Looks like you may need to upgrade your browser

We're sorry, we no longer support the web browser that you are using

For the best best experience, please update your browser, or try using a different browser

(We promise it'll be worth it)

Upgrade the to latest version or continue anyway

You eat well and avoid junk. So why is your digestion still sluggish?

We take a look at some lifestyle factors that could be influencing your ability to digest the food you eat.

What are the symptoms of not digesting food properly?

If your digestion is sluggish and slow, you’ll experience symptoms such as: 1
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Heartburn
  • Vomiting undigested food
  • Feeling nauseous
  • Undigested food in your stools
  • Poor nutrient absorption from the food you eat (a good indicator of this is pale, greasy stools)
  • Unexplained weight loss

Here are some common lifestyle causes at the root of an unexplained digestion problem.

#1 – Stress 

Ever felt ‘butterflies in your tummy’? It’s more than just a feeling.

The gut is linked to the brain, hence why unbalanced gut bacteria can contribute to psychological disorders like depression and anxiety. 2 The gut-brain connection works the other way, too. 3 Experiencing high levels of stress can slow the rate at which your stomach empties, making digestion take longer. Slow digestion contributes to constipation and bloating. 4 In some people, stress can speed up the rate at which digested food travels through the intestines, causing diarrhoea. 5

#2 – Smoking 

You don’t need us to tell you how bad for you smoking is. But did you know it can cause poor digestion?

Studies show that smoking raises the risk of certain digestive disorders. People who have smoked for a long time (more than 2 years) could have increased gastric acid, leading to heartburn. 6 It’s also thought that chronic smoking significantly reduces blood flow to the lining of the stomach, risking intestinal inflammation 7 as well as reducing gastric secretions, making stomach acid weaker and less able to digest food.8

#3 – Coffee

Have you ever taken just a sip of coffee and immediately needed the loo?

You might think coffee is aiding digestion. Coffee stimulates your colon and intestinal muscles, causing them to contract and relax, thus encouraging the passage of waste through them. It could be the caffeine, it could be the scent – scientists aren’t actually sure why coffee has this effect! 9 This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (so long as you’re near the toilet!). But in some people drinking lots of coffee can cause diarrhoea due to the laxative effects of caffeine. 10 Coffee is also a major culprit for triggering heartburn. This is because it encourages the stomach to produce more acid, thus triggering gastro-intestinal reflux in some people.11

#4 – Inactivity

Sitting still all day is a disaster for your digestion.

Inactivity can cause slow gastric emptying (the rate at which your stomach contents pass through to the small intestine) and constipation. 12 13 Barely moving all day usually means poor posture, too. Hunching over a desk or sitting curled on a sofa with a laptop on your knees could cause a compression in part of your digestive system (think of a kink in a hosepipe), affecting its function.14

A walk after each meal (even just up and down your street) can help stimulate the digestion process.

#5 - Sweetener 

It may be lower in calories than sugar, but artificial sweeteners have been linked to a whole host of digestive problems.

Sweetener ingredients such as sorbitol and xylitol have been linked to diarrhoea and excess flatulence in several studies. 15

If you regularly use sweetener and are experiencing digestive discomfort, it might be time to cut down to see if your symptoms improve.

#6 – The speed you eat

Have you ever been told you eat too fast? Do you take huge bites, taking a new one before you’ve fully finished the last?

If this sounds like you, our guess is you’re no stranger to common digestive issues such as bloating and heartburn.

The explanation is relatively simple. When you take large bites, you’re swallowing air along with the food, which explains the gassy stomach.

Increasing the number of chews per bite increases the production of the enzymes in the gut which help break down your food, 16 as well as hormones in the gut which make you feel full, helping to prevent over-eating. 17 18

And what helps digestion?

How do you fix digestive problems? While each person is different, there are some things you can do which are generally known to promote good digestion.

  • Fibre

Fibre helps move waste through the digestive tract. If you’re not used to eating much fibre, start small and drink plenty of liquids. 19
  • Drinking water

Drinking plenty of water (6-8 glasses per day, around 1.2 litres) helps flush your digestive system along and provide bulk to your stools.

  • Probiotics 

If you experience sluggish digestion, incorporating fermented foods into your diet could give your digestive system real support. 20

Fermented foods contain healthy bacteria which could give your own gut bacteria a helping hand when it comes to breaking down food.

Speak to your GP if your symptoms don’t improve as in rare cases, poor digestion could be a sign of something more serious.

Last Updated: 18th November 2020

  1. https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/signs-symptoms-not-digesting-food-properly-1599.html
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5641835/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22314561/
  4. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/five-lifestyle-tips-for-a-healthy-tummy/
  5. https://badgut.org/information-centre/a-z-digestive-topics/stress-and-your-gut/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5797634/#B5
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5797634/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5797634/
  9. https://www.health.com/condition/digestive-health/why-does-coffee-make-you-poop
  10. https://www.iffgd.org/lower-gi-disorders/diarrhea/common-causes.html
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22147653/
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3748072/
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1378967/
  14. https://nobackpainhq.com/bad-posture-digestion/
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5093271/
  16. https://www.healthline.com/health/how-many-times-should-you-chew-your-food
  17. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031938415300317
  18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24215801/
  19. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/good-foods-to-help-your-digestion/
  20. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23922468/
Bhupesh Panchal

Author: Bhupesh Panchal, Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate

Joined Holland & Barrett: Apr 2019

Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry

Bhupesh started his career as a Clinical Toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products.

After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.