The Best Foods to Soothe a Taxed Digestive System

 Anna Medaris Miller

First, the good news: You enjoyed indulging over a party-packed weekend, on vacation or for a whole season. Now, the uncomfortable news: You brought your gut to the parties – and while you took home the fun memories, it took home gift bags full of digestive "presents" you wish you could swiftly return.

"Dramatic shifts away from a normally healthy diet … toward a diet pattern loaded with fat and sugar have been shown to cause shifts in the composition of our gut's microbial ecosystem," says Tamara Duker Freuman, a registered dietitian in New York City who specializes in digestive disorders. "This relative reordering of the resident species can play out in unexpected ways, from changes in bowel patterns to gassiness to ease of weight gain."

It can also play out as acid reflux, which can cause heartburn and interrupt sleep, adds Dr. Linda Shiue, an internal medicine physician and director of culinary medicine at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center.

Plus, foods high in sugar, salt and fat can lead to bloating. This same unhealthy fare also tends to replace more fibrous foods, and not getting enough fiber in your diet can lead to constipation. Plus, loads of sweets can trigger even more sugar cravings, and consistently overdoing it with fat and sugar can alter your hormones such that, in a way, you forget what it really feels like to be hungry and full.

"Overeating less healthy foods for a few weeks straight can lead to lasting changes in how your body senses hunger and satiety," Shiue says.

But before filling up on regret, too, take heart: These issues are normal reactions to periods of less-than-healthy eating and can resolve themselves, Duker Freuman says. Read: Extensive supplement regimens, extreme dietary restriction or punishing cleanses aren't necessary or advised.

"Once your diet returns to normal, your digestive well-being should rebound to normal, too," Duker Freuman says. Help it along with these healthy foods:


Squash – just like broccoli, carrots, celery and plenty of other veggies – is a great source of fiber, which is key in preventing or easing constipation, Shiue says. Fruit such as raisins, prunes, peaches and apples, as well as whole grains in cereals and breads, can work wonders moving things through too, she says. Just opt for cooked vegetables over raw ones when possible since the former are easier for your taxed belly to digest, says Robin Foroutan, an integrative medicine dietitian in New York City and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.


There's nothing like a vacation (especially if it includes travel) to throw off your bathroom regularity. And there's nothing like a high-quality yogurt or the cultured, fermented beverage kefir (try those without much or any added sugar, sweeteners or gums) to help get you back on track, Duker-Frueman says. "Products that have probiotic bacterial strains, such as B. lactis, B. rhamnosus and L. casei may be particularly helpful and regulating," she says.


While fruit in general is high in fiber and nutrients you may have slacked on during your break from healthy eating, sticking to those low in acid like bananas and melons are your best bet if you're prone to heartburn, Shiue says. Whole-grain bread, egg whites, green veggies, root vegetables, lean poultry and fish are low in acidity, too. "Just steer clear of preparing them with oil and rich sauces, so grill, steam, poach or bake instead," she says.


Like cabbage, these root veggies are high in glutamine, "a type of fuel that your intestinal cells prefer," Foroutan says. Giving them what they want supports your intestinal wall to better fight off microbial invaders, so you'll guard yourself against pesky colds, too.


Eating fermented foods like sauerkraut can resolve post-indulgence symptoms by helping to repopulate your gut with good bacteria, Foroutan says. Prefer to drink your fermentation? Food manufacturers are now answering the call with "shots" of sauerkraut juice in a variety of flavors, Foroutan says. "Listen to the recommended dose," she says. "You can overdo it and get gassy."

Peppermint Tea

This soothing beverage can help calm a stomach that's saying "enough already" since "peppermint has an antispasmodic effect on smooth muscle, which causes it to relax and alleviates pain," Duker Freuman says. "[That] means it can relax the muscle separating the stomach and esophagus as well." Just don't drink it immediately after a massive meal; you could incite acid reflux, she says.


Like peppermint, ginger in the form of tea can calm the digestive tract and even ease nausea, Shiue says. But why stop with your beverage? "Just add a few slices of fresh ginger root to your chicken or vegetable soup, or grate some into your stir-fry," she recommends. If your base for that ginger soup is bone broth – bonus points. The collagen in the broth strengthens your inner "skin" (aka intestinal walls) the same way it benefits the skin you can see, Foroutan says. Salmon and other fatty fish also supply ample collagen, as do eggs. Ramen anyone?


If Asian flavorings aren't your cup of (chamomile) tea, Indian, Mediterranean and Latin American-inspired dishes made with spices like cumin, coriander, fennel and cardamom have been soothing indigestion around the world throughout history, Shiue says. "Besides their medicinal effects, using these herbs can add a lot of flavor to vegetables and other healthier foods, rather than relying on sugar, salt and fat," she says. Try blending cumin, cardamom and coriander in a little oil for a vegetable saute, or making a curry by adding water and coconut milk, Shiu recommends.


Italian more your style? Rather than loading up on pizza or pasta with sugary spaghetti sauce (sugar feeds yeast in your gut that can overgrow and lead to further digestive distress, Foroutan says) enjoy some oregano on, say, spaghetti squash or baked chicken. "Dried and fresh oregano can help to reinstate balance in the gut," Foroutan says. "[It's] the idea of feeding and weeding your [microbial] garden."

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