The digestive system breaks down the food you eat, allowing your body to absorb the energy and nutrients it contains.
Your digestive system is made up of your gastrointestinal tract (including your mouth, gullet, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and anus), liver, pancreas and gallbladder. So there are a lot of different organs and functions that need to work together.
Many people suffer from digestive problems due to a variety of reasons, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Even if you generally have a healthy digestive system, you can experience bloating, cramping, gas, constipation and diarrhoea.
Some problems with the digestive system can be triggered by what you eat eg if you aren’t getting enough fibre or probiotics in your diet. This is why it’s important to eat plenty of the foods that are good for your digestive system and avoid those that are bad for it.
Here are some of the best foods to help your digestive system.
Leafy greens, such as kale or spinach, are great for your digestive system because they’re good sources of fibre. Fibre helps with bowel regularity, promoting healthy stools and contributes toward an ideal gut microbiome (the community of good bacteria that help you digest your food).
On top of being packed full of fibre, leafy greens are also great sources of nutrients including vitamin C, vitamin A and folate. While you can cook leafy greens, ideally you should do so as little as possible to help retain the nutrients within them.
Adding raw leaves to salads and smoothies is a great way to add more healthy fibre and nutrients to your diet.
Avocado is full of potassium, which is important for healthy digestive function. Being low in fructose, it’s also less likely to cause gas.
However, it’s important to remember that while avocado is full of great nutrients, it’s also high in fat and should be eaten in moderation.
Whole grains add more fibre to your diet, which is important as your colon needs at least 25g of fibre a day to work well.
Whole grains, such as wholewheat bread and brown rice, have a lot more fibre than refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and pasta, making them a better choice for your digestive health.
As well as being fibre-rich, whole grains are also great sources of nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids.
Yoghurt contains probiotics, which are the good bacteria that live in your digestive tract. They’re vital for a healthy gut and help to improve digestion.
Probiotics also reduce problems such as constipation, bloating and diarrhoea. However, not all yoghurts contain probiotics so you should make sure you check the packaging before you buy. Alternatively, you can find probiotic drinks that will help the healthy bacteria in your gut.
An apple a day may not actually keep the doctor away but it can help with your digestive health. This is because apples are rich in pectin, which is a soluble fibre that gets broken down by the healthy bacteria in your gut.
Pectin can therefore help with diarrhoea and constipation as it helps bulk up your stools. It has also been linked to a reduced risk of intestinal infections.
Whether it’s kimchi or sauerkraut, fermented cabbage is great for your gut. The fermentation process means it contains probiotics that help promote gut health. Cabbage also contains fibre so it’s doubly good for your digestive system.
Typically, the longer the cabbage ferments, the higher the concentration of probiotics. It’s also easy to ferment your own cabbage at home to ensure it’s packed with probiotics.
Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation. Digestive disorders, inflammatory bowel disease and food intolerances can all cause inflammation in the gut. Not only can eating more salmon help reduce discomfort, it can improve digestion.
Peppermint can help your digestive system in a few different ways, which is why it is often served after meals in tea.
The oils in peppermint leaves contain menthol, which can help ease stomach discomfort, reduce bloating and help with bowel movements. On top of this, peppermint oil has a relaxing effect on the muscles throughout your digestive tract, which has been linked to improved digestion.
If you suffer from indigestion, peppermint can also help by speeding up the movement of food through your digestive system.
Another common addition to teas, ginger has been found to help prevent nausea but it’s also great for your digestive system. Ginger helps food to move from your stomach to your small intestine faster, which can reduce your chances of heartburn, constipation and stomach discomfort.
Ginger is available in different forms including in teas and supplements, however, fresh ginger is packed full of nutrients and is a good source of fibre.
Just as there are good foods for your digestive system, there are also foods that can cause digestive problems. Some foods can put you at risk of constipation, bloating, heartburn and diarrhoea so they are best avoided or only consumed in moderation.
The worst foods for your digestive system include:
You may also find that eating too fast or while lying down may affect your digestive system.
Everyone is different and what affects one person may not affect another, so it’s a good idea to try different foods to see if they affect you negatively so you know what to avoid.
Ensuring that your diet is rich in fibre and probiotics can help keep your digestive system working correctly and ensure that you’re less likely to experience problems such as bloating and constipation.
While eating plenty of foods that are good for your digestive system is key to keeping healthy — as well as helping your body get the nutrients it needs — you should also pay attention to any symptoms that could point to a potential digestive issue.
There are several common digestive conditions that can leave you feeling uncomfortable or make you ill. Conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), coeliac disease, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) and gallstones are all fairly common and may need treatment to reduce your symptoms.
These conditions may also require you to avoid certain foods altogether, such as avoiding gluten if you have coeliac disease, so it is important to talk to your GP about any symptoms or continued digestive issues you’re experiencing.
If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.
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Lux Fatimathas, Editor and Project Manager
Lux has a BSc(Hons) in Neuroscience from UCL, a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and experience as a postdoctoral researcher in developmental biology. She has a clear and extensive understanding of the biological and medical sciences. Having worked in scientific publishing for BioMed Central and as a writer for the UK’s Medical Research Council and the National University of Singapore, she is able to clearly communicate complex concepts.
Catriona Shaw, Lead Editor
Catriona has an English degree from the University of Southampton and more than 12 years’ experience copy editing across a range of complex topics. She works with a diverse team of writers to create clear and compelling copy to educate and inform.
Alfie Jones, Director — Cahoot Care Marketing
Alfie has a creative writing degree from UCF and initially worked as a carer before supporting his family’s care training business with copywriting and general marketing. He has worked in content marketing and the care sector for over 10 years and overseen a diverse range of care content projects, building a strong team of specialist writers and marketing creatives after founding Cahoot in 2016.