If you have pets or take care of livestock, you know that animals thrive when they eat on a regular schedule. My labrador retriever Lily gets breakfast every morning at precisely 6AM and dinner at 6PM (and not a minute later… you’d think she could tell time!). This keeps her fit and full of life and insures that her digestion is regular and predictable, which is important because she is dependent on us coming home to take her outside to do “her business.”
We humans don’t have to wait for someone to take us to the toilet, and eating also has a social function, so it isn’t as necessary for us to follow a rigid eating schedule, but if you are trying to improve your digestive functioning, it is good to pay attention to your meal timing.
What happens when you eat too often?
Our body takes care of digestion without us needing to think about it, so it is easy to forget that it actually takes a lot of effort. If you don’t give your digestive system time to finish one meal before the next arrives, you may find yourself feeling bloated and even constipated. That can then cause the entire system to essentially “back up” and you can get feelings of indigestion.
What happens when you skip meals?
When you go too long without eating, your body increases cortisol production in order to raise your blood sugar and give you energy for the day. This is not a bad thing for healthy individuals, but people with autoimmune diseases or with a less than optimal digestive system for any reason usually already have abnormal cortisol rhythm throughout the day. Skipping meals causes chronic stress on your body, which can be a significant trigger of autoimmune flares.
Do I have to eat breakfast?
If you have any blood sugar regulation issues (and many of us do) it is best to eat within 30-60 minutes of waking up. This will help you keep your hunger hormones better regulated throughout the day and make you less likely to desire snacks between meals later on. You may have heard of or experimented with something called “intermittent fasting” or “compressed eating windows” and that may be a good idea for you to try later on, but not while your digestion is wonky or if you have an autoimmune disease that is currently active. The old adage that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” isn’t exactly true, but it is still a good idea!
How far apart should my meals be?
It takes your body about 3-4 hours to move your food through the upper digestive system, so for optimal digestion you should always try to leave at least 3 hours between meals but no more than 6 hours. So that means that if you wake up at 6:30, and eat breakfast at 7:00, the best time for you to eat your next meal is between 10:00 and 1:00. If dinner won’t be until 6:00 or later, then it is a good idea to plan for a light afternoon snack at least 3 hours after you finish eating lunch and at least 3 hours before starting to eat dinner.
What about eating before bed?
Eating too late in the day will disrupt your sleep, both because of the way food intake affects melatonin and insulin production, but also because heartburn or other digestive consequences from your food could keep you awake. But studies have also found eating a carbohydrate rich meal about 4-5 hours before you go to bed, will help you sleep better. So the important thing is to remember is that you want to have a good balanced dinner with some complex carbohydrates along with fat and protein, and make sure that you have finished it at least 2 hours before bedtime.
What other eating habits will help my digestion?
Eating on a regular schedule is just the beginning… there are many other habits that you can develop to support better digestion. The best way to integrate these into your life is to focus on one habit per day and really commit to each one. To help you do just that, I have created a free email mini-course that I call “7 Days to a Better Digestion.” I will send you specific directions for a new habit each day, which will help you improve your digestion and lessen the impact of problems like bloating, heartburn, indigestion, constipation, and/or diarrhea.
To get this free email series, click the button below and follow the prompts.