Americans feel it in their guts. Poor health, that is; the combined consequences of an unwholesome diet, stress, aging, and not drinking enough water.
Every year, more than 90 million Americans seek help from a doctor for gut-related problems such as acid reflux, pancreatitis, gallstones, and irritable bowel syndrome, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. With a few simple and straightforward steps, you can improve your GI tract function, boost your overall health, and perhaps avoid being one of those 90 million in the doctor’s office.
Your gut not only digests your food, but is integrally linked to brain function, hormones associated with sleep and thinking, sex drive, the heart, the body’s muscles, and immune function, according to Steven Lamm, M.D., internist and clinical faculty member at New York University Medical Center. His recently-published book No Guts, No Glory outlines a plan for treating your gut with the respect it deserves.
Get Three Squares
Where to start? Lamm suggests beginning with a regular meal schedule. Skipping meals, rich, late-night repasts, and erratic snacking throughout the day tax your system. Try the old standby, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which almost seems like a quaint concept in our world where food is everywhere.
Take Your Time
Enjoying your food also helps you digest it properly, Lamm maintains. If you’re in the habit of absently stuffing something in your mouth at your desk so that you can keep working, consider slowing down. Take the time to savor and chew your food. Hastily swallowing food without chewing it properly can also sets the stage for digestive problems.
Get to Bed Early
Rest is an integral part of healthy digestion. The National Sleep Foundation reports that 20 percent of Americans say they get six hours or less of sleep a night, a level of sleep deprivation that can contribute to a host of health problems, including digestive issues. Aim for eight to nine hours. Impossible, you say? Switch off the television, smartphone, and computer in the evening, and log the extra time in bed rather than on the screen. Your gut will thank you.
Don't Forget to Hydrate
You need water, and plenty of it, to digest your food well. Sip throughout the day, and don’t wait until thirst strikes. Coffee or beer won’t count as part of your healthy liquid intake. In fact, easing up on alcohol will improve your health, and limiting your caffeine can help you feel less stressed.
The Raw Truth
Overly processed and refined foods trigger many gut-related illnesses, Lamm says. He advises swapping out one cooked meal with a meal made with raw ingredients every day. Raw fruits and vegetables contain important enzymes needed for digestion, and these enzymes are often destroyed in the process of cooking. Try oatmeal with fruit or a smoothie for breakfast, and make lunch a crisp salad, fresh fruit, or veggie wrap. If you’re considering switching to a mostly vegetarian diet, try a gradual approach to avoid having a lot of gas at first.
Butterflies, a knot, churning, flip-flopping—these terms describe the effect of stress on the gut. Taking a relaxing walk after a healthy meal is a good antidote to stress, Lamm notes. Build some form of regular relaxation into your daily schedule—a few minutes of gentle yoga stretching, a pause to meditate or listen to music—and notice how this act of unwinding helps cut your stress level.
Changes with Age
Digestive changes or problems aren’t inevitable with age, says Thai-Van Nguyen, M.D., a gastroenterologist with Gastroenterology Consultants in Los Alamitos and on staff at Los Alamitos Medical Center. Some older adults have problems with constipation or diarrhea, she says, but this is frequently linked to certain medications, immobility, dietary restrictions, or other medical conditions, and not necessarily a result of getting older.
Many older adults taking blood pressure pills, proton pump inhibitors, or certain antacids can experience medication-related changes in digestion, says David A. Drake, M.D. a gastroenterologist with Long Beach Gastroenterology Associates and on staff at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. He frequently sees patients admitted to the hospital for ulcers or bleeding in the GI tract from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, which are often used to treat arthritis.
“A lot of older folks end up on multiple medications,” he notes. “It can be hard to tell what’s in the soup and how the medications are interacting.”
Roughly half of all Americans reach for vitamins or other dietary supplements with a goal of improving their health. But sometimes supplements can result in stomach discomfort, says Drake. “Fish oil is very popular now, but it can cause flatulence and bloating,” he notes. Menopausal women who take calcium may experience constipation, and a calcium-magnesium supplement produces the opposite, diarrhea from the magnesium. “I sometimes ask patients to stop all supplements for a week or two to see if their symptoms change,” Drake says. “Then I’ll ask them to add the supplements back one at a time.”
What about probiotic supplements? Probiotics are bacteria that prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and maintain the balance in your intestinal system. Of the roughly 400 kinds of probiotic bacteria in your system, the type found in the largest amount is lactic acid bacteria. When you eat yogurt with live cultures, you’re taking in this type of probiotic. Look for yogurt with the fewest ingredients, and with “live active cultures” on the label.
David Drake observes that selecting a probiotic supplement can be bewildering, as health food store shelves are jammed with multiple varieties, some of which are very pricey. The trials investigating the role of probiotic supplements have been small, notes Thai-Van Nguyen. “We’ll have a better idea in the future about probiotic pathways and their role in the bowel when more research is done,” she says.