Just as gas or electricity fuels our cars, food and liquids fuel our bodies through the digestive process. Carrying on with the car analogy, our entire digestive system comprises the “motor” that powers our bodies — it takes the fuel (food) we put into our mouths and turns it into usable nutrients that get distributed through the body to keep it running like a well-oiled machine.
When there’s a breakdown in the digestive system, it affects the body’s ability to function properly on all levels. In this article we’ll talk about what happens when gastrointestinal processing slows down, and how to speed up digestion.
The Important Work of the Digestive System
Not only does your digestive tract break down the food you eat so essential nutrients can be absorbed into your body, there is a complex network of signals at play between your gut, brain, and immune system. In addition to the central nervous system – which relays messages between your brain and spinal cord — researchers have discovered an enteric nervous system that extends through the entire digestive tract, from mouth to anus.
This discovery has led scientists to dub the gut a “second brain,” and many are questioning what it means for the way we look at disease processes in the body. While the role the microbiome (the billions of microbes inhabiting the digestive tract) plays is not yet completely understood, it’s known to directly affect the enteric nervous system, immune system, and digestion in important ways. (Source, Source, Source)
All of that to say, keeping your digestive tract moving and in good working order is essential for optimal health!
A Journey of Epic Proportions
Once food enters your mouth it embarks on a winding journey through the nearly 30 feet of your digestive (or GI) tract. From your mouth it proceeds through your esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine before exiting through your rectum. This transit time — or the time it takes food to travel through the entire digestive tract — is highly individual and can take anywhere from less than a day to up to 5 days.
In addition to the digestive tract, the digestive system also includes the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder, which produce important digestive enzymes that break down food along the way. Involuntary muscle contractions called peristalsis keeps food moving every step of the way. (Source)
The speed at which this digestive process happens differs from person to person, and is dependent on a variety of factors such as:
- activity level
- metabolism rate and body type
- the type of food being eaten
- hydration level
What Causes Slow Digestion and Is It a Problem?
If digestion slows to the point that food is sitting for too long somewhere along the digestive tract, uncomfortable physical symptoms can result. Slowing may occur for any number of reasons — factors such as dehydration, a sedentary lifestyle, chronic stress, genetics, or an unhealthy diet full of processed, fatty foods can all play a role.
Food intolerance can be a contributing factor, too, as this may cause your body to struggle to properly break down and utilize certain foods. Keeping a food journal that includes what you eat, along with any symptoms experienced, is a great way to pinpoint an intolerance. Another option is trying an elimination diet such as the autoimmune protocol (AIP). Foods most likely to cause a sensitivity are eliminated from the diet, then systematically added back in while watching for symptoms.
Some of the common digestive symptoms indicative of digestive slowing include:
- stomach pain
- infrequent bowel movements
In addition to the physical discomforts of slow digestion, foods may be broken down less efficiently, making it harder for your body to get the nutrients it needs to function properly. (Source, Source)
How to Speed Up Digestion & Optimize Digestive Health
While you can’t change your body type or genetic makeup, there are plenty of other factors you can control that will help ensure your digestive system remains healthy.
Here are 5 of the most important things you can do to speed up digestion.
Drink Enough Water
Water is essential for every part of the digestive process, and helps keep food moving smoothly through the GI tract, especially the colon. (Have you ever watched a kid try to slide down a slip and slide without the hose running? You get the picture!) According to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, women should aim to consume a total of around 90 ounces of water per day, while men should try for 125 ounces. About 20% of this is expected to come from the food you eat, with the other 80% (about nine 8-ounce cups for a woman) comes from beverages. Experts also recommend sipping your fluids at consistent intervals throughout the day to keep a steady hydration level. (Source)
Eat Nutrient-Dense Whole Foods
The foods we eat have a direct effect on our gut microbiome, digestion, and overall health. Eating a nutrient-dense diet that includes a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, natural spices, healthy fats (such as avocados and avocado oil, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, etc.), and pasture-raised meats and wild-caught fish — while cutting highly processed, fatty foods and foods high in refined sugar — is a great place to start. It’s important to incorporate both soluble fiber and insoluble fiber in the diet for optimal digestive health, which will be easily accomplished by eating a variety of the foods listed above. (Source, Source, Source, Source)
Include Foods Rich in Pre- and Probiotics
Prebiotics and probiotics work together synergistically, with probiotic-rich foods and supplements contributing helpful bacteria to the GI tract and prebiotic foods “feeding” those bacteria. Consuming both pre- and probiotics is an important way to support gut health and digestion.
Garlic, onions, asparagus, and “bitter” greens (such as arugula, collard greens, and kale) are all excellent sources of prebiotics, while fermented foods such as raw sauerkraut, yogurt, and kimchi are great dietary sources of probiotics. Probiotic supplements are another way to introduce more friendly bacteria to your GI tract, and have been shown to have a positive effect on certain gastrointestinal disorders when used strategically. (Source, Source)
Manage Your Stress
The autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, and digestion, is divided into three segments: sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric, or intestinal. Stress can activate the sympathetic nervous system, sending your body into “fight or flight” mode as it prepares to do battle or run away. Blood flow to your heart, lungs, and muscles is increased, while energy is directed away from less vital bodily functions, such as digestion.
Alternatively, the parasympathetic system earned its motto — “rest and digest” — from the opposite nature of its operation, as it helps the body return to a relaxed state. Living with chronic stress keeps the sympathetic system active and impairs the parasympathetic response, making it hard for digestion to carry on as it should. Stress has been identified as a contributing factor in digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, and managing stress is imperative for maintaining your digestive health. (Source, Source)
We all know that exercise is great for our health in lots of ways, and keeping digestion on track is no exception. Moderate exercise has been shown to accelerate gut transit times, meaning food passes through the digestive tract faster in people who exercise on a regular basis. Choose whatever type of physical activity you enjoy — whether walking, jogging, yoga, playing tennis, rowing — and know you’re not only improving your cardiovascular health and endurance, you’re helping your digestion, too! (Source, Source)
The Bottom Line on How to Speed Up Digestion
Slow digestion can result in uncomfortable digestive symptoms ranging from upset stomach and nausea to bloating and constipation, but there are effective diet and lifestyle changes that can help speed up digestion. Regular exercise, effective stress management, a healthy diet rich in fiber and pre- and probiotics, and proper fluid intake are all important for keeping the digestive system in good working order. If you’re struggling with less than ideal digestion and autoimmune symptoms, WellTheory’s Nutritional Therapy Practitioners can support you in optimizing your digestive health and help you experience symptom relief.