Sluggish digestion can cause bloating, gas, constipation, an uncomfortable feeling of fullness and other undesirable symptoms. Often, taking some simple steps to improve your diet and get more physical activity in your day can help speed up your digestion and relieve the associated symptoms. If the problem is persistent, or if you have other symptoms, a visit to your doctor is a good idea.
Cleaning up Your Diet
Your diet is the first place to look when you want to improve your digestive health. Eating a lot of processed foods such as fast food, white bread and pasta, chips and baked goods can cause constipation, and so can too much cheese and meat.
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These foods are low in water and fiber, two substances critical for regular bowel movements. Caffeine-containing beverages and alcohol can also back you up.
Increasing Your Fiber Intake
Dietary fiber is critical to digestive health. Found only in plant foods, fiber is the indigestible material that makes up the cell walls of plants. It passes through the human body mostly undigested, but it adds bulk to stool and plays a key role in keeping things moving. It also holds water in the bowel to increase the softness of stool, making it easier to pass.
To meet the recommended daily allowance of fiber, men need to get 38 grams and women need to get 25 grams each day. Especially rich sources of fiber include whole grains, beans, nuts, berries, oats and crunchy vegetables like carrots and celery.
Drinking More Water
Along with fiber, water helps lubricate stool to keep it soft and moving along through the digestive tract. Dehydration can lead to hard, dry stool that results in constipation. To make matters worse, caffeine and alcohol can prevent the body from holding onto much-needed water.
Eating more fiber-rich fruits and vegetables will naturally add more water to your diet. In fact, about 20 percent of your daily recommended water intake comes from food. But you still need to make sure to drink plenty of fluids — caffeine-free and sugar-free. Including the 20 percent from food, men need a total of 15.5 cups of fluids per day and women need 11.5 cups.
Getting More Exercise
A lack of physical activity is a major contributing factor to constipation. Exercise speeds up the movement of food through the digestive system, which prevents water loss from stool. This prevents the hard, dry stool characteristic of constipation. Exercise also increases your heart rate, which helps to stimulate peristalsis — the intestinal contractions that move waste out of the body.
Any kind of physical activity is beneficial for preventing and relieving constipation and a slow digestive system. Simply walking for 10 to 15 minutes at a time can speed up digestion. But to improve both your digestion and your overall health, follow the exercise recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which advises all adults to get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity each week.
The CDC also recommends that adults engage in two total-body strength training sessions each week.
Read more: 6 Basic Stages of Digestion
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: Bloating: Causes and Prevention Tips
- WebMD: Worst Foods for Constipation
- National Academy of Medicine: Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients
- WebMD: Top 10 Sources of Fiber
- Harvard Health Publishing: The Lowdown on Constipation
- Mayo Clinic: Water: How Much Should You Drink Every Day?
- WebMD: Exercise to Ease Constipation
- Encyclopaedia Britannica: Peristalsis
- CDC: Physical Activity
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.