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.

Transitioning Your Eating into Spring

When it comes to eating and ingredient choices, eating in tune with the seasons can go a long way towards creating an internal environment that leads to lasting health.

You know you don’t choose the same foods on a hot, sticky summer day as you do in the middle of winter. But what about a blustery spring day when the options at the farmers market (or grocery store) can be a little lackluster?

Below are a few tips for transitioning your eating into spring, as well as a deeper look at the why behind them.

Tips for Eating in the Spring

  1. Avoid congestive foods – these are generally foods that are heavy, cold, and wet.
    This includes refined grains and sugar, dairy (especially cold, sweetened dairy products, like ice cream, and fruit-sweetened yogurt), processed / pre-packaged meals and takeout, high fat foods, excessively salty foods (miso, soy sauce, restaurant meals), wheat products – a heavier grain that is inflammatory when digestion is compromised.
  2. Add in more dark leafy greens!
    What grows in spring? GREENS! Early spring greens tend to be bitter, pungent and cleansing. They’re perfectly designed to balance us after a winter of heartier fare.
  3. Sip on warm beverages rather than cold water and drinks.
    For many individuals with compromised digestion, this tip will always be true, but spring is a time of year when this is true for everyone.
  4. Sip on dandelion and/or burdock tea.
    These are bitter, detoxifying roots, and are nearly always included in any herbal “detox” formula. They support healthy liver function and help the body get rid of unwanted waste products and excess moisture.
  5. Try to eat three meals each day with little snacking.
    Or if you’re quite active, four balanced meals with no snacking in between. Giving the digestive system time to rest by about 3.5-6 hours after each meal really supports its ability to fully digest the last meal before the body has to begin digestion again.
  6. Get Moving!
    Getting your heart rate and circulation up and breaking a sweat regularly is an excellent way to promote optimal detoxification – of environmental toxins and pollens, of hormones, of inflammatory substances from foods. Moving promotes lymph flow, which when stagnated leads to congestion, mucous, retaining water, and sluggish digestion.
    If you’re already active, and perhaps training for a spring race, make sure you balance some of that heavier training with slower movement, and gentle yoga or daily self-massage that can gently move out some of the extra inflammation that can accumulate during this season.
  7. Up your spices!
    In the springtime, spices help the body to warm up and remove mucus. They also promote optimal digestion, and help to digest more difficult foods such as beans and legumes.

Broccoli Olive Sourdough Pizza – emphasis on the broccoli topping!

The Why: Energetics of Early Spring

First, look at the energetics of the season, or the energetics of the weather outside today. Energetics means the quality that is present in the environment, your body, or the ingredient, and the effect it has. 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, late winter and early spring tends to be cool or cold, and wet or damp. When we’re using a food as medicine approach, we do so 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 cool, damp weeks of early spring, we want to eat meals that are warm and perhaps slightly drying in nature. One of the easiest ways to work with this component is by eating all meals cooked, and adding in more spices as we’re preparing foods. In terms of spices, nearly every common cooking spice will be drying in effect. Many of them will also be warming, and some will be more warming, or just plain hot, than others –like garlic, chilies, onion, and ginger.  

Energetics of Your Body

Now take a look at what’s going on in your body. Do you tend towards having symptoms of spring allergies, mucus, a wet phlegmy cough, swelling of the lower legs, retaining water, lack of appetite, or sluggish digestion where you eat and feel full for hours, like food is heavy and just sitting in your belly? This means you can use more warm and drying foods and spices! 

Key spices to incorporate into meals in late winter and early spring season include black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, horseradish, cayenne and chili in small amounts, garlic in small amounts, fenugreek, mustard seed, cumin, turmeric, ajwain, rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano.

Putting Them Together: Cook with Three Spices


One of the best ways to start spicing your foods without it becoming an overwhelming task is to choose three spices to use in each meal. For breakfast, if you’re having something warm and porridge-like, such as oatmeal, incorporating a trio of spices in the total amount of ¼ – ⅜ teaspoon is just about right.

A couple combinations to start with include:
⅛ teaspoon each of ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon each of ginger, anise seed, and cardamom
⅛ teaspoon each of ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon

In midday and evening meals, we can slightly increase the total amount of spices to about ½ – ¾ teaspoon total per person.

Some Spring Spice Combinations include (amounts per serving):
¼ fresh garlic clove, ¼ teaspoon each of rosemary, and oregano
¼ teaspoon each of cumin, mustard seed, turmeric
¼ teaspoon each of fenugreek, sage, and rosemary
¼ teaspoon each of fresh ginger, turmeric, and a pinch of black pepper

If you’re using other people’s recipes to cook with, adjust the spicing according to what you’ve learned above, particularly about your body. Most modern recipes over-rely on heating spices and condiments. 

An example is a recipe with several cloves of garlic, chilies, several tablespoons of fresh ginger, tamari, soy sauce, or miso, all in one. This is a recipe that’s probably going to burn us up internally, even if you and the season is running cold! You can tame the recipe and spice level by slowly reducing the amounts of each spice, or switching an ingredient out for one that has a milder effect of the same quality, such as using a pinch of black pepper instead of a ½ teaspoon of cayenne, or using 1-2 teaspoons of finely grated fresh ginger in a recipe that calls for 3-inches of the fresh root.

Signs of Balance and Imbalance

Ultimately, the goal is to feel good in your body and mind in each season. 

During this time of year, signs of balance include slowing down more than other times of year to rest more, having steady energy throughout the daylight hours, maintaining a healthy immune system and response, and eating to nourish yourself with no signs of impaired digestion.

Signs of imbalance include over committing, feeling depleted throughout the day, stagnation (mentally or physically), depression, mucus in the respiratory system, overeating  (especially high sugar, extremely rich, or cold foods), and having heavy, sluggish digestion with reduced or no appetite.