Food stands first among all basic needs – food, water, air, and shelter.
When we eat, our body breaks down and converts food into energy to fuel all body actions. This process is called digestion.
Our digestive system consists of all organs that food passes through and organs that help process food into nutrients.
When we see or smell food, our body responds by secreting more saliva, which contains enzymes, the essential protein to break down food.
Partially digested food will then be transported to the stomach, where most enzyme activities happen.
Meanwhile, the liver and pancreas release digestive juices into the small bowel, where food is further disintegrated and nutrients absorbed.
Finally, the large bowel absorbs minerals and water from the remaining and excretes the waste product (feces) via the anus.
The importance of a healthy digestive system
In 2019, 20.41 per 100,000 people died from digestive diseases. Having a healthy digestive system is essential.
Our body needs nutrients from food to continue to execute its functions.
Carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fibers, vitamins, minerals, and water – we can’t live without them. And having a functional digestive system is the only way we can extract them from food.
The three major classes of nutrients and their end digestive product are protein (break into amino acids), fat (break into fatty acid and glycerol), and carbohydrate (break into simple sugar).
Signs of digestive problems
Signs and symptoms of digestive problems vary widely depending on what goes wrong in the digestive system. Some are mild, and some are alarming.
Here we will see a few most common complaints related to digestive problems.
The pain can be sharp, dull, cramping, burning, twisting, tearing, or penetrating. It is usually associated with other symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhea.
Mild and chronic pain is less worrying than severe, acute pain, where you should seek medical attention immediately.
Acid reflux (heartburn) and regurgitation
Heartburn is a burning sensation in the chest. Some might describe a sour, bitter, or metallic taste in the mouth. Regurgitation is a feeling of something coming up into the chest.
Many people experience both symptoms; however, some patients can have one without the other. Both are caused by the involuntary movement of stomach content into the esophagus and mouth.
Bloating or gas
It refers to a sense of fullness in the upper abdomen, sometimes interpreted as pain.
Nausea or vomiting
Nausea is the unpleasant urge to vomit, while vomiting is the forceful expel of stomach contents through the mouth.
A passage of three or more loose stools daily is considered diarrhea. Although common, diarrhea can kill.
It is among the top causes of death in young children, especially in developing countries.
Based on duration, diarrhea can be classified into acute diarrhea (lasts less than two weeks), persistent diarrhea (lasts between 2 and 4 weeks), and chronic diarrhea (lasts more than four weeks).
In the US, every year, there are at least 2.5 million doctor visits due to constipation, and hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on laxatives.
If you do not defecate daily, but you are well, and this is not a sudden occurrence, you are not having constipation.
In contrast, you are constipated if you have to strain when defecating, pass out small hard stools, or feel incomplete defecation.
You should see your doctor at the nearest time possible if you have the following signs:
- Blood in your vomitus and stool or having a black stool
- Persistent constipation or diarrhea, or sudden changes in bowel habits
- Severe abdominal pain
- Unintentional weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Swelling or mass in the abdomen
- Heartburn is not relieved by antacids
- Difficulty in swallowing (dysphagia)
- Yellow discoloration of eyes and skin (jaundice)
Suppose you are diagnosed with a digestive disease. In that case, your healthcare provider most likely recommends you undergo lifestyle changes.
That will be the only treatment for some mild conditions, and you might not even need medications.
However, if your symptoms worsen or warning signs appear, talk to your healthcare providers, as you might have more serious medical conditions.
Common digestive diseases include the following:
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
IBS is the most common disease diagnosed by gastro doctors. Abdominal pain and problems with bowel movements, such as diarrhea and constipation, characterize it.
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, it is estimated that 10 to 15% of US adult residents have IBS, but most remain undiagnosed. Only 5 to 7% of adults are confirmed IBS patients.
Dyspepsia, commonly known as indigestion, covers multiple symptoms, such as quickly feeling full during a meal (early satiety), excessively uncomfortable fullness after a meal, and burning pain in the stomach area.
Most of the time, indigestion is caused by other underlying diseases in the digestive tract, including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer disease, cancer, or problems of the pancreas or biliary system.
Meanwhile, sometimes doctors cannot find a cause, and such a condition is named functional dyspepsia, a situation believed to root in miscommunication between the brain and digestive system (brain-gut axis dysregulation).
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Another disease closely related to indigestion is GERD. A person can have both indigestion and GERD simultaneously.
If you have two or more times of heartburn (a burning sensation behind the chest bone) in a week, you likely have GERD.
It happens when stomach content backflows into the esophagus, causing heartburn (by acidic stomach juice) and regurgitation (feeling of fluid or food coming up into the chest). You can experience both symptoms or just one without the other.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
IBD is a collective term for two autoimmune conditions: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. They are long-term conditions involving gastrointestinal tract inflammation.
Ulcerative colitis affects the large bowel, while Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the digestive tract, from the mouth to the anus.
The symptoms of IBD include abdominal pain, recurring diarrhea (with or without blood), weight loss, and extreme tiredness. Some people might have additional symptoms such as fever, vomiting, anemia, joint pain, and red skin bumps (erythema nodosum).
These symptoms come and go. When the symptoms are severe, it is called a flare-up episode; When there are few or no symptoms, the patient is known to be in remission.
Celiac disease is also known as celiac sprue or gluten-sensitive enteropathy. As the name suggests, celiac disease people cannot tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and some grains.
Inflammation of the small bowel begins when gluten enters the digestive tract. The consequence is a malfunctioning small bowel that cannot absorb nutrients from the food.
Aside from common digestive symptoms, a long-term continuous gluten intake among people with celiac disease can cause nutrition-deficiency disorders such as brittle bones (osteoporosis) and anemia induced by iron, vitamin B12, and folate deficiency.
People with celiac disease often have family members with the same condition.
Food digestion time chart
Bowel transit time describes how long it takes for food to move through the digestive tract. Therefore, you can think of it as food digestive time.
Bowel transit time varies, even in the same person. This is contributed by a broad range of factors, including:
- Body type
- Metabolism rate (how fast your body changes food into energy)
- Medications taken
- Types, sizes, density, and viscosity of food
- Physical fitness
- Past surgery or other medical conditions
- Stress level
Carbohydrate is digested faster than protein and fat. The same goes for liquid. Plain water is processed fastest, followed by simple beverages (clear juice, tea, sodas) and complex beverages (smoothies, protein shakes, and bone broths).
Based on a study that measures how long digestion takes place in different parts of the gastrointestinal tract, the normal range of duration for food to be digested in different parts of the digestive tract is:
- Stomach: 2 to 5 hours
- Small bowel: 2 to 6 hours
- Large bowel (colon): 10 to 59 hours
- Whole digestive tract: 10 to 73 hours
On top of the various factors mentioned above, the complexity of our meal composition also added difficulty for us to estimate how long digestion takes.
Although you may be able to find some food digestion time charts on the internet, they are not backed up by scientific evidence.
Foods that help digestion
1. Eat more greens and fiber
Vegetables and fruits are the best foods for digestive health. They contain a lot of fiber which helps prevent constipation, but most people in the US do not get enough.
The American College of Gastroenterology recommends a daily intake of 20–35 g of fiber, but the average American only takes 10-15 g per day.
Here are some great sources of food that is rich in fiber:
- Wholemeal bread
- Brown rice
- Fruits and vegetables
Sometimes, cereals and grains may cause digestive symptoms. In that case, get your fiber from fruit and vegetables instead.
2. Drink plenty of water
Water encourages the transportation of food in the digestive system and can helps soften poo. Without water, fiber cannot do its job, so you will get constipation.
A helpful tip to increase your water intake is to drink a glass of water with every meal. Plain water is the best.
Avoid taking other sweet or acidic drinks as they may cause indigestion symptoms.
3. Probiotics for digestion
Probiotics are bacteria good for digestion. They help keep the normal healthy balance of bacteria in our digestive tract.
They are commonly added to yogurts or sold as digestion supplements. You will have to take them daily for at least four weeks to see any beneficial effect.
Talk to your healthcare providers before taking probiotic digestion supplements, especially if you have an existing health condition or a weakened immune system.
Worst foods for digestion
Now that you know the best foods that help digestion, what foods should you avoid?
1. Reduce fat intakes
Fatty or greasy foods are challenging to digest. Therefore, you might want to cut back on them to ease your stomach’s workload.
Instead of high-fat meats, take lean meat such as skinless chicken, turkey, and red meat with the fat part trimmed off.
Fish is an excellent source of protein with low total fat and saturated fat. Drink skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, and grill your food rather than frying.
2. Avoid spicy and strong-flavored food
Everyone has different spice tolerance levels. Still, we must agree that too much spiciness can trigger gastrointestinal symptoms, especially abdominal pain and diarrhea.
Besides chili, milder but strong-flavored food like garlic, ginger, and onion can also cause digestive symptoms. Avoid them if you have a terrible experience with them.
3. Specific triggers
Some people find particular foods trigger their digestive tract discomfort:
- Acidic foods, such as tomatoes, citrus fruits, and salad dressings
- Carbonated or drinks with caffeine
- Lactose, which is present in milk and dairy products such as cream, cheese, yogurt, and chocolate
What to drink after a meal to help digestion?
In short, plain water is the best choice of drink after a meal. Otherwise, consider drinking green juice without sugar.
Rich in fiber, vegetables and fruit juices or smoothies are the best foods for digestive health. Although some drinks provide general health or digestive system benefits, they contain substances like sugars and acids that increase the calorie and cause heartburn symptoms.
Another popular drink taken to aid in the digestion of food is peppermint tea, which relaxes the digestive tract’s smooth muscle.
In another review, researchers found that a daily dose of 1500 mg of ginger benefits nausea relief. But they also proposed that more human studies are required to demonstrate its efficacy as a gastroprotective agent.
Does apple cider vinegar help with digestion?
The answer to this question is both yes and no. Studies have shown that ACV consumption significantly helps in the digestion (reduces) of total cholesterol and blood glucose.
However, at the same time, it can increase stomach acid volume and erode your esophagus or tooth enamel.
Tips to improve digestion
Besides practicing healthy digestive diets, here are some other tips on how to improve digestion:
1. Manage your stress
Anxiety and worry can disrupt the normal tempo of your digestive system, either by slowing it down (causing constipation and bloating) or speeding it up (causing diarrhea).
Try talking about your feelings to a friend or family member and use deep breathing exercises to calm yourself down.
2. Stop smoking to prevent reflux
Smoking can weaken the muscle (sphincter) that controls the lower end of the esophagus, allowing the stomach acid to backflow upwards more easily. Smokers also have a higher risk of having digestive tract cancer.
3. Practice healthy eating habits
Eat regularly and try to eat all meals. Take your time while eating, and try taking smaller portions of meals more times. About 2 to 3 hours before bed, do not consume any food.
4. Maintain a healthy weight
Thick abdominal fat can compress your stomach and cause heartburn.
5. Avoid binge drinking
Binge drinking increases stomach acid production, leading to heartburn and other digestive conditions.
Best side to sleep on for digestion
Get Your FREE Sleep Guide
- Learn how to naturally improve your sleep
- Dietary recommendations, supplements, and lifestyle changes
- Developed exclusively by our medical doctor
Knowing what foods help digestion and practicing healthy diets are crucial to your general health. Beware of signs and symptoms of digestive diseases, and seek help if you have any health concerns.