Digestion isn't the kind of thing you have to think about much. You eat, and well, digestion just happens. Usually we're more concerned with what we're eating (Is it delicious? Does it meet our nutritional needs?) than what happens after we eat it--because those bodily processes are automatic. And if we're lucky, everything goes smoothly.|
But when things aren't going smoothly, we take notice--and others do, too! When digestion is disrupted and we feel discomfort, bloating, gas or other distressing symptoms, it can be embarrassing to talk about.
Whether you have a chronic condition that affects normal digestion (such as heartburn, ulcerative colitis or irritible bowel syndrome) or have some unexplained symptoms that come and go, you may wonder what's "normal" when it comes to the digestive process?
Here's a general picture of what digestive wellness really looks and feels like. As you read, think about your own symptoms and how frequent they are as a comparison.
After you eat you should feel comfortably satisfied but not bloated, stuffed or gassy. If you frequently feel extremely full after meals, you might be eating too quickly or eating too much during one meal (learn how to gauge your true hunger and fullness signals here). Taking the time to chew your food slowly will help your body tell your brain when you've had enough. Eating quickly can also force air into your stomach, which can lead to uncomfortable gas.
Food should help you feel good. It's not normal to experience burning in your chest or abdomen (a sign of heartburn or GERD, a hiatal hernia or an ulcer) or any kind of nausea. Conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as certain medications can cause food to stay in your stomach too long, which can make you feel queasy; food intolerances can cause similar symptoms.
Eating makes you feel energetic, not sluggish or lethargic. If you feel more tired after meals that you're eating too much food in general, as a big meal diverts a lot of energy from other bodily processes in order to digest it. Feeling sluggish, unable to concentrate, and experiencing headaches can also occur because of an unhealthy balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates in your diet.
When you lie down, you should be able to relax easily. It is not normal for food or stomach acid to leave your stomach or cause a burning sensation in the back of your throat just because you're lying down. This can be a sign of acid reflux.
You feel generally happy most of the time. Sadness, fatigue and other symptoms associated with depression can be linked to gut health. After all, many neurotransmitters live mostly in our guts--not our brains--so if our digestive system isn't in tip-top shape, it might affect our depression risk according to emerging research.
Your weight stays constant over time. Unexplained weight loss or gain can be a symptom of an underlying condition such as celiac disease or a thyroid disorder. Digestive issues such as malabsorption of nutrients or even (gulp) tapeworms or other parasites in the digestive tract can also affect one's weight and energy levels.
You have regular bowel movements that don't take effort. It's not the number of bowel movements you have a week that matters; rather the regularity of those movements. Healthy can be once a day, three times a day or three times a week. Although texture, softness and even color can vary substantially day to day and person to person, very loose, hard to control or painful stools are not normal. Speaking of, you should never see blood in your stool (even a dark black color can be a sign of blood). This can be a symptom of several diseases and conditions including ulcers, cancers, hemorrhoids or diverticulitis.
You sleep soundly through the night. While sleep disruptions have many underlying causes, digestive disorders can cause you to wake during the night because of acid reflux or because you feel the urgent need to have a bowel movement.
A healthy digestive system is able to process many types of food in many types of combinations at many times of the day or night--without causing disruptions to other bodily processes or interfering with your day-to-day life. There's no test you can take to find out if you have a healthy digestive system. The best way to determine if your system is functioning properly is to track it over time. If you're already keeping a food diary, add a note every day about how you felt after each meal and when and if you had a bowel movement. It may sound gross, but this kind of information can help your doctor make a correct diagnosis if you think you may have a problem.
This article has been reviewed and approved by Becky Hand, M.Ed., Licensed and Registered Dietitian.