From the foods you eat to the lifestyle choices you make, keep on top of your digestive health with our top tips

Is your gut telling you that something isn’t quite right? If you’re experiencing some common digestive symptoms, you want to implement some changes to your diet and lifestyle or you’re just looking to help improve your digestive health but don’t know how, sit tight as we’re here to give you a rundown of everything you need to know.

What causes poor digestion?

Before we get into the causes of poor digestion, let’s start with what role the digestive system plays.

As food moves through the digestive system, it's digested and absorbed into the body and broken down to provide us with essential nutrients and energy.

So what is poor digestion? This can happen if the gut has difficulty processing food and eliminating waste. It can be present in a variety of ways, with some of the most common symptoms being:

• An upset stomach

• Constipation

• Diarrhoea

• Heartburn

• Indigestion

• Bloating

• Nausea

While some people may experience one or more of the above from time to time, others may endure these more frequently. It’s important to remember that each person’s experience is different and there are a few varying factors that can contribute to the above symptoms, such as diet, lifestyle and some digestive conditions including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

If you notice differences in your bowel habits or you’re concerned about any of the above symptoms, it’s best to get checked by your GP.

Foods that help digestion

What we eat can have a positive impact on our digestive health and how we process foods. To help avoid the above symptoms, it’s important to eat a healthy, balanced diet, consisting of:

• At least five portions of a variety of different fruit and veg per day

• High-fibre, starchy foods like wholegrains

• Dairy products or alternatives like soya milk

• Protein from fish, eggs, lean meat, chicken or beans

• Unsaturated oils and spreads

Find more information on our nutrition health hub.

Another thing to note that is beneficial for your digestive health is to practice good eating habits, such as:

• Not rushing your food – chew each mouthful well before swallowing

• Not overeating – try reducing your portion sizes or eat four to five small meals instead of three large ones

• Eating regularly – try not to skip meals

• Avoiding eating a meal at least two to three hours before going to bed or lying down

• Drinking plenty of water

Top tips for improving digestion

As well as the above, here’s some other tips to help aid digestion.

Fill up on fibre

A good place to start with your digestive health is to ensure you’re eating enough fibre. The NHS recommends adults aim for around 30g of fibre per day, as this can help aid digestion and prevent constipation. Try to incorporate fibre-rich foods into your diet, which can be found in the following:

• Wholemeal bread and wholewheat pasta

• Brown rice

• Potatoes with their skin on

• Fruit and veg

• Beans and pulses

• Oats

Find out more information on how to add fibre into your diet.

Drink plenty of fluids

Drinking enough fluids, especially water, is important for aiding digestion and for keeping you hydrated too. It encourages the passage of waste through your digestive system and helps soften poo. This comes hand in hand with fibre which acts like a sponge to soak up the water. Without enough fluid, the fibre is unable to do its job and can therefore cause constipation.

The general guide for adults in the UK is to drink between six and eight glasses per day (which is around 1.6 litres).

While water is most beneficial, you can also drink lower fat milk, herbal tea and some low-sugar drinks but try to avoid fizzy or caffeinated drinks, such as coffee, tea, cola and energy drinks, as this may trigger heartburn. We’d also recommended opting for foods high in water content, such as melon, to help you get a little extra water.

Struggling to drink enough water? Take a look at our top tips.

Cut back on fat

Fatty, greasy and fried foods – we’re talking burgers, chips and fried chicken – can all contribute to an upset stomach and heartburn as they can be harder to digest.

Instead, why not try adding lean meats and fish into your diet, grilling foods as opposed to frying them and swapping out full fat milk for skimmed or semi-skimmed?

Ease off the spicy foods

Many people love to eat spicy foods, but you may notice it upsets your stomach. Foods such as chillies can cause heartburn, as well as some milder and flavourful foods like onion and garlic.

Not everyone’s digestive health will be impacted by spicy foods, but if they trigger heartburn, stomach pain or diarrhoea, it’s best to ease off them. If you regularly experience heartburn or have an irritable bowel, avoid them altogether.

Get to know your gut triggers

Much like we all have different likes and dislikes when it comes to the food on our plates, certain foods may cause different digestive symptoms in different people.

For some, acidic foods (like tomatoes and citrus fruits), can trigger heartburn, while wheat and onions can trigger irritable bowel syndrome symptoms for others.

Food sensitivities and intolerances can also be a problem for some people. For example, those who are lactose intolerant are unable to digest lactose (the sugar found in milk), which can cause wind and diarrhoea after having milk or other dairy products.

If you think certain foods or drinks are triggering symptoms, try to avoid them where you can and keep a food diary to track which foods are causing them.

It’s important to note that if you do cut out complete food groups from your diet such as dairy or wheat, try to make sure the foods you replace them with have enough of the nutrients you need.

If you’re unsure about which foods you can and can’t eat and need further dietary advice, ask your doctor to refer you to a dietitian.

Try to find ways to manage stress

Whether it’s a big change in your life, an accumulation of small things or anything in-between, a lot of factors in our everyday lives can cause stress. During these times, you may notice feelings of unease in your stomach. This is because anxiety can upset the delicate balance of digestion. Some people may experience slower digestion, causing bloating, pain and constipation, while others can get diarrhoea from quicker digestion. Some people can lose their appetite completely.

Stress is also thought to worsen digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Everyone’s circumstances are different and while managing stress is easier said than done, there’s help available to you so you can keep on top of your digestive health. Take a look at our guide for helping to manage stress.

Get plenty of exercise

Regular exercise is great for the mind and body, especially for aiding digestion as it helps move food through your digestive system.

The NHS recommends adults aged between 19 and 64 do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week (such as walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week (such as running), as well as trying to sit less throughout the day.

Not sure which exercises to take up? Why not try some moderate-intensity workouts such as cycling, walking and water aerobics? Perhaps you could incorporate some strengthening and flexibility exercises too such as yoga, pilates or lifting weights. Either way, we’ve got plenty of workout inspiration and tips to get you started.

Speak to your GP first if you haven’t exercised for some time, or if you have any medical conditions or concerns.

Lose weight, if you're overweight

If you’re overweight, your tummy fat can press on your stomach which causes heartburn. This means losing weight can help relieve digestive symptoms and other acid-related conditions as well as benefitting your digestive health and overall health, too.

Not sure where to start? Opting for a healthy, balanced diet and doing regular physical activity can help kickstart your weight loss journey, but you can find more information on our weight management health hub.

Stop smoking, if you do smoke

One of the biggest lifestyle factors that can contribute to poor digestive health (as well as your overall health) is smoking, as this can weaken the muscle that controls the lower end of the food pipe. This allows acid to travel back up from the stomach, causing acid reflux. This then triggers symptoms of heartburn as well as aggravating inflammatory bowel conditions.

One of the biggest lifestyle factors that can contribute to poor digestive health (as well as your overall health) is smoking, as this can weaken the muscle that controls the lower end of the food pipe. This allows acid to travel back up from the stomach, causing acid reflux. This then triggers symptoms of heartburn as well as aggravating inflammatory bowel conditions. 

Want to try and quit smoking? You can find support through our NHS Stop Smoking service* or speak to your GP.

Be aware of binge drinking

While moderate consumption of alcohol will not harm your digestive health, binge drinking (drinking too much in a single session), increases acid production in the stomach, causing acid-related digestive disorders such as heartburn and indigestion.

Find more information on how to cut back on alcohol.

If you need additional support to stop drinking, speak to your GP.

When to see your GP

If you’ve noticed a difference in your bowel habits, you’re concerned about your digestive health or you’ve experienced mild to severe symptoms for three weeks or more, speak to your GP. They may advise you try some of the above diet and lifestyle changes but can also check for any possible underlying conditions.

It’s a good idea to keep a diary of your symptoms as well as any flare-ups and foods you’re eating so you can give your GP a clear picture of what’s going on.

Find more information on a range of digestive problems in our digestion and gut health hub.

* The NHS Stop Smoking Service is available in selected Boots pharmacies.