5 Doctor-Approved Ways to Improve Digestion
If you regularly deal with issues like heartburn, stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation, you’re not alone. In a 2018 survey of more than 71,000 people published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 61% of respondents reported experiencing these types of symptoms within a one-week time frame.
And these symptoms can affect you beyond your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. “Digestive health really interacts with our overall feeling of well‑being. [It’s] really a key component for overall health,” says Sumona Saha, M.D., a board-certified internist, gastroenterologist, and associate professor of medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, in Madison. “And when that is off, often we see other symptoms outside the GI tract arise, like fatigue, lack of energy, poor appetite.”
The Role of Your Digestive System
Your digestive system plays a distinct role: It turns the foods you eat into the nutrients and energy your body needs to function properly. After your body absorbs the necessary nutrients from food, it then eliminates the rest as waste in the form of bowel movements.
“We cannot live without food, which we digest and absorb,” says Stephen B. Hanauer, M.D., a board-certified internist, gastroenterologist, and medical director of the Digestive Health Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, in Chicago. “Each element of nutrition is essential to maintain our metabolism and health.”
Although digestive health is often referred to as gut health, your digestive system extends beyond the stomach, explains Saha. “When we think about the gut, we think about the intestines—so the large intestine and the small intestine—whereas the digestive system includes everything from mouth to anus,” she says. “There's that overlap, but ‘gut’ really refers more to intestinal health, whereas digestive health refers to the entire GI tract, from start to finish.”
How to Improve Your Digestive Health
“Everyone’s digestive system is a little bit different,” Saha says. It’s important to start by addressing the specific symptoms you’re experiencing. “Constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating—each of those different symptoms has different advice associated with it,” she adds.
If, however, you’re simply looking to maintain good digestive health, start with the following five strategies:
1. Rethink Your Diet
“A healthy diet is plentiful in fruits and vegetables and limited in animal products,” Hanauer says. It’s also important to avoid digestive health offenders like highly processed foods and those that include artificial sweeteners and high-fructose corn syrup, adds Saha. Keep a food diary to help pinpoint which food triggers—such as spicy foods, acidic foods, gluten, or lactose—are bringing on your specific digestive symptoms.
Work with a registered dietitian to determine if any other dietary recommendations—from increasing fiber intake to incorporating probiotics—may further help boost your digestive health.
If you’re experiencing specific digestive symptoms, you might need to reexamine not only what you eat but also how you eat. For those who experience heartburn, it can help to avoid late-night eating or lying down soon after meals; it’s also recommended to avoid eating or drinking anything, including sips of water with medications, within three hours of sleeping. Others may do well with limiting portion sizes and eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day.
Taking the time to practice mindful eating may also help some digestive woes. “It really goes back to what an individual is experiencing after they eat, and the recommendations follow,” explains Saha.
2. Stay Hydrated
Drinking enough fluids, particularly water, helps keep your digestive system running smoothly. If you’re not adequately hydrated, you’re likely to have problems with hard stools and constipation. Just be sure to limit or avoid potential GI triggers, such as caffeinated or carbonated beverages, or even alcohol.
3. Exercise Regularly
Staying active can also help keep digestive issues at bay. “Cardiovascular exercise in particular is really good for stimulating the gut,” Saha says. “For example, people who have sluggish digestion and deal with constipation really can benefit quite a bit from cardiovascular exercises such as walking, jogging, or working out on an elliptical [machine].”
Exercise guidelines recommend that adults get 150 minutes of exercise each week—which breaks down to about 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
Beyond stimulating the GI tract, exercise can potentially alter your gut microbiome, according to researchers, which has significance on not only your digestive health but also your overall health.
4. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
There’s an established link between poor sleep and GI issues. Heartburn, peptic ulcer disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and liver disease all can have worse symptoms when the person is experiencing poor sleep.
Adults should aim to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Establish healthy sleep habits by creating a wind-down routine, keeping your bedroom cool and dark and free of electronics, and sticking to a regular sleep-wake schedule.
5. Take Steps to Reduce Stress
“We do know that there is a strong mind-gut connection,” Saha says. In fact, one of the treatments for abdominal pain can be a low-dose antidepressant. Therefore, finding ways to manage stress can help alleviate digestive discomforts.
“Whether it’s listening to music or art therapy, that can help calm the gut,” Saha adds.
Healthy Digestion Is Important for Overall Health
“All of these [steps] are beneficial to health, in general, as well as digestion,” says Hanauer.
Making these healthy lifestyle modifications can also help improve certain chronic health conditions, from GI diseases, like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, to heart disease, diabetes, and beyond. “Prioritizing digestive health will have lots of additional benefits outside of just the gut,” adds Saha. “It can also improve those conditions, as well, if we focus on our diet and our digestive health.”
If you’re experiencing digestive discomfort, be sure to talk to your doctor. “Even some symptoms that seem pretty common and innocuous could indicate a more serious underlying condition,” advises Saha. “Any specific complaint needs to be further investigated.”
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