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.

“Healthy” versus Healthy For YOU

Is this kale salad healthy? Yes.
Is it healthy for YOU? That’s individual.

Eating Right For You

A common Ayurvedic proverb states that “When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need.

Ayurveda is often considered the mother of medicine, and the oldest medical system in the world. Regardless of whether that is entirely true, Ayurveda is a traditional medical system originating in modern day India. Traditional Medical Systems, including Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western Herbalism and others, use energetics of foods, herbs, and your body to arrive at balanced and optimal health in your whole self. Meaning mind and body (and soul).

The Why: Energetics Explained

Energetics means the quality that is present in the environment, your body, or the ingredient, and the effect it has on whoever is being exposed to it. The most basic energetics to work with are hot, cold, (and thus heating or cooling), and wet, dry (and thus moistening/dampening, or drying).

In most places in the northern hemisphere, the energetics of the environment make fairly big shifts with the seasons. Late winter and early spring tend to be cool or cold, and wet or damp, summer, depending on where you are located, is often hot and dry, or hot and humid (damp). Etc.

When we’re using a food as medicine approach, the best way to achieve balanced and optimal health is by eating in a way that has the opposite quality of the body or of the seasonal environment that we’re a part of – eating in this opposite approach then provides balance for the body to be at, or return to equilibrium, where health occurs.

So in the hot, dry weeks of high summer (where I live), we can return to balance by eating meals that are cooler and more wet/soupy/moist.


An example is sipping on a cucumber infused water (cooling, moist) on a hot summer’s day, or having a mildly spiced coconut-based curry (cooling, moist, easy to digest) instead of pungent and spicy carne asada tacos (heating/pungent) on corn tortillas (drying) with tomato and jalapeño-based salsa (heating/pungent). 

Likewise, using energetics to determine the right food for you vs. what’s considered “healthy,” means tuning in to your own symptoms. 

an example of cold + dry: raw walnuts

Energetics of Your Body

In addition to eating in tune with the weather outside, or the season, it’s equally and sometimes more important, to adjust meals to what’s going on in you. 

Do you tend to be a hot and dry person? Or how about cold and dry? Warm and wet? Or cool and wet? 

Dry symptoms include: having dry skin, hair, scalp, or digestion by way of constipation (either not having a bowel movement daily, or small, dry, difficult to pass bowel movements), having gas, bloating, and achy, popping joints. 

Wet symptoms include: a wet, phlegmy cough, mucous, sluggish digestion, or feeling like food just sits in your GI and smolders after eating, fungal overgrowth, a heavy coating on the tongue, swelling in the lower legs or hands, retaining water, excess weight gain that you just can’t lose. 

Hot symptoms include:  rashes, hives, skin flare-ups, having a hot temper, reflux, heartburn, feeling consistently frustrated or easily angry, night sweats, excess sweating, inflammation, feeling overheated

Cold symptoms include: circulatory constriction, feeling routinely cold, experiencing cold hands and feet, poor digestion or need to take supplements to properly absorb food and meals, feeling emotionally heavy, depressed, or sad, lack of motivation, and fatigue

From those lists, you can probably determine how you feel generally, or from day to day. Eating foods that have the opposite energetics to what you’ve experiencing can be extremely helpful. 

Oatmeal with cinnamon, stewed peaches and tahini

An Example of How to Shift Preparation of a Meal

Let’s take a look at an example of a simple shift at breakfast time. 

Say you’re experiencing lots of dry symptoms (dry skin and hair, constipation, extra gassy, and bloating, as well as popping joints). And you also have poor circulation in your hands and feet, and generally run cooler. Your current energetics are cold and dry.

Instead of eating your routine breakfast of dry muesli and chopped nuts mixed in with cold yogurt and raw fruit, a more balanced and “good for you” breakfast with similar ingredients is a cooked oatmeal (or cooked muesli), with the fruit stewed or cooked in, and some warming spices added – spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, or a sprinkle of cloves. And if you’re consistently experiencing constipation, gas and bloating, leave out the cold, dry nuts for a few weeks. Instead, a simple shift is to cook the oatmeal with a spoonful of ghee or sesame oil to provide moisture, warmth, and an easy to digest fat source while you’re returning your system to balance. 

Summary

The simplest way to describe the process of choosing what to eat and how to prepare meals based on energetics is that like attracts like and opposites provide balance.

What often confuses or sidetracks people is that when we’re out of balance, we tend to crave what makes us even more imbalanced. It’s the like attracts like part of that statement above. And, it can be easy to confuse intuitive eating and eating based on our cravings.

Next Steps

If this topic is intriguing to you, check out another article I wrote on the topic, regarding seasonal eating during late winter and spring. That article gives several spice options for adding more gentle heat to meals, and helping out your digestion.

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.