The more I looked at reasons for slow digestion, the more information I found on a very distinct gender imbalance! It's fascinating and not terribly fair - who knew? If you would like answers to - Is my digestion slow? Do more women suffer from bloating and IBS? Why do men go the loo more than women? As well as - What will help speed up digestion? Read on....
Although anyone, regardless of their sex, can be bothered with a slow digestive system, women do seem to have more trouble with it. They get more constipation than men. They are 1.5-3 times more likely to have IBS1 which causes painful bloating. Their stomach can take longer to release food and this can also make them more prone to symptoms like burping and nausea.
I have been looking at why this is. What measures can we take to speed up and help our gender-ly disadvantaged digestion?
Here are some of the things that can help:
Chewing your food
Staying upright after a meal
Drinking beverages between meals
Eating foods that will help speed up digestion
Being more physically active
Drinking enough water!
Please read on if you want to know more...
Is my digestion slow?
It takes anywhere between 24-40 hours for your food to pass all the way through the body. It can vary considerably between people. More than 40 hours and it's considered sluggish. Women tend to have longer digestive transit than men for a number of reasons.
What will speed up my digestion?
1. Chewing your food.
When we eat, food is chewed into little bits in the mouth and mixed with enzymes and saliva before being swallowed. Teeth do the gnashing, manual breaking up; enzymes start breaking down the food chemically. All these mechanisms function as a signal to the brain and the rest of the digestive system that food is here - there's work to be done. This helps the entire digestive system to move food along with a wave-like muscle movement called peristalsis. It's similar to what happens when you swallow, but you don't have to think about it. It's also telling the body to get going with the digestive secretions that we need to break down the food for energy and nutrients.
2. Staying upright after a meal.
Staying upright after a meal gives the stomach some room to work properly. Muscles of the stomach wall mix up and churn all the stomach acid and enzymes with the food. Protein starts digesting here.
Unfortunately, women release less stomach acid than men. Their food can hang around in the stomach longer2 and this can cause burping and nausea. Even a small meal can then feel heavy and uncomfortable. You are inhibiting the stomach's ability to move and mix the food with the stomach juices when slouching on the sofa with a full belly. It's going to be harder to release any uncomfortable gas that may have been formed.
Other factors that slow the release of food from the stomach are certain medications like antacids and narcotics. Smoking too!
3. Drink beverages between meals rather than with food.
It's really important to not drown out or dilute the digestive juices that our body is secreting. We want all the saliva, stomach acid and digestive juices that we can get. When food mushed up by the stomach reaches the small intestine, it meets more digestive secretions like bile and pancreatic juices. They help break down the fats, proteins and carbohydrates.
Bile is also important for triggering the peristalsis that will move this stuff on, towards the large intestine. Women tend to release bile more slowly, due to hormones like progesterone. This may affect how well they break down fats like cholesterol. It may also mean less stimulation for the muscles of the bowel.
4. Eating foods that will help speed up digestion.
Any bitter taste can help stimulate digestive juices, particularly bile. Bitter herbs are traditionally taken before a meal (like an aperitif) to kick-start digestion that may be a bit sluggish. Digestisan is a mix of three herbs: artichoke, dandelion and boldo. It can be taken before each meal to help relieve symptoms of indigestion and bloating. Other bitter foods are lovely crunchy lettuce leaves, and similar greenery such as rocket and chicory.
Fibre-rich food is great for speeding up digestion. Ideally, we should get about 30g a day of it but most people only get about 7%, which is rubbish! Fibre is found in fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and in wholegrains. Wholegrains are plant cereals that haven't been polished to remove the outer husk. Good examples are oats, brown rice and goods made from wholewheat like brown pasta and wholemeal bread. The term 'brown bread' can mean anything and it may not be any good - try to buy a loaf that feels heavy, like soda bread. Two types of fibre are important for a happy colon. The wholegrain version is called roughage. We don't break it down but use it to bulk out stools and make it easier for the muscles of the gut to grip onto. So, it keeps things moving along.
The second type of fibre is fermentable - friendly bacteria love it. It's found in fruit, vegetables and pulses (like beans). Because this type is fermentable, it's best to introduce it gradually to avoid getting bloated. Build up your levels and see what a positive difference it makes.
A.Vogel Self-Care Tip: Using bitter herbs to help your digestion
Bitter herbs have been used for hundreds of years to stimulate digestive secretions and to help break down foods. The bitter taste - it's like when you smell something yummy and your mouth fills with saliva - triggers the production of secretions all the way down. They're a fantastic way of stimulating and helping digestion.
5. Being more physically active.
Another factor to consider is the effect of women's hormones on digestion. High progesterone levels in the week before a woman's period and during pregnancy can cause constipation by slowing down muscle contraction. Whatever the reasons, and there are many, women get more bloated and constipated. To add insult to injury, we feel pain more acutely3 which increases our digestive discomfort.
Any regular movement (particularly when you are activating your abdominal muscles) will help speed up your digestion. Simply moving about will help stimulate the smooth muscles of your intestines. Swimming, walking, dancing - it all helps. Yoga is very good too. Child pose is a relaxing stretch that helps release any trapped wind. Here are a couple of videos that show two exercises that can help digestion by kind of massaging your innards: Seated Twist pose and Cat-Cow pose.
6. Drink enough water.
Yes - water again! Food that's been fully broken down reaches the large intestine, where water is absorbed. If there isn't enough water in the large intestine, nothing will be left to keep the colon lubricated and functioning well. Stools get bone dry and hard to shift. A slow digestive transit can give poorly digested food a chance to ferment, which can generate quite a bit of gas, wind and bloating. The fermentation is caused by any remaining food in the colon. It's broken down by the gazillions of microorganisms that live there, our friendly bacteria. Once again, women have a disadvantage. Ladies have longer colons4 (it's true!) and our colons have to physically accommodate our womb and ovaries.
This is mildly off topic but, regarding constipation, it's entirely possible that men enjoy going to the loo far more women do. This would help make them poo more too. This is something I've long suspected - we've all seen lads heading off with a magazine for weirdly long sessions. I'm mystified, having never had the slightest interest in using my toilet time as a leisure activity. Is it possible that men's prostate gland makes having a poo more fun? It is known as their g-spot. I did start to google this but had to shut the laptop really quickly. My hypotheses does not appear to have been scientifically investigated. We shall have to wait for that gem of a clinical study. In the meantime ladies, try to make time for our trips to the toilet. Raise the knees up with a footstool so that they are higher than your hips. This will allow the bowel to empty properly. Relax and enjoy your me-time.