Are these simple habits triggering bad digestion?

You may think you’re eating healthily and mindfully, but does your digestive system disagree? We look at what else could be going on… We’re all aware of certain poor eating habits or types of food that are likely to cause digestive distress. Bolting down lunch can result in an afternoon of bloating and flatulence;1 while a ‘who can eat the hottest curry’ competition could leave you locked behind the bathroom door with stomach problems.2

Sometimes, however, it’s less easy to work out what’s behind indigestion, heartburn, stomach ache or other digestive problems. Here are some simple and common culprits you may not have considered:

Going overboard on fibre

We’re often told to increase the fibre in our diets for better digestion.3 But suddenly and significantly increasing the amount of fibre you eat can be a shock to your digestive system, and lead to flatulence, constipation and discomfort.4 What you can do about it: Always increase fibre in your diet gradually to give your body time to adjust. And make sure you drink more water too, as fibre absorbs fluids so this will help keep your stools soft.6

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A boozy night

Alcohol irritates your digestive system into producing more stomach acid than normal.6 This can lead to acid reflux and an inflamed stomach lining.7,8 Alcohol also reduces the number of digestive enzymes our bodies produce, which means we may not absorb the nutrients we need to break down our food properly.9 What you can do about it: Stick within the weekly limit of 14 units for alcohol and limit the total amount you have in one day. Alternatively, steer clear altogether.10

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A little too much caffeine

Some people are sensitive to caffeine and find it increases the production of acid in their stomach, triggering heartburn.11 Coffee also has a laxative effect. A study of 12 healthy people, published in 1998 in the European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology, found that a cup of black coffee had the same power to stimulate the muscles of the colon as tucking into a meal.12 What you can do about it: Cut down on caffeinated tea and coffee, and watch for ‘hidden’ sources of caffeine, for example in chocolate, energy drinks and some medicines.13

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A smoking habit

Smoking attacks the sphincter muscle at the end of the oesophagus, which prevents acid from travelling out of the stomach. Cue acid reflux, which can lead to ulcers and inflammatory bowel conditions.14 What you can do about it:

Quit smoking today. Ask your GP about the NHS’s Smokefree programme .

Taking certain painkillers

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen and aspirin, may irritate the gut lining by weakening its defences against the acid in the stomach. This can lead to ulcers or bleeding. And taking NSAIDs can also weaken the oesophagus’ sphincter muscle – increasing the chances of heartburn.15 What you can do about it:

Ask your GP to review the medications you’re taking.

Eating late at night

Our bodies digest best in an upright position. This means that lying down in bed soon after eating makes it far easier for stomach acid to travel up the oesophagus, causing heartburn.16 What you can do about it: Help your digestive system by allowing three to four hours after eating before lying down so your stomach can empty. In a 2003 study published in Gut, researchers found that stomach gas was expelled faster when participants were in an upright position than when they lay on their backs.17 If heartburn still troubles you in bed, try propping your shoulders up on pillows, or raise the head of your bed so your chest is higher than your waist.18

Overdoing the vitamin C

We need vitamin C every day but some people find taking large amounts in supplement form – usually more than 1000mg – can cause diarrhoea, flatulence and stomach pains.19 What you can do about it: Always read the label and follow the correct dosage instructions. You can also try a ‘buffered’ vitamin C supplement that has minerals added to make it easier on sensitive digestions.20

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Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies
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1. Sinn DH, et al. The Speed of Eating and Functional Dyspepsia in Young Women. Available from:
2. NHS Choices. Eat Well: Good foods to help your digestion. Available from:
3. NHS Choices. Constipation. Available from:
4. Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. Increasing the amount of fibre in your diet. Available from:
5. WebMD. Bloating 101: Why You Feel Bloated. Available from:
6. Drinkaware. Is Alcohol Harming Your Stomach. Available from:
7. As above
8. NHS Choices. Indigestion. Available from:
9. As Source 6
10. Drinkaware. Latest UK Alcohol unit guidance. Available from:
11. As Source 2
12. Rao SS, et al. Is coffee a colonic stimulant? Available from:
13. Temple JL, et al. The Safety of Ingested Caffeine: A Comprehensive Review. Available from:
14. NHS Choices. Eat Well: Five lifestyle tips for a healthy tummy. Available from:
15. John Hopkins Medicine Health Library. Medicines and the Digestive System. Available from:,P00389
16. As Source 8
17. Dainese R, et al. Influence of body posture on intestinal transit of gas. Available from:
18. NHS Choices. Heartburn and acid reflux. Available from:
19. NHS Choices. Vitamins and Minerals. Vitamin C. Available from:
20. Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute. Questions About Vitamin C. Available from:

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Digestive Health