Four Types of Digestion – Which Do You Have?

What’s considered “normal” in our modern culture doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy or optimal. 

As a pathway to optimal health and performance, optimal digestion is one of my main focuses as a clinical nutritionist. Why? 

Because the fire element in the body is responsible for all forms of transformation internally – digestion, absorption, assimilation, creation of digestive enzymes, maintaining balanced body temperature and metabolism, providing energy, supporting regular and balanced elimination, deep sleep, mental clarity, stability, and groundedness, cellular communication, and zest for life

Among many others. 

In nearly all cases, the root cause of weight gain or stagnation, inflammation, muscle and joint pain, fatigue, anxiety and depression, hormone imbalances and monthly or menopausal symptoms, are all rooted in the condition of the digestive system’s ability to optimally transform food into a healthy body and mind. 

So with that as a preface, there are four main types of digestion. Which you currently experience?

Irregular or Erratic Digestion:

  • This digestive pattern swings from very fast to very slow, with both ravenous hunger and lack of appetite, depending on the day or time of day. 
  • There is both sluggish and rapid digestion;  for example constipation to diarrhea, and/or being quick to hunger, and quick to satisfy, with the ability to only eat very small meals before feeling full, but perhaps a tendency to overeat. 
  • May have a tendency to easily skip meals or forget to eat. 
  • Hunger can be quite delayed after waking in the morning. 
  • Symptoms such as gas, bloating, heaviness, rumbling or gurgling in the tummy or lower bowel.
  • Fatigue throughout the day or week, or crashes of energy after meals or feeling immediately cold after meals. 
  • Frequently experiencing anxiety, fear, indecisiveness, or scattered thoughts.

Slow Digestion:

  • This digestive pattern is marked by its sluggishness. Undigested food has a tendency to sit in the GI for too long, and hunger isn’t often present. 
  • Hunger can be quite delayed after waking in the morning, and you may have the tendency to skip breakfast or have only coffee for breakfast (not so great for blood sugar balance!) 
  • May have a tendency to easily skip meals or feel like you can only eat small meals at a time, and quickly feel full and heavy. 
  • May eat out of habit or have a tendency to eat emotionally. 
  • Symptoms such as heaviness, fatigue, excess weight, slow elimination trending towards constipation, nausea, low appetite with perhaps some overeating, excess saliva, coughing, respiratory problems, and/or low mood. 

Fast Digestion:

  • This digestive pattern is fast and sharp. Food is often digested very quickly. The fire is on too high! 
  • Hunger can come rapidly after eating; You might eat a full meal and feel ready for another 30 minutes to two hours later, instead of the four to six hours that occurs with optimal digestion.
  • Because the fire is turned up, there is a tendency towards having a low weight, even though you can eat a lot. 
  • Elimination trends towards loose stools and diarrhea. 
  • You never miss a meal, become “hangry” easily, and may snack frequently between meals.
  • Symptoms such as excess dryness in the throat, mouth or lips, reflux and heartburn, anemia, and/or low energy.
  • Skin Irritations such as eczema, psoriasis, rashes, hives, or acne.
  • Frequent irritability, frustration, short temper or being extremely hard on yourself.

Balanced Digestion – The optimal state of digestion

  • Hunger is experienced routinely, about 30 minutes to 1 hour prior to each of the day’s three meals, in anticipation of food. 
  • A healthy appetite; being ready for a morning meal by 7-9 am, feeling hungry again 3-6 hours later and at steady 3-6 hour intervals throughout the day. 
  • Steady energy throughout the day with no fatigue or big drops in energy after eating or mid-afternoon, or difficulty waking up or getting going 30 minutes after waking.
  • One to three bowel movements daily, which pass easily and are formed like a banana
    • no visible food, mucus, fatty film, or off colors
  • Clear skin, free of acne, itchy, inflammation, and rashes
  • Focused mind and inspired thinking
  • Your athletic performance is reflective of your training
  • Balanced hormones and menstrual cycle (if a menstruating female) with no PMS or menopausal symptoms

Which Type of Digestion Do You Have?  

The ability to take food and break it down into nutrients, and assimilate it into the body to be used as energy is the basis for building healthy body tissue (and thus a healthy body!)

The goal for each of us is balanced digestion, and the stable mood, and smooth and efficient symptoms that come with it. This is possible for everyone. 

When we are ready to embrace positive adjustments in our diet and lifestyle, we can see long-standing patterns shift, hormones and weight balance, sleep patterns become deeper and restorative, and acceptance, zest for life, and optimal performance return. 

Did you find your digestion isn’t working optimally based on your symptoms? If you’d like to learn more about how you can fix it, I’d love to speak with you in a quick phone consultation! Or learn more about your digestion in some of my other articles on the topic of optimal digestion and gut health. 

What does Healthy Digestion Look Like?

What’s considered “normal” in our modern culture doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy or optimal. 

What are signs that your digestion is working optimally?

  • Healthy appetite 
    • being ready for a morning meal by 7-9 am, feeling hungry again 3-6 hours later and at steady 3-6 hour intervals throughout the day. 
  • Steady energy throughout the day
    • no fatigue or big drops in energy after eating or mid-afternoon, or difficulty waking up or getting going 30 minutes after waking.
  • One to three bowel movements daily, which pass easily and are formed like a banana
    • no visible food, mucus, fatty film, or off colors
  • Clear skin
    • free of acne, itching, inflammation, and rashes
  • Focused mind and inspired thinking
  • Your athletic performance is reflective of your training
  • Balanced hormones and menstrual cycle (if a menstruating female)
    • no PMS or menopausal symptoms

What are signs that your digestion is not working optimally?

  • Lack of appetite, or only tolerating very small amounts of food before feeling full 
  • Fatigue throughout the day, or crashes of energy after meals or during certain times of day; 
    • difficulty getting going in the morning
  • Sluggish or rapid digestion 
    • feeling hungry again within 1-2.5 hours after a meal, or like food sits in your stomach after a meal, resulting in excess fullness
  • Less than one bowel movement daily, difficulty passing a stool, or having to go multiple times per day
    • diarrhea, loose stools, deer pellets, visible food, mucus or greasy film; colors other than chocolate brown
  • Digestive Symptoms
    • bloating, gas, reflux, pain, cramps, gurgling, nausea, food intolerances
    • cravings for certain foods; particularly sweet or salty flavors
  • Skin Irritations
    • eczema, psoriasis, rashes, hives, acne
    • tooth Indentations on the tongue’s edges; a white, black, gray or yellow coating on the tongue
  • Brain Fog or Irritability, Depression, Anxiety, Scattered Thoughts
  • Your athletic performance is suffering despite training, or you continue to encounter performance or training set-backs
  • Hormonal Imbalances and menstrual cycle symptoms 
    • PMS or menopausal symptoms 


Are all of these really related to digestion? 

The answer is yes! The ability to take food and break it down into nutrients, and assimilate it into the body to be used as energy is the basis for building healthy body tissue (and thus a healthy body!) The health of your gut microbial community and intestinal lining directly impacts your health, hormones, and ability to tolerate food.

Next Steps

Do you find indications that your digestion isn’t working optimally? Within my nutrition practice, I specialize in endurance athletes and digestive imbalances. If you routinely struggle with any of the above symptoms,  I encourage you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Are You Eating Enough For Your Activity Level, Part II

If you read running websites or magazines, view social media accounts of various athletes, and perhaps overhear conversations in your run community, in the past few years you may have noticed an increased attention to a topic called RED-S (pronounced reds), or relative energy deficiency in sport, which can also be called low energy availability. 

Low energy availability is most accurately calculated by removing the energy cost of your daily exercise from your total dietary caloric (energy) intake, and then having what is left not being enough energy (calories) to support the body’s normal physiological function, such as bone metabolism, endocrine/hormones, reproductive system, etc. Low energy availability is associated with downregulation and impairment of key physiological processes due to the lack of adequate energy support. 

That’s the scientific definition. I simply call it “Not eating enough for your activity level.” Even simpler, that translates to not eating enough.

Not Eating Enough

For a couple decades, one piece of the larger puzzle of relative energy deficiency was known in the sporting community. That piece is the Female Athlete Triad, in which female athletes present with a pattern of low energy availability with or without an eating disorder, in relationship with amenorrhea (lack of menstrual cycle), or irregular menstrual cycle, and low bone density leading to osteopenia and osteoporosis. What we now know is that the Female Athlete Triad is just one section of a larger picture of pathophysiology that can present in athletes with long-term low energy availability. And it is not just a female athlete concern. 

When active individuals are not eating enough for their on-the-move lifestyles – the body, because it is wise, makes decisions about where it is going to prioritize its precious calories. So if you’re going to go for a long run in the forest for several hours, followed by an evening hike or weight session, and then follow with something similar tomorrow and the next day, and throw in a weekend of back-to-back long runs,  AND you’re routinely not eating enough to meet your caloric needs, the body is going to choose where to spend those nutrients—because when this precious energy is used for one function, it is not available for another one. 

Essentially, you are putting your system into survival mode.

And it plays out along these lines as your body says,  “Well, if you’re going to make me go do these workouts, I’ll put my energy here, though maybe with a little less pep, energy, and high-intensity ability, but I’ve got to compromise somewhere, so I’ll make a trade-off  over here with bone metabolism, or over here with female reproductive hormones or thyroid health, or immune function, or over here with the GI system and the ability to break down nutrients in food (because digestive enzymes are made of proteins which may be lacking in the diet), or muscle and tissue repair or”…. and the list goes on.

On Our Radar

So why is this topic suddenly on more people’s radar? One, we have more research and knowledge on the expanded umbrella of RED-S and the widespread physiological consequences of being at a long-term energy deficit. But also because it’s fairly common for active individuals to not realize they’ve adopted many of the beliefs of the diet industry into their eating habits over the years. Or they may simply be eating to hunger levels, and still not be eating enough.

And, just eating to hunger can sometimes be misleading for us as highly active folks. For instance, many athletes have a suppressed appetite after long or intense workouts or races. In those cases, it’s ideal to replace nutrients after exercise—but when digestion is compromised, the body won’t metabolize the food as it should—hence the potential for working with a nutrition professional to help get the digestive system back to balance. Alternatively, we might need to learn to recognize the symptoms of hunger that often go beyond an empty stomach.

Within-Day Energy Balance

The other side of that low energy availability coin can also mean within-day energy balance. Meaning we don’t stack the majority of our calories into one meal or couple of hours of the day. Eating to fullness, or 80 percent of fullness, is recommended, but if you ever notice you get to the point of overeating after exercise by having excessively large meals that seem to top you up beyond fullness, it is often because of low energy intake throughout the day fueling a need for more food spread throughout the hours. This can often occur after a long run. In this case, you can train your body to tolerate more fuel during a run, and then you’ll likely both recover better, but also will have stressed your body less with the huge energy deficits and then subsequent deposits. 

 With a more even or adequate energy intake before and during a long workout, you can avoid that ravenous feeling of needing to eat quickly and impulsively.

A Self-Assessment to Help Navigate Your Energy Needs

If this topic has kindled your curiosity about meeting your own energy needs, my suggestion is to start with a self-assessment rather than calculating calories and meticulously tracking meals—those can be highly inaccurate and lead to neurotic food obsession. Ask yourself these questions:

– Am I frequently sick more than a couple times per year?
– Do I struggle with fatigue frequently?
– Have I stopped improving in my performance – either have plateaued or gone backwards despite training?
– Have I had a lot of injuries?
– How’s my overall health? Basic bloodwork results hold a plethora of data on how the body is ‘performing’ internally.
– How is my menstrual cycle and/or sex drive? Women have a little advantage here in that any menstrual symptoms or irregularities* are symptoms telling you to heed warning because there’s a larger health imbalance.
– Do I have a lot of gut upset / discomfort, or food intolerances?
– Am I routinely irritable, depressed, anxious, or have decreased concentration?
– Am I sleeping well?
– and if you have teammates or friends/family that you work out with regularly: Do I eat less than my teammates but have a higher body fat? This is subjective of course because every body is different, but higher body fat and eating less is also a tell-tale sign, since lower metabolic rate occurs with lower energy availability, meaning you might be eating less but weighing more or having more “cushion” than previously.
– and one more because it can become prevalent with long-term low energy availability: Am I thinking about food ALL THE TIME? We know from eating disorder and starvation studies that chronically deprived individuals become obsessed with food, far beyond just being interested in food.

Where to go from here?

Above all, food and exercise should make you feel good. The goal is to be aware and in tune with yourself and your body’s ability to show you signs that something may not feel right or as great as it should.

And you may benefit from professional guidance. If you’re confused or concerned about your needs, or would like a professional opinion, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

*Women on hormonal birth control will not have the same ability to use their menstrual cycle to gauge abnormalities, since it is designed to eliminate ovulation and the normal hormonal fluctuation that occurs. If symptoms or irregularities occur without birth control, that is a vital sign that your body has an imbalance somewhere.
The  information shared in this article does not intend to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.

 

Mini-Meals to Keep You Going

Ideally we spread our meals out throughout the day and leave time in between them for full digestion to occur, so we’re not throwing more food in when the last meal hasn’t fully digested. This causes more problems over time in other ways. In an ideal routine, aim for eating at intervals of four to six hours after a full meal, and two to four hours after a light meal instead of snacking continuously all day. The above article is featured over on the Territory Run Co. run journal, along with three snack recipes for those in-between times, featuring iron and vitamin C-rich Wonder Woman Bars, William’s Oatmeal Raisin Bites, and Sweet Potato Spanish Tortilla. Get the recipes here.

References:

2018 UPDATE: Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)
Fahrenholtz, IL., Sjodin, A., Benardot, D., Tornberg, AB., Skouby, S.,…and Melin, AK. (2018). Within-day energy deficiency and reproductive function in female endurance athletes.
Jeukendrup, A. (2013). The New Carbohydrate Intake Recommendations. Nutritional Coaching Strategy to Modulate Training Efficiency. Nestlé Nutrition Institute Workshop Series,63-71. doi:10.1159/000345820 
Jeukendrup, A. E. (2017). Training the Gut for Athletes. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z.), 47(Suppl 1), 101–110. http://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0690-6
McKay, A.K.A., Pyne, D.B., Burke, L.M. and Peeling, P. (2020). Iron Metabolism: Interactions with Energy and Carbohydrate Availability. Nutrients, 12: 3692. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12123692.
Torstveit, MK., Fahrenholtz, IL., stenqvist, TB., Svlta, O., Melin, A. (2018). Within-day energy deficiency and metabolic perturbation in male endurance athletes.