Digestive problems are among the top health complaints in America today. Diet, travel, stress, illness, aging and the use of antibiotics all contribute to an imbalance or “dysbiosis” of the intestinal tract leading to gastrointestinal upset.
By making a few simple lifestyle changes, you can prevent these digestive problems from occurring. For best results, follow these 10 tips from VitaMedica’s founder and medical director, Dr. David H. Rahm.
1. Tend Your Microbial Garden with Probiotics
Did you know that the trillions of bacteria living in the human body play a significant role in your health? Recent studies have shown that the type and variety of bacteria in your gut, known as the human microbiome, influence not only your digestive health but also your food cravings and even your moods. Just like proper care of a flower garden yields a beautiful bounty, tending your microbial garden will have you feeling better faster. Bonus! A balanced microbiome also supports a healthy weight.
You can boost your intake of probiotics, or good bacteria, with probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, miso, kefir, tempeh and pickles. However, the number of good bacteria in foods is generally low. That’s why Dr. Rahm has launched LeanBiotics, the first ever line of nutraceuticals that works by modifying your microbiome. Taking a probiotic supplement like VitaMedica’s Probiotic-8 and LeanBiotics Probiotic delivers billions of the little beneficial bugs directly to your digestive tract.
2. Up Your Fiber Intake
One of the best things you can do for your digestive health is to increase your daily intake of fiber. The recommended amounts of fiber per day are 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men, yet most Americans are consuming less than half these amounts. Insufficient fiber intake is usually the culprit behind constipation, and is even a risk factor for obesity, heart disease and metabolic disorder.
While soluble fiber helps lower cholesterol and insoluble fiber keeps you regular, there is a third, less well-known type of dietary fiber called resistant starch that “resists” digestion in the small intestine. Instead, it moves into the large intestine where it is fermented by gut bacteria to form beneficial short chain fatty acids.
3. Eat More Fruits, Veggies & Legumes
Fruits and vegetables are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals – nutrients that keep your digestive system running smoothly. Fruits and veggies high in fiber include prunes, figs, oranges, pears, apples, peaches, raspberries, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, zucchini, squash and leafy vegetables like spinach. When possible, eat produce whole as the fiber content is concentrated in the skins.
Due to their high fiber and protein content, legumes are nutritious, satiating and beneficial for digestive health. Legumes such as beans, peas, lentils and sprouts can be stir-fried, sautéed, baked, steamed, roasted, added to soups and salads, or just enjoyed fresh.
4. Switch to Whole-Grains
Whole grains including whole-wheat breads, brown rice, bran and oatmeal are high in fiber. But, many prepared foods such as muffins, bagels, pasta, cookies and snacks are made with refined flour and sugar that upsets your microbial balance. Carefully read labels. Whole wheat, whole-wheat flour or another whole grain should be the first ingredient. Look for the Whole Grains stamp which indicates that a product contains at least 8 grams per serving or is made from 100% whole grains (at least 16 grams per serving). Alternatively, if you’re thinking about going gluten-free, first take a look at this article to understand the pros and cons from a health perspective, and whether this is the right dietary choice for you.
5. Drink Plenty of Water
Dehydration is a common cause of digestive problems such as cramping and constipation. Some beverages like coffee and alcohol act as diuretics, further depleting the body of fluids. Aim to drink 6-8 glass of filtered water each day to support appropriate levels of digestive secretions and lubricate your intestines to keep them functioning properly.
6. Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
Once thought a healthier, miracle alternative to sugar, recent studies show that artificial sweeteners can seriously impact your microbiome, resulting in digestive upset and metabolic disorder. In addition, using artificial sweeteners actually results in higher blood sugar levels than using regular sugar. Rather than reaching for table sugar instead of Sweet ‘N Low, we advocate shifting your diet away from sweet, sugary foods. If you’re thirsty, opt for a glass of sparkling water and liven up with lemon, cucumber or mint. And when it must be used, try just a sprinkle of sugar or a teaspoon of honey to sweeten your foods and beverages. This will help guide you away from an over reliance on sweetness, and widen your palate with an appreciation for food’s natural flavors.
7. Get More Exercise
Exercise benefits your digestive system by strengthening and toning the muscle walls of your colon. Aerobic exercises like running stimulate the digestive tract by increasing blood flow, resulting in stronger intestinal contractions and more digestive enzymes. Staying physically active also increases the bacterial diversity of your microbiome to further support healthy digestion. Whether you join a gym, go jogging with a friend, or engage in activities like hiking and swimming, finding more ways to get moving is beneficial for both your gut and your overall health.
8. Limit Use of Antibiotics
Antibiotics are routinely prescribed after surgery to prevent infection. They are also prescribed for a number of health conditions like acne, bacterial infections, certain fungal infections and certain kinds of parasites. Unfortunately, antibiotics kill both good and bad bacteria, resulting in antibiotic-associated diarrhea, and in women higher risk of yeast infections. Supplementing with a probiotic like GI Balance Probiotic helps to repopulate your microbiome with beneficial bacteria, bringing balance to the microflora and reducing symptoms.
9. Watch Your Medications
Before taking a medication, be sure to read prescription information. Some medications such as narcotics cause constipation while others like antibiotics and some high blood pressure drugs cause diarrhea. Regular use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs (e.g. Advil, Motrin) increases the risk of developing ulcers and other digestive problems. While laxatives are useful in treating a bout of constipation, you shouldn’t rely on them. Long-term laxative use can actually make you more prone to constipation. For a natural, milder laxative option, try LeanBiotics Cleanse formulated with cascara sagrada and detoxifying herbs to support healthy digestive function.
10. Be Kind to Your Gut
The bottom line is improving your digestive health comes down to creating habits that are kind to your gut. For example, high fat meals slow digestion and can lead to heartburn, bloating and constipation (see our article on GERD here). Choose instead low-fat protein sources, replace saturated fats with poly or monounsaturated fats and opt for low-fat or non-fat dairy products that are easier on your system.
Avoid large meals before bedtime. If you eat a large meal right before you hit the sack, you’re more likely to experience reflux or heartburn. As an alternative, eat smaller meals more frequently and give your body time to digest food before hitting the sack.
Take peppermint or ginger after meals to help soothe your GI tract. Peppermint not only freshens your breath but helps to eliminate gas, and the menthol in peppermint is believed to have antispasmodic effects. Ginger, candied, pickled or as a supplement, is also a carminative and helps to naturally relieve gas.
Try to limit use of alcohol and tobacco. Tobacco exposure has been linked to many conditions including heartburn, indigestion and cancer of the esophagus, pancreas and colon. Drinking in moderation has some health promoting benefits, but too much alcohol can irritate the stomach lining and relax a valve that prevents stomach acid from backing up into your esophagus.
Stress can wreck havoc on your digestive system. An increase in perceived or actual stress causes us to release more gastric juices which can lead to gastric upset, and in more extreme cases, to ulcers. Learn to manage stress in your life by taking time to relax and unwind. Remember that we fall back on our habits – both good and bad – during times of stress, so the sooner you start making changes the sooner you’ll start feeling better.
Last updated May 4, 2018
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.