It's really important that we digest our food properly. Consider all the effort and expense that we put into feeding ourselves. What a waste, if we are not utilising all that potential energy and nutrients. Here, I look at signs that indicate undigested food. I discuss what this may mean to your health and what can be done to make it better.
There are four main signs which indicate that you may not be digesting your food well, these are:
1. Visible food chunks
If you can recognise bits of dinner that are now in the loo, then you definitely didn't digest that! Sometimes, it is a fibre-rich particle that is hard to break down, like sweetcorn. What this tells you, is that you didn't chew your food properly. You are supposed to chew your food to make it soft and mushy and to mix in enough saliva to start breaking down the carbohydrates before you even swallow.
It can also tell you how long it took to get from point A to point B – your digestive transit time. If your sweetcorn is taking about 24 hours to make an appearance, your diet is probably fibre-rich. Your metabolism may be nice and efficient. However, 30-40 hours is still considered normal; it can vary considerably between individuals. More than 40 hours is considered sluggish, and can lead to constipation. Women, in general, have a slightly slower digestive transit time than men.
If food is flying through too fast, say 10-12 hours, it doesn't give your body time to process any nutrients. It's like a car with a leaky fuel tank: the petrol is going in but isn't being used. Often, this can cause a very soft stool and diarrhoea. Please do get persistent diarrhoea investigated by a medical professional. It can lead to malnutrition and make you very run down.
2. Greasy looking stools
If your poo is pale-coloured, oily looking and foul-smelling, it's called steatorrhea. It can be a sign of infection or that you are not breaking down fats properly. If this is a regular feature of your toilet bowl, I would definitely get this checked out by your GP. Common causes are food intolerances to maybe gluten or dairy. There can be other underlying causes that need to be ruled out too.
3. Acid reflux and indigestion
Does eating even a small amount of food make you feel really uncomfortable? Indigestion happens when food gets stuck in the stomach. It can make you feel too full and even nauseous, or produce sulphurous belches. Sometimes it can hurt. Acidic symptoms like heartburn are caused by stomach acid travelling up beyond the stomach and into the sensitive oesophagus. It can feel like burning and can sometimes cause a sore throat and cough.
Indigestion and heartburn can have mechanical causes. You can eat too much and be stuffed full. Pregnancy and obesity can squish the stomach and give it less room to move. This can stop it from being able to function normally. The valves at the top of the stomach, that keep the acid in, can become slack or loose. A hiatus hernia happens when some stomach lining gets stuck in the valve. Emotional stress, smoking and food that is too spicy or fatty can trigger an attack or make it worse.
The stomach's job is to mix all of our chewed food with incredibly strong acid. It does this with a muscular action - it needs a bit of room to move. When the stomach can't move the way it is supposed to, food is not digested properly. Stomach acid can eat through metal! Luckily our stomach is lined with a protective layer. Stomach acid breaks down proteins and kills any undesirable virus or bacteria trying to sneak in. When stomach acid is too low, protein is not digested. Minerals like calcium are not extracted from that food. Perversely, many medications like antacids that treat heartburn and indigestion, work by lowering stomach acid. They may feel like they are helping but do so by blocking the body's ability to digest food. For this reason, many doctors are not happy to prescribe them for long-term use.
You have a little beer factory going on in there. Any homebrew nerd will tell you the main ingredients of beer are grain, sugar and yeast. Ferment them all together and you get fizzy gas and alcohol. In gut terms you can imagine what that means. So, you eat white refined stodge like rice, bread and pasta. Add the sugars in fizzy drinks, cakes and sweets, not to mention all the hidden sugars in ready-meals and processed foods. You have plenty of bacteria and yeast in your gut to get the lot fermenting. Throw in a few bottles of yeasty wine or ale, and you can really get the party started.
Food intolerance. 65% of the world's population has a reduced ability to digest lactose found in milk1. That accounts for at least 10-20% of UK citizens. This is because you need an enzyme called lactase to break down lactose. Milk, cheese or ice cream will puff you up full of gas if you are lactose intolerant. This can be painful and is certain to expand the waistline. There are many other foods that you can lack the ability to digest - like wheat, or gluten, or onions, or peppers. A food and symptom diary may help you to identify a food intolerance. Food intolerance can be caused by a weak digestive system or an inability to produce the necessary enzyme. For a confirmed diagnosis, a GP or a qualified nutritionist will be able to help.
Digestive enzymes are made by the body to trigger chemical changes in a food particle. Different enzymes break down different types of food. Saliva contains enzymes that break down carbohydrates. Pepsin is produced in the stomach to break down protein.
Bile is produced in the liver and helps break down fat. Bile also triggers peristalsis which is the wave of muscular movement that moves food and waste through the intestines.
An imbalance in your gut microbiome. We need a specific balance of bacteria and other little fellas in our gut to help us break down carbohydrates. The microorganisms that live there are so plentiful that they weigh as much as our brain does. The concoction of bacteria, viruses and fungi that we end up with will depend on many factors. Family gut flora – our first exposure is from our mum's birth canal. Diet and lifestyle factors heavily influence our gut flora too: smoking, the amount of fibre in the diet, what sorts of sugars we ingest, etc. Antibiotics use, medication and illness can change the environment of the colon. Many good microorganisms can be killed off. This can allow undesirables to muscle in and attach to our gut wall. All can play havoc with our digestive function, how 'regular' we are and how bloated we feel.
Sensible measures that will help food digestion
Chew your food, take your time, get the saliva working: You want all those chewy and chunky bits ground up and mixed with enough saliva to start digestion. Chewing will signal the production of other digestive secretions. Chewing also improves satiety, which is the pleasant feeling of satisfaction we feel after a good meal. This has been shown to reduce food cravings.
Try and sit up straight during and after a meal, or go for a stroll: If you slump or crash on a sofa straight after a meal, you are just squishing your poor, full stomach. Give it a bit of room. If you suffer from heartburn or indigestion, good posture after eating will help reduce the likelihood of an attack.
Take herbal bitters before you eat to help stimulate the digestion: Herbs like artichoke and dandelion have traditionally been used to aid bile production. Bile helps to break down fats in food and stimulate the movement of food though the body. Bile acids have also been shown to benefit our gut microbiome, discouraging any dysbiosis or imbalance2. A.Vogel's Digestisan can be used to help with the symptoms of indigestion, bloating and wind.
My Self-Care Tip: How to use Digestisan to help relieve wind and indigestion
The bitter herbs in Digestisan can really help with digestive symptoms like bloating, wind and indigestion. In this video I talk about the best time to take this remedy and how to maximise its efficacy.
Eat plenty of fibre: your gut loves the stuff. All of it nourishes our good microbiome. Fibre comes in two types, insoluble and soluble. Insoluble is the fibre that doesn't break down; it's found in many vegetables and fruit, brown bread and rice, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils. It bulks out stools, gives them shape, and gives the gut wall something to grip onto. Soluble fibre is found in flax and chia seed (really good when soaked), psyllium, as well as vegetables and fruit, nuts, seeds, lentils and beans and grains. It can turn into a kind of gel that holds water, which lubricates the gut. A triathlon tip is to put soaked chia seed in water to provide long-term hydration during an event.
Drink water, but do it between meals: I can't stress the importance of keeping hydrated. Think of how inedible food is without water. Anyone who has tried to wash dried Weetabix or potato off a bowl or saucepan will get this. It's like cement. Or try to eat a cream cracker with a dry mouth! If you are having to drink water to help you swallow then you have a problem: there is not enough saliva, or you aren't chewing enough. If you don't have enough saliva, then you probably don't have enough of the other digestive secretions either. Good digestion does not happen when you are dried out like an old sock. Count how much plain, flat water you drink in a day. I challenge you to drink one and a half litres for a week. Do it between meals, rather than washing your food down with it.
Eat regular meals: Every mum will tell you that a missed meal or change of routine will make the baby very cranky. We may have more control over our lives now that we are grown-ups, but big bodies have similar needs and desires. Eating at regular intervals will keep the blood sugar from yo-yoing up and down. This will stabilise the moods and our energy. Routine helps our body function; it will know when food is expected and when energy is needed.
Prioritise calmness during meal times:Stress and anxiety can have a dramatic impact on your digestive system. During times of stress, the body sends all the resources to other parts of the body because it thinks that there is an emergency happening. Digesting your meal is considered an unnecessarily luxury in times of panic. If this is happening every day, you can see how it would cause a problem.
Consider your diet and lifestyle. Are you drinking too much alcohol, overeating or smoking? Are you making food choices that are based on convenience, which you know are not ideal? It's easy to get bogged down on faddy diets and miss the point of it all. Read more about healthy eating here.
Why should I look before flushing?
German loos have little shelves that the waste can land on before it hits the water. This allows for a bit of a look before you flush. This is (maybe) not something that you are in the habit of doing. Culturally, we are discouraged from scatological curiosity. This may explain our infantile penchant for toilet humour.
Try it and have a look. The appearance and smell of the stool can give you a few clues about your digestion – unsurprisingly. Below is an image of the Bristol Stool Chart. This was developed to show people what a normal poo should look like.
Ideally, your poo should be type 3 or 4, which are soft enough to easily pass, but not too watery. If you are experiencing type 1 or 2 then you are most likely constipated or slightly constipated and if you are experiencing types 5, 6 or 7 then it could be diarrhoea.
Go to your doctor
Please do go to your doctor if you have ongoing problems with your digestion that you are not able to improve. Any bleeding, unexplained weight loss, or persistent diarrhoea should be investigated immediately. Digestion is a complex and fascinating process, and you may need a professional diagnosis to really find out what is happening. A qualified and insured nutritionist is an excellent person to visit to help with chronic issues. This is especially true if the GP says you are fine but you are still suffering with food intolerances and discomfort.
Want to improve your digestion? Get involved as our Digestion Advisor Ali Cullen takes you through her 5 step plan to improve your digestion and get problem symptoms, from bloating to acid reflux, under control.