There is a lot of information out there about achieving a healthy gut, healing your gut, or what products are required to manage difficult digestion. We are being bombarded by it in advertising and messages from the health food and supplement companies who make money off of making you believe you need their product!
Despite their big marketing budgets, salespeople and product claims, there are many things you can do to help manage difficult digestion that won’t break the bank.
Spoiler alert: Good digestion is about more than just the foods we eat!
I have 10 ideas that you can implement right away, no matter your diagnosis. If you don’t yet have a diagnosis by a digestive health specialist, it is important to get one before making changes to your diet and lifestyle. You can read more about why it’s so important here.
I’ve gone in depth to suggest frugal ways to manage difficult digestion without wasting a bunch of money.
10 Frugal Ways to Manage Difficult Digestion
1. Drink Enough Water
This is literally the most frugal digestive aid you can use. With tons of benefits for anybody and virtually no side effects, drinking more water is the first thing you should try when you’re experiencing difficult digestion. Of course, drinking water is also free so you can’t go wrong!
Water helps with optimal digestion in many ways.
- Reduces constipation
- Maintains hydration levels during diarrhea
- Helps your body clear waste products (aka “toxins”) via the kidneys and urine
Signs you aren’t getting enough water:
- cracked or peeling lips
- dry mouth
- feeling thirst or hunger
- bad breath
- feeling tired or irritable
- dark yellow pee
- peeing less than 4 times/day
- dull, dry skin
- dark circles and sunken skin around the eyes
Tips to help you get enough water:
- Make a routine
- Set a timer every few hours and drink a glass
- Keep a water bottle within reach at all times
- Track your water intake every day, or just for a few days to become aware of your current intake and see if you can reach your goals.
- Drink other liquids besides water like tea, coffee, flavored or sparkling water. Avoid drinking more than a couple cups of caffeinated drinks, sugary or artificially sweetened drinks, and carbonated drinks (see below for more info)
- Eat foods high in water like vegetables, fruits, soups
2. Manage Stress
One of the main stress hormones is cortisol. Cortisol puts your body into a fight or flight mode, the purpose of which is to escape immediate danger. The problem with this is that it is meant for short periods of time. If we don’t manage our stress, and reduce the cortisol levels, our body is always in this state.
In this state, our digestion cannot work at its peak. The organs don’t do what they do best, the food may move too slowly, feeling like a heavy lump in your stomach, or it might move through too quickly, resulting in improperly digested food, reduced nutrient absorption, diarrhea, and other sorts of digestion difficulties.
Tips to help you manage stress:
- Identify what is causing you stress and minimize or eliminate the source if possible. Have you taken on too much? Try saying no to something or ask for help. Is there a toxic person in your life that brings you down? Try to talk to them about how they’re making you feel, or spend less time with them.
- Stay active. Free and easy activities like walking count! Some people find the activity or exercise itself immediately reduces stress. Others find staying active keeps their stress manageable and only really notice a difference if they have been inactive for a while. Find what works for you and stick with it!
- Get out in nature. ‘nuff said.
- Spend time with “your people”. You know who they are. The people who are positive, uplifting and always leave you feeling lighter when you’re in their presence. Make sure your relationship is mutual though, and you don’t just dump your stress on them.
- Spend time alone. Alone time doing some of your favorite things can be extremely relaxing, especially for us introverted types!
- Practice Yoga. Yoga poses feel great and are a source of physical activity. Yoga poses can release tension in your muscles, and can even promote mental relaxation and clarity. Meditation and mindfulness are other aspects of yoga that are often overlooked in our Western culture. We can use meditation to calm our minds and bodies. There are many different types! We can use mindfulness to increase awareness of our bodies and our surroundings. That information can be used to make positive changes and reduce stress levels.
- Avoid negative stress reduction techniques. While shopping, emotional eating, having a glass of wine may be ok on occasion, try to make sure you’re not relying on these coping mechanisms. Closing off from loved ones or relying on alcohol or drugs to cope can end up causing more harm than good.
- Massage therapy. This is not always free, but if you have insurance coverage or the budget for it, see a professional Registered Massage Therapist (RMT)! Many massage therapy schools have students give massages at a reduced fee. If these are still out of your budget, you could exchange massages with your partner, do self-massage, or use a massage tool if you have one. Even a few minutes can noticeably decrease stress and tension you may be holding on to. Abdominal massages can even be used to help move gas along the digestive tract or break up constipation to make it easier to poop!
- Hypnotherapy. I’ve never tried this but a lot of people find it helpful in both stress reduction and/or digestive health! Again, not free, but a few sessions could have longer lasting effects and be less expensive than supplements.
3. Get Enough Sleep
Sleeping is the time when the body repairs itself, so if you’re lacking sleep, you’re preventing your body from doing it’s best to heal.
Sleeping also gives your digestive system time to rest because it’s fasting overnight. I’m not recommending fasting, intermittent fasting, etc. but simply saying that we naturally tend to fast for 8+ hours while we are sleeping. If you’re only getting 5 or 6 hours of sleep or less, there are more waking hours where you’re likely eating.
Also, sleep reduces the stress hormone cortisol. As mentioned before, cortisol negatively affects digestion. Cortisol also slows metabolism and increases our hunger response!
A lack of sleep is associated with digestive conditions such as IBD and IBS, although it is unclear which causes which.
Sometimes indigestion can keep us up at night, perpetuating the cycle and making it even worse! Combine the effects of cortisol with the effects of not allowing the body time it needs to regenerate, a lack of sleep can deeply affect your digestion.
Here are some quick tips you can implement for free to help you sleep better:
- Don’t eat a large or heavy meal right before bed. As your body digests food, the energy gets absorbed and gives you a boost in energy… Not what you need right before trying to fall asleep. Try to have your last meal 2 or more hours before bedtime.
- If you’re hungry before bed, have a small snack instead of a full meal.
- Adjust the settings on your phone to tone down the blue light in the evening. There is a lot of research showing blue light coming from screens and fluorescent lighting affects our circadian rhythm and sleeping pattern.
- Keep your bedroom a comfortable temperature and level of darkness. It’s generally recommended to keep it cool and dark, but do what suits you. In the winter, it becomes pretty easy! In the summer, try to at least have a fan to keep you cool if you don’t have air conditioning.
- Create a bedtime routine. Start getting ready for bed around the same time each night. Turn off sources of stimulation such as your phone, TV, bright lights, or loud music. This will signal to your body to prepare for sleep.
4. Get Enough Physical Activity
Physical activity does 3 important things for digestion:
- Decreases stress
- Increases blood flow to the digestive organs, helping them work effectively
- Physically helps digestion move along (food, waste, and gas)
Physical activity can be as simple as walking or stretching! You don’t have to do vigorous exercise to get the benefit, just get moving! Moderate and vigorous physical activity do have additional health benefits above just moving, but you can still get digestive health benefits by moving more, even if it’s gentle. There are even yoga poses specifically for helping digestion!
5. Manage Your Diet
Remember, don’t change your diet until you have a proper diagnosis, or else you could lengthen the time it takes to get diagnosed, or even be misdiagnosed! For example, if you stop eating gluten, then are tested for gluten antibodies, the result may be a false negative. Gluten antibodies are only produced by a person with celiac disease who has consumed gluten. If you cut it out before the test, you wouldn’t know if you have celiac disease or not!
The recommendations for diet will change based on your diagnosis. It’s unethical to give specific nutrition advice in a blog post so I’m not going into specifics. If you want personalized nutrition advice, see a qualified health professional like a doctor or dietitian.
Here are some general nutrition guidelines for better digestion that could benefit you with little risk of side effects:
- What do you eat?
- Be mindful of your trigger foods which may include common ones such as:
- High-fat foods
- Spicy foods
- Carbonated beverages
- Difficult to digest foods such as onion, garlic, beans and legumes, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower
- High lactose dairy
- Artificial sweeteners
- Be mindful of your trigger foods which may include common ones such as:
- When do you eat?
- Pay attention to the timing of food. The more extreme your eating patterns are, the more extreme your digestion will be! Try not to go too long without eating and become ravenous, but also try not to graze all day long.
- How much do you eat?
- It’s common for dieters to limit their food intake throughout the day. After they’ve starved themselves for a while, their body takes over and leads them into a binge. Of course neither state of this restrict-binge cycle lead to healthy digestion.
- How do you eat?
- Do you eat quickly or while talking? Do you gulp your food or swallow without chewing thoroughly? These habits can cause you to swallow air. Swallowing air can cause gassiness, abdominal distention, stomach cramping, or difficult digestion.
- Where do you eat?
- Do you eat sitting at the table, on the couch, standing over the sink, on the go, while working at your desk, in front of the TV? Compare this to your symptoms. Do you notice any patterns? Generally, sitting down to eat at a table without distractions is best for digestion because you are able to focus on your food and body’s cues. Being distracted or rushed can increase stress. You’ll be more likely to overeat if you don’t pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues.
- Cook at home.
- This allows you to control what goes into your food so you can choose foods that make you feel good. Additionally, while anticipating food, your body creates digestive enzymes. Giving your body that time to prepare for digestion can lead to better digestion. It’s like warming up before exercise to reduce the chance of injury.
- Be mindful of fiber intake.
- Some people find relief by increasing fiber intake, others find relief by lowering fiber intake. Adjust based on how you feel, and your diagnosis.
- Avoid bubbles.
- Carbonated drinks, chewing gum, drinking from straws, and chewing with your mouth open all cause you to swallow air. When air is trapped in your digestive system it can contribute to gassiness.
- Incorporate foods that prevent or soothe digestive upset
- Peppermint, ginger, & fennel are known to soothe a stomach ache. You can incorporate them into your dishes, have them after a meal as tea, or take them in supplement form. I take a food-first approach, so, recommend you try the first two options before buying supplements.
- Kombu, a type of seaweed, is said to reduce gassiness from beans and legumes when added to the cooking water. You can find it on Amazon ($$), at a natural food store ($$$), or at an Asian market($).
- Use digestive enzymes where appropriate
- Lactase can be taken with dairy products to help you digest the lactose
- Beano can be taken with beans and legumes to help reduce gas formation
- Other digestive enzymes as prescribed by your doctor
- I don’t recommend multi-enzymes like you might find at a health food store
6. Listen to Your Body
- Find your digestive triggers. Firstly you need to track your symptoms and food intake so you can identify any foods that may be triggers. This involves paying attention to how you feel throughout the day.
- Don’t hold your gas or bowel movements. Yep. We are talking about farts and poop. Holding it in can cause or worsen difficult digestion, including cramping, abdominal distension, and even constipation.
- Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you feel satisfied. Your body is a complex machine and it has a lot of mechanisms in place to get itself in balance and equilibrium. Learn to trust your hunger and fullness cues. Remember how I mentioned extremes in eating can cause extremes in digestion? Being overly hungry or overly full can cause indigestion.
- Make time to chill out if you’re feeling stressed. Remember how stress can directly and indirectly affect our digestion? Listen to your body when it is showing signs of stress and make an effort to reduce that stress to eliminate one of the most common digestive triggers.
7. Don’t fall for snake oil health and wellness advice
Do yourself a favor and start to seriously question anyone who claims to have the ultimate/secret/best/only cure/treatment for difficult digestion. Actually, question anyone who claims to have exclusive cures for anything at all. Do they sell that cure? 100% doubt them. That is a conflict of interest. Promoting that product to you is in their best interest, not necessarily yours, so be skeptical.
Check in on the person’s qualifications. High school diploma plus 1-month online course? Good for them. Not likely so good for you. It is far more dangerous to know a little about a topic and believing you’re an expert, than it is to be completely unqualified. For real. True experts are rarely 100% sure that there is one right answer. They have an open mind and are constantly reviewing new information. They realize the shortcomings of most of the research out there and aren’t afraid to tell you that. Be wary of people who are super confident about this “secret new product”. Most likely they don’t know what they don’t know.
Many of these people also sell MLM products and their only training on the topic is from their upline. Much can be missing in their recommendations. At the very least, they sell you costly and useless products. At the worst, they unknowingly cause dangerous outcomes such as interactions with other supplements or medications or recommend dangerous dosages. You can read more about some negative supplement interactions here:
8. Eliminate as many supplements as possible
Truth be told, many supplements make claims that are simply not backed by science. Did you know that the FDA doesn’t even regulate what is sold as a supplement or natural health product?
As long as the supplement doesn’t claim to treat or cure a disease and the manufacturer can show it is safe, it will be allowed on the shelf. The manufacturer doesn’t even need to show evidence that the supplement is effective!
As most supplements haven’t been studied for efficacy, there is also room for the placebo effect. The placebo effect is when a person expects a certain outcome from a treatment and their expectation influences how they actually feel. The placebo effect has been shown countless times in research studies, even if the “treatment” is just a sugar pill!
Sometimes there are also confounding factors like taking supplements with a glass of water 3 times a day. Is better digestion a result of the supplements or as a result of being better hydrated than before? It’s certainly food for thought!
Can you just eat the real food instead of using a supplement?
- Ginger or mint tea instead of ginger or mint extract capsules
- Lactose-free dairy products or plant-based alternatives instead of lactase enzyme
- Probiotic-rich foods rather than probiotic (yogurts, etc)
- Use the money you might have spent on supplements on food instead! Constipated? Ensure you are well hydrated and eat enough fiber. Probiotics? Keep reading…
9. Make probiotic foods at home
Although they’re not necessarily able to treat specific conditions, there is a good evidence to suggest that probiotic-rich foods will overall help digestion. This is because the friendly bacteria that they contain can compete with the bad bacteria that might otherwise overpopulate our guts.
Many probiotic foods also contain prebiotics, which are the food for the probiotics! Taking them together will increase the effectiveness of the good bacteria.
Some examples of probiotic foods you can easily make at home are:
- Sourdough bread
Making these foods at home will save you money compared to buying them at the store or buying supplements.
Please note that some probiotic foods may actually make digestive symptoms worse. Try it out but be aware of your triggers and symptoms and stop if you notice it’s getting worse. Also note that making these foods at home carries a risk of getting food poisoning if bad bacteria contaminates your culture. Always follow instructions from a legitimate source and if in doubt, throw it out!
If you do still choose to take a probiotic supplement, make sure you get the right ones based on your condition.
10. Get your supplements at a discount
If you’ve implemented all the tips so far and are still having difficult digestion, now may be the time to talk to your doctor and dietitian about supplements that may help.
I get probiotics at a much better price by combining deals. I wait until they go on sale, use a coupon, shop with my store loyalty card (PC Optimum) and collect cash back on my rewards credit card! I also found a less expensive brand that contains the same type and amount of probiotic strains as the name brand one.
You may be able to find your supplement on Amazon for less expensive than in stores. By buying online you can also use Swagbucks to earn cash back for online purchases.
Shop around and find the best price on your supplements. Try to never pay full price!
So there you have it, 10 ways to manage your difficult digestion even if you’re on a tight budget.
If you take anything away from this article, it should be that there are many options to improve difficult digestion without wasting money on ineffective supplements or treatments. Once you get a diagnosis, follow the advice of your healthcare provider and try these free tips so you can get back to feeling good!
What tip will you use to help improve your difficult digestion? Let me know in the comments below!