Five Overlooked Ways to Help Improve a Sluggish Gut

indigestionDo you feel like you always have slow digestion? Maybe you commonly complain of indigestion, burping, stomach pain, reflux, nausea, constipation, or just a sense that food is “stuck” in your system. If so, believe me, this is not uncommon. I talk to clients frequently who complain of many of the above. Whether it’s from diet, stress, or some combination of factors, some of us just don’t feel all that great after we eat.

Unfortunately, the answer is not easy. I wish there was one foolproof solution to get rid of constipation and a sluggish gut. Instead, there tends to be a lot of trial and error until we find something that gets things moving.

What has worked? Let me share a few different approaches to consider when working with a sluggish gut and chronic constipation.

1. Address Leaky Gut

Leaky gut, aka intestinal permeability, can lead to a host of health issues, one of which is impaired gut motility. If the small intestine is not absorbing nutrients as it normally should, this can contribute to changes in how you experience digestion. While for some it results in terrible diarrhea, for others it can cause constipation, stomach pain, abdominal distention, gas, bloating … you name it.

How to heal leaky gut? Well, the treatments will vary person to person. In general terms, always start with cleaning up your diet. Get rid of any fast food, sugar and alcohol. Implement an anti-inflammatory diet. Consider if food sensitivities might be part of the cause (see #5). Increase your water intake (at least 8 cups a day). Reduce stress as much as possible.

For other ideas, talk with a health professional for an assessment first before spending money on any over-the-counter treatments or protocols. If used incorrectly they can cause more harm than good, and they need to be individually tailored to your unique set of symptoms.

2. Change up the Carbs

Often times a high-fiber diet is recommended for constipation and a sluggish gut. Unfortunately, this does not always solve the problem. Some of my clients have been following high-fiber diets for years and it hasn’t helped. For some, it even made things worse.

In recent years more research has been done on specific types of carbs that are known to feed (ie be fermented by) various types of bacteria residing in our digestive tract. While normally these bacteria are not a problem, sometimes there becomes an overgrowth or they migrate within the digestive tract to places they shouldn’t be. This can produce very unpleasant side effects, one of which is slowed gastric motility, ie sluggish digestion and constipation.

While this bacteria imbalance certainly needs to be addressed, some have found improvement just by following what we call a “Low FODMAP” diet. Maybe you have heard that name before.

FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, and Mono Saccharides and Polyols. While certainly not a cure or intended to be a forever diet, it can give some clues about your gut.

If you try a low-FODMAP diet and find it helps, definitely talk with a health professional to see what other treatments might be needed to fix the problem for good.

3. Slow Down the Snacking

Some claim that 5-6 small meals during the day are better than consuming 3 larger ones. Unfortunately, this practice can actually slow your digestion.

Basically, our digestive system generates peristaltic waves that help move contents through the small intestine and into the colon. The catch is … these waves only work in what we call a “fasted state,” or to be more precise, approximately 90-120 minutes after we last ate.

So, if you are eating frequently by, say, nibbling on random snacks, you are inhibiting this process and essentially slowing down your overall digestion. And when you slow down digestion, you increase those symptoms of gas, bloating, burping, reflux, and even nausea.

What to do? Try to avoid eating between meals. Give yourself at least 3 hours (ideally 4-5) before eating again. Water and black coffee are ok, but avoid even small bits of food between meals to keep your system moving.

Definitely avoid eating late, ideally nothing after 8pm, to give your body a good fast and let your digestive tract do some good work while you rest.

Additionally, ginger may help promote these peristaltic waves. Try adding fresh ginger tea once or twice a day.

There are other supplements and even pharmaceuticals that can promote this digestive process as well, but discuss those options with your healthcare provider if you think your sluggish system needs a little extra help in this area.

4. Probiotics …. or Not.

Probiotic foods and supplements are often highly touted to enhance digestion and improve a sluggish gut. While they can be helpful in many cases, sometimes probiotics can make things WORSE.

If this is you, don’t despair. You may need to start more slowly, or you may need to address #1 and #3 before your body is ready. In fact, for many, taking probiotic capsules or eating probiotic foods like sauerkraut and kimchi make their pain, bloating and constipation worse.

So go ahead, back off on the probiotics and let your system calm down. Then assess these other areas before throwing probiotics back in the mix. Probiotics are not the cure-all, especially if your system is in need of some rebalancing first.

5. Consider Food Sensitivities

Lastly, address food sensitivities if you suspect you have them (if you have #1, then you likely have food sensitivities). Food sensitivities create inflammation in the gut, and this inflammation can in fact slow down digestion.

Figuring out the culprit foods is the hard part. Elimination diets are a good first step. Consider removing gluten, dairy, soy and any other suspected foods for a minimum of two weeks.

If the symptoms persist, consider food sensitivity testing. I use the Mediator Release Test (MRT) by Oxford Biomedical in my practice. Not only does it have, in my experience, very accurate results, but it essentially cuts to the chase and provides a clear roadmap of what foods need to be avoided. Many of my clients have seen amazing progress by following a diet based on their unique results.

Final Thoughts

Constipation and a sluggish gut are no fun, and in the long run it can impact your ability to absorb nutrients, fight inflammation, and feel your best. Constipation and the other symptoms that often accompany it are not normal, so consider if any or all of the above might be areas to address.

Ideally, consult with a health professional to get a better sense of what direction to go with your gut. Online and over-the-counter remedies may help, but they are often band-aid approaches that never get to the root of the issue. You deserve a personalized strategy that gets your body working as it should.

If you need personalized guidance, work with me to get to the bottom of your sluggish gut.






Image courtesy of Ohmega1982 /

Danielle VenHuizen

Registered Dietitian, Certified LEAP Therapist