Considering we need to digest the food we eat for fuel, it’s not always an easy job. Everything from indigestion to acid reflux to constipation can trouble us at some point. And even simple things like bloating and gas can cause pain and discomfort.
But digestive issues are not only hard to manage during the day. They can easily keep you awake and cut into your sleep, which then impacts everything from your energy to your mood to your productivity. And when you don’t get enough sleep, your digestion suffers, too, creating a vicious cycle.
Luckily, there are a few simple lifestyle changes you can make to maximize your digestion, and they go way beyond what’s on your plate.
Below, we’ll share what you can do to improve your digestion and how the RISE app can help.
Sleep debt is the running total of how much sleep you owe your body. It’s measured against your sleep need. This is the amount of sleep you need each night, and it’s not a simple eight hours. Sleep need is determined by genetics — just like height and eye color — and it’s different for everyone.
One study suggests the average sleep need is 8 hours 40 minutes, plus or minus 10 minutes or so, but 13.5% of the population may need 9 hours or more sleep a night.
When we don’t meet our sleep need with healthy, restorative sleep, we start building up sleep debt and this has a huge impact on our digestion.
Poor sleep has been linked to upper and lower GI symptoms including:
Sleep disturbances have also been linked to gastrointestinal diseases such as:
And this poor sleep doesn’t have to be a regular occurrence for it to affect your digestion. Waking up once a night at least four times a month has been linked to pain, nausea, diarrhea, loose stools, urgency, and the feeling of an anal blockage. And a night of poor sleep is linked to more abdominal pain the next day in those with IBS. We’ve covered how to sleep with IBS here.
When you’re sleep deprived you’re also more likely to overeat and reach for unhealthy processed foods, both of which can cause digestive problems. And you feel pain more acutely, meaning any cramps or bloating are harder to deal with after a night of poor sleep.
You can use the RISE app to find out your individual sleep need down to the minute. Then, aim for this number each night.
RISE can also work out your sleep debt. We measure it over your last 14 nights and recommend you keep it below five hours to maximize your health and energy levels.
Got more than five hours? You can pay back sleep debt by:
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep need.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep debt.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications.
Beyond getting enough sleep, you need to get this sleep at the right times for you. And beyond sleep timing, meal timing is important as well.
All of this is because of your circadian rhythm, your body’s roughly 24-hour biological clock. Being out of sync with your circadian rhythm has been linked to constipation, IBS, IBD, and digestive cancers.
Here’s a very quick science lesson — we promise it’ll help with digestion!
You have one master clock in your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). This master clock dictates your sleep-wake cycle, among other things. You also have clocks in almost every other tissue and organ system, including several in your digestive system.
These are called peripheral clocks. The master clock and peripheral clocks are in near-constant communication, but they can get out of sync with each other. And they can get out of sync with the outside world. When this happens, digestive issues and digestive diseases can develop.
How do your circadian rhythms get out of sync? It can happen when you sleep or eat at odd times — either irregular times or at times when your body isn’t expecting you to (i.e. eating at night or late at night). If you eat when your digestive system isn’t expecting you to, it won’t be ready for the food and it may not digest it as well.
To get in sync, you need to:
Things are a little harder if you work night shifts, but meal timing may be the key to staying in sync.
A 2021 study found eating during the day keeps clocks in sync, even if you’re awake during the night. Eating at night, however, caused misalignment between the peripheral and master clocks.
If you can, try eating your main meals before and after your night shift at what may be “normal” breakfast and dinner times. Opt for light snacks, instead of large meals, to get you through the shift.
The RISE app predicts your circadian rhythm each day based on factors like your inferred light exposure and recent sleep times. You’ll then see when your body naturally wants to wake up, wind down for bed, and go to sleep, allowing you to sync up your sleep and meal times to it.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to see their circadian rhythm on the Energy screen.
It’s not all about what you eat for dinner, when you eat dinner plays a huge part in the digestion process and whether any digestive issues come up.
Try to avoid eating dinner and then heading straight to bed. Sitting or standing after a meal is better for digestion as gravity can help move food through your digestive system.
When you’re horizontal, it’s easier for stomach acid to travel up into your esophagus and cause heartburn. You produce less saliva at night, so this stomach acid can’t be neutralized as well.
Plus, your digestive system slows down at night, so you need to give it a head start before getting some shut-eye.
Eating earlier will also stop digestive issues from keeping you up and cutting into your sleep time. Aim to be done with dinner two to three hours before bed.
If you have GERD, the longer you have between dinner and bedtime, the less likely you are to have symptoms when you crawl into bed and try to sleep. A more than three-hour gap between dinner and bed was associated with fewer GERD symptoms.
We’ve covered what time you should stop eating before bed here.
RISE can remind you when to have your final meal of the day based on your individual circadian rhythm.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their avoid late meals reminder.
Getting light first thing in the morning can reset your master clock for the day. Aim for at least 10 minutes of natural light exposure and 15 to 20 if it’s overcast or you’re getting light through a window. Make this a staple of your morning routine.
As well as morning light, be sure to get some light exposure throughout the day. Research suggests being exposed to dim-light conditions during the day may suppress the digestion of your evening meal. Get out for a lunchtime walk, take your gym workout outside, or work by a window, if possible.
Just be sure to avoid bright light in the evenings as it suppresses melatonin and can keep you up past bedtime. About 90 minutes before bed, dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses.
RISE can remind you when to get and avoid light each day.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their get bright light reminder.
Getting enough sleep at the right times is much more important than the side you sleep on. But if you do want to experiment with sides, sleeping on your left may be best for better digestion.
This is because gravity can help move food along from your small intestine to your large intestine.
Left-side sleeping is also the best if you experience reflux. A study from 2022 found sleeping on the left helped people have more reflux-free nights.
If you can’t sleep on your left and you have GERD, try elevating your head with a few pillows. Elevating your head has been shown to help improve symptoms.
We’ve covered more on the best side to sleep on for digestion and the best side to sleep on here.
There are certain foods that are more likely to trigger digestive problems than others. These include:
You may want to cut down on these triggers, especially in your final meal of the day or if you’re eating close to bedtime. They can trigger indigestion, acid reflux, diarrhea, or a flare of digestive conditions like GERD, diverticulitis, and IBS.
Some, but not all, of us may also be sensitive or allergic to foods like nuts, eggs, soy, dairy products, and gluten. Keep a food diary to track symptoms and what you’ve eaten to see if you have any food intolerances or allergies, and cut these out to save your gut.
Speak to a doctor or dietitian if you think you may have a serious food allergy.
What you eat can also affect your sleep, which can affect your digestion. We’ve covered the best foods for sleep here.
Time-restricted eating refers to eating all of your day’s meals within a set time window.
More research needs to be done, but a 2019 paper suggests eating within a 12-hour or smaller window is good for your health. So, if you have breakfast at 7 a.m., you’d want to be done with dinner by 7 p.m.
Intermittent fasting is often considered the stricter cousin of time-restricted eating. There’s no set definition for either term, but intermittent fasting often includes eating within a smaller window (like within eight hours) and sometimes restricting calorie intake, too.
A 2021 review found intermittent fasting may help:
And research from 2022 states time-restricted eating may reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and chronic diseases.
Both time-restricted eating and intermittent fasting can help digestion as they keep your circadian rhythms in check and stop you from eating late or during the night.
What can’t exercise help with? It can help you fall asleep, reduce anxiety, and improve your digestion, both overall and if you suffer from digestive symptoms.
Exercise can help you have regular bowel movements and it can ease gas and bloating.
For those with IBS, exercise has been shown to ease constipation and low-to-moderate intensity exercise can ease IBS symptoms.
If you have a digestive issue, intense exercise can make it worse, however. So, be sure to ease into exercise and opt for gentler physical activity — like a brisk walk or yoga — over a HIIT class.
Bonus? Exercise can help you sleep and keep your circadian rhythms in check, which will have a knock-on effect on digestion. Just be sure not to do intense exercise within an hour of bedtime as this can push back your circadian rhythm and keep you up.
We’ve covered the best time to work out here.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their avoid late workouts reminder.
Going for a walk after dinner is not only great exercise and a relaxing way to spend the evening, it can help you digest your final meal.
A 2023 systematic review found doing an exercise like walking right after a meal helped reduce blood sugar spikes. This may be the case for both those with and without type 2 diabetes. And you don’t have to walk for long — a 20-minute walk may be all it takes.
For those with GERD, a regular post-dinner walk can help reduce the likelihood of symptoms.
Stress can cause everything from constipation to diarrhea, indigestion to IBS. And it can make existing digestive troubles worse.
Stress can also make it hard to fall asleep, causing sleep debt to build up, making digestive issues worse this way.
To manage your stress, try:
If stress is making it hard to keep your sleep debt low, you can learn more about how to sleep with anxiety here.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to go right to their relaxation audio guide homepage and get started.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their Brain Dump Habit notification
Having a healthy gut means you can better extract nutrients from your food and you’ll suffer from fewer digestive disorders. Luckily, many of the ways you can improve your gut health can also improve your digestion overall and your sleep.
Here’s what to do to improve your gut health:
We’ve covered how to improve gut health naturally here.
Water helps waste pass through your digestive system with ease, so being adequately hydrated can prevent constipation.
According to the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, women should drink about 11.5 cups of water a day and men should drink about 15.5 cups a day.
Those who do a lot of exercise or live in a hot climate may need to drink more.
Those who are overweight are more likely to experience reflux, indigestion, and constipation. And being obese increases your odds of developing GERD, along with many digestive diseases and cancers.
Weight, sleep, and digestion are all tightly linked. If you’re overweight, you're more likely to suffer from sleep problems. But these sleep problems can contribute to weight gain. These sleep problems can also contribute to digestive issues.
To break the link and lose weight, aim to eat in a caloric deficit, exercise, meet your sleep need, and stay in circadian alignment.
We’ve covered the best way to lose weight here and sleeping positions to lose weight here.
Suffer from heartburn, bloating, gas, or general indigestion? Eating smaller, more regular meals and eating more slowly may help.
Make sure you chew your food properly, and avoid wolfing down lunch while running in between meetings.
Eating slowly can reduce how much air you swallow and it can also help you realize when you’re full and stop you from overeating, another cause of digestive distress.
We all know smoking isn’t good for us, but it could be behind your digestive issues. It can cause acid reflux, GERD, Crohn's disease, peptic ulcers, and several digestive cancers.
Smoking can also change the composition of your gut bacteria and cause inflammation in your digestive tract.
All is not lost if you’re a smoker, though. Quitting can help. One study found quitting smoking helped reduce the frequency of reflux symptoms in those with GERD.
Quitting smoking can also help improve your sleep. Smokers sleep for shorter periods of time, take longer to fall asleep, and show insomnia-like sleep impairments that non-smokers don’t. Quitting can improve your sleep long term, though.
If you regularly suffer from digestive issues, get stomach pain so severe it wakes you up from sleep, or think you have an underlying health condition affecting your digestion like IBD, speak to your healthcare provider.
They’ll be able to provide the best treatment options for you.
What you eat is obviously one way to improve your digestion, but to really optimize your digestive health and reduce the chances of digestive issues, you need to think about your sleep and circadian rhythm.
Aim to keep your sleep debt low and keep your sleep and meal times in sync with your circadian rhythm.
To help, the RISE app can work out how much sleep debt you have and keep track of it night after night. RISE can also predict your circadian rhythm each day, so you can easily sync up your daily life to it.
The good news is the health benefits of keeping sleep debt low and living in sync with your circadian rhythm go beyond digestion. They can boost everything from your energy to your mood to your productivity and overall health and wellness.
To help digestion quickly, try sitting or standing up, or laying on your left side if you’re trying to sleep. Eating earlier in the day, walking after a meal, eating smaller meals, and eating more slowly can also help digestion. Long term, get enough sleep, live in sync with your circadian rhythm, exercise, reduce stress, and maintain a healthy weight.
To fix your digestion naturally, get enough sleep, live in sync with your circadian rhythm, cut down or avoid trigger foods, avoid eating late at night, exercise, reduce your stress, drink enough water, and maintain a healthy weight.
Prebiotics from fruits, veggies, and whole grains, and probiotics from yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi can help digestion. Fiber from legumes, oats, and veggies is also important. And water is also essential for good digestion.
Going for a walk and sitting or standing up (instead of laying down) can help digestion after eating. Overall, getting enough sleep, living in sync with your circadian rhythm, exercising, reducing stress, and maintaining a healthy weight can help with digestion.
To improve your digestion naturally at home, get enough sleep, live in sync with your circadian rhythm, avoid eating late at night, cut down or avoid trigger foods, exercise, reduce your stress, drink enough water, and maintain a healthy weight.
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