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. 

Making Beans More Digestible – And the Fiber Connection

When it comes to digesting beans and legumes, complaints about not being able to digest them, or suffering with a painful balloon belly is a common concern. 

One of the common reasons for this has to do with your gut microbiome — all those microorganisms that live in the GI tract.

Your digestive system is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria that ideally live in a symbiotic relationship with you. This means you and they both benefit from them being there. Just like you, the microbes need to eat to live and grow, so they obtain nourishment from the food you eat. In the case of beneficial bacteria, they feed on the undigested part of the food, (fiber,) that is passing through your large intestine by fermenting it into short chain fatty acids such as Butyrate. And beans and legumes are rich in fiber. 

When we introduce any food that we haven’t routinely been eating into our diet, what often occurs is a readjustment period at the microbiome level. Think of it like the first day of a new job or school year. There’s going to be some shakeup to the internal routine and homeostasis. This means there might be more uncomfortable symptoms before optimal digestion occurs because the type of bacteria that eat the food you’re eating is growing its population, while die off of the type that no longer has a food source is also happening. 

But if we can make that transition smoother and get to the optimal digestion that occurs when we can tolerate eating beans and other fiber-rich foods, we’re setting ourselves up for increased intestinal health. This is because short chain fatty acids, produced by those beneficial bacteria in the intestine, play an important role in the maintenance of the intestinal barrier. 

Whereas we don’t want an overgrowth of bad bacteria, having ample and diverse beneficial bacteria is a hallmark for optimal health. Low beneficial bacteria can impact your protective mucus lining in the intestinal tract, which supports up to 80% of our immunity. The commonly used phrase “leaky gut” comes into play here when the interplay between a low fiber diet, low beneficial bacteria count, and difficult to digest macromolecules poke holes in the cheesecloth-like fragility of the intestinal lining and then opens the way for the immune system to do its job –in overdrive – resulting in sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies to many foods that are in your normal routine. 

Tips for Increasing Digestibility of Beans and Legumes

If you struggle with tolerating beans and legumes, first try out the smallest, quick-cook split mung beans, red lentils, and whole green mung beans. They are easiest to digest. The larger beans are more drying in nature, and tougher for the body to break down. Red lentils and split mung beans break down and cook quickly in 20-30 minutes, and they don’t usually need soaking or planning ahead. However, if you are already having tummy troubles, soaking is a good idea. 

Below are a few more tips to help make lentils and beans more digestible:

– Introduce beans and lentils into your diet slowly. Because beans are rich in fiber and will take a few days or couple weeks to repopulate the type of bacteria in your gut that will break them down and digest them, introduce them in small amounts. If you’re particularly sensitive, start with 1-2 tablespoons per meal, and work up from there to a standard ½ – ¾ cup serving.

– Soak and rinse in a big bowl of water, overnight or for 1-6 hours, depending on the type of legume. For large beans, you’ll need an overnight soak. For smaller beans such as adzuki and mung beans, a six hour soak will do. And for lentils and split mung, a soak of an hour is sufficient. Discard the soaking water before using in your recipe.

– If there is foam that rises to the top of the pot while cooking, skim it off. The foam contains a type of protein that is hard on your digestive system. When in nutrition school, my cooking instructor Eleonora constantly repeated, ‘skim your beans’ so often that I hear her voice every time I see foam! 

– Make sure the lentils – or other beans – are cooked thoroughly. This means they are soft, not al dente. One of the biggest challenges with digesting canned canned beans is that most of them are not actually cooked as well as they should be for proper digestion. Cooking until the lentils or beans begin to break apart, or in the case of red lentils and split mung, turn into mush completely, is the best way to know they’re done.

– Add spices! Carminative spices, meaning they boost the digestive capacity, makes meals more digestible. This is why a big soup pot with beans and meat often contains a bay leaf. Other carminative spices include ginger, cumin, coriander, fennel seed, thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil, allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, and more. Virtually every cuisine of the world is ripe with carminatives in the traditional recipes for the exact purpose of not only adding flavor, but also boosting digestion!

– Add a squeeze of lemon, lime juice, or vinegar. Ideally every meal contains a slightly sour flavor addition, since sour helps to activate digestive enzymes. Most meals don’t need to taste outright sour, however. A little addition at the end of cooking goes a long way and often balances the recipe that’s missing ‘just a little something.’

– Eat your foods warm. If you think of an ideal digestive scenario as a nice little cozy fire in the digestive system, eating cold foods is like throwing cold water on it. Not so great for turning food into nutrients and energy! 

– Reduce stimulus during mealtime. Eating while multitasking with your phone, computer, while reading or watching a video, and eating in a loud, overstimulated environment or while upset or anxious is a recipe for continued GI problems. Our gut and brain are incredibly closely linked. We can go a long way to improve tolerance to the foods we eat just by eating slowly, chewing each bite upwards of 30 times (yes, really!), and not doing anything else while eating, other than eating. If you try these tips, you might also find you enjoy your food more, which is always an added bonus.

Signs of Balance and Imbalance

Ultimately, the goal is to feel good in your body and mind. Signs of imbalance include lack of appetite, bloating or gas, pain or cramps, chronic fatigue, sluggish or rapid digestion, extreme Appetite, bodily aches, skin irritations, itching and rashes, brain fog, and irritability. 

Reach Out 

If you’re ready for more individualized nutritional guidance, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support on digestion, sports nutrition, or both. 

The Time That Healing Takes

image drawn by the author

I’ve been having lots of conversations lately about the expectations we have for ourselves. We expect once we begin taking action to improve our health condition, that a shift to doing better will come quickly. 

We read books, or internet articles, or hear someone’s gospel-like miracle healing story, and we expect that for ourselves too.

And sometimes that’s the case. We feel substantially better almost immediately. 

But that’s not always the reality. 

In fact, if you listen to nearly any respected academic researcher or health practitioner, or expert in their field, they often stray away from miracle stories and black and white health panacea protocols. And they instead use language more along the lines of “…it depends” and “not one thing that helps but a combination of [diet and lifestyle] factors.” 

Healing Isn’t Linear

Rarely ever is healing, or improving in whatever goal we have for ourselves, linear.  One finite example, is that it takes at least five days for the lining of the gut to repair itself after it’s been damaged, and a full three to five weeks for a food that triggered the inflammatory process to fully leave the system.

So as we already switch our calendars over from the first month of the new year into the second, this is my gentle reminder to you. 

Go easy with yourself. 

Expect less linear lines and gold stars at the top, and more nuance, (adventure!), overcoming fear, stepping into the unknown, and learning more about yourself and your needs.

Something Practical

And for something practical to guide you, here’s a little practice to try: Ask yourself what you need today by really stopping what you’re doing and resting a moment in complete not-doing-or-thinking-ness. And then ask yourself, what do I need today to feel better? How can I care for myself better today? 

Our bodies are meant to heal themselves. Sometimes we have to mentally get out of our own way and give them care and time(!) to do so. 

Reach Out 

If nothing comes up for you in the reflective exercise above, or you’re ready for more nutritional guidance, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support on digestion, sports nutrition, or both.