Improve Your Digestion
The health of your gut affects the rest of your body, so how can you learn to identify problems with it and improve digestion as well?
THE STORY: Your digestive tract is the gatekeeper to your health. A highly complex system, your gut is responsible for breaking down the food you eat and assimilating the nutrients so your body can function properly. If you’re having stomach aches, trouble digesting food and other digestive issues, you likely have a health issue associated with your gut. Here’s how to identify common problems and improve digestion to avoid them in the future.
HOW THE GUT WORKS: None of us really think about what happens to our food after we eat it, right? We simply eat a meal and move on with our day. The reality is our bodies contain an incredibly complex system of organs and more that breaks down, digests, absorbs and doles out the nutrients from our food - and it’s all thanks to your gut. As soon as food reach the gastrointestinal tract, the digestive system breaks nutrients into parts small enough for your body to absorb and use for energy, growth, and cell repair. The small intestine absorbs most of the nutrients in your food, and your circulatory system passes them on to other parts of your body to store or use. Hormones, nerves and gut bacteria are primarily responsible for controlling the digestive processes. Hormones are released from cells lining your stomach and small intestine that tell your body when to make digestive juice and are responsible for sending your brain the signals for “hungry” or “full”. Nerves connect your brain and spinal cord to the digestive system and control certain digestive functions, while the enteric nervous system released different substances that control how fast or slow the movement of food and production of digestive juices is. The good bacteria in your gut helps to fight off infections.
IDENTIFY PROBLEMS: Everyone will experience digestive issues at some point. There are many signs of an unhappy gut - upset stomach, abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea and heartburn are just a few. Minor problems left untreated can lead to more serious issues however. How can you identify what’s happening in your gut? Here are a few of the more common issues and symptoms that accompany them.
Chronic constipation - one of the most common digestive issues in the U.S. Occurs when the colon can’t move stools through the digestive tract. Symptoms include abdominal pain, going to the bathroom less (and pain when you do go), and bloating. Getting enough fiber, water, and exercise will likely help curb constipation.
Food sensitivities - sometimes certain foods upset your stomach due to intolerance (think lactose or gluten). It might even be foods you’d never suspect. Symptoms of food sensitivities include bloating or cramps, headaches, diarrhea, gas, irritability and heartburn. Keeping a food diary may enable you to figure out what foods might be responsible if you’re suffering these symptoms. There are also lab tests that can tell you any sensitivities you may have.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) - chances are you’ve suffered from heartburn before. If it happens often though, you may be experiencing GERD. Not only is it uncomfortable, but left untreated it can damage your esophagus. Symptoms include chest discomfort, difficulty swallowing, sore throat and dry cough. There are over the counter medications to treat heartburn, but if it persists you should see your doctor.
Irritable bowel syndrome - is caused by chronic swelling that affects one or more parts of the digestive tract. Symptoms include incomplete bowel movements, loss of appetite and possible weight loss, fatigue, night sweats and rectal bleeding. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, you should talk to your doctor right away.
IMPROVE DIGESTION: Diet and lifestyle changes can have a positive impact on your gut health. Have a look at a few ways you can improve digestion and avoid digestive issues.
What are you eating? The Western diet is full of refined carbs, saturated fats and additives - all of which have been linked to digestive issues. Instead of reaching for processed foods, eat REAL food such as fruits, veggies, whole grains, healthy fats, seeds and nuts, and lean meats.
Eat your fiber. You’ve likely heard it before but fiber is excellent for digestion. A high-fiber diet has been linked to a reduced risk of digestive conditions such as ulcers, reflux, and IBS. You can find fiber in oat bran, nuts, seeds, vegetables and whole grains.
Stay hydrated! Did you know that low fluid intake is a common cause of constipation? Experts recommend between 55-60 ounces of non-caffeinated fluids a day to prevent constipation. If you find plain water boring, reach for herbal teas or seltzer water.
Chew your food. You may be thinking, “Of course I chew my food! It’s not like I’m swallowing it whole!”, but you might not be chewing your food as well as you think and digestion starts in the mouth. Chewing starts the breakdown process of food and when you chew thoroughly you stomach has to do less work in the breakdown department. Plus, the more you chew the more saliva you produce which can help prevent symptoms of heartburn and indigestion.
Supplement your gut. Certain nutrients help your digestive tract. For example, probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help your gut. They’re found in fermented foods like sauerkraut, but also come in supplement form. A zinc deficiency can lead to various gastrointestinal disorders so make sure you’re getting the recommend 8-11mg by including shellfish, beef or supplements into your diet.
THE ROUND-UP: Digestive issues are no fun but by being better able to identify what’s going on in your gut you can fix issues more quickly, and by making diet and lifestyle changes you may be able to avoid them altogether.