveyourlifenaturally.com/how-to-improve-digestion-naturally

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Lori March 2, 2014 at 10:32 AM

as someone who has been dealing with digestive diseases (SIBO and others) for some time I would add to this list trying a fresh garlic juice (per Ray Medina at Syontix.com recipe) and adding baking soda to water and drinking often, especially with meals. Digestive enzymes can also be helpful..
Best of luck to all with gut health!

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Mimi Johnson June 30, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Love your blog. I think coconut oil makes people feel better because our digestion is so messed up from SAD diet, antibiotics and other medications. I don’t think one should use coconut oil every day, especially if you have a known GI imbalance. That is like taking an antifungal every day for the rest of your life. It can be too harsh for some. Mix. it. up. Beware the new coconut craze. It could really do damage for some of us western folks with our gut dysbiosis, leaky gut and auto-immune issues. My Chinese Medicine Doc says we should avoid it like the plague. Just another perspective.

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