Better digestive health
Susan Biali, MD
A healthy digestive system will help you beat bloating and improve digestion.
When I was a child, I was taught that the digestive tract was a relatively basic system that simply existed to swallow, break down, and absorb the food I put in my mouth.
Children of the future might be told quite a different story as scientists discover more about the importance of digestive health in relation to the health of the entire body—in ways we might never have imagined.
If you’ve been feeling tired and run down, or would like to improve your general health, your digestive system is a perfect place to start (after seeing your health care practitioner, of course).
Here are five tips that will go a long way toward improving your overall health and vitality.
1. Eat well
This probably brings to mind phrases like “eat your vegetables,” and “eat small, frequent, well-balanced meals throughout the day.” Eating high quality, organic foods will powerfully impact both digestive and general health.
Pay close attention to your body’s signals and learn to identify the difference between hunger and craving. Hunger signals sound like “my stomach is growling; time for lunch.” Craving sounds like “I want chocolate.”
Eat slowly and mindfully, taking the time to savour your food and chew it well. The enzymes in your mouth kick-start the digestive process, and breaking the food into smaller pieces with your teeth helps too. Relaxing while you eat will also make you less likely to experience indigestion afterward.
Pay close attention to when you begin to feel full. Eating slowly makes you more likely to identify this point and prevents you from overeating. The famously long-living centenarians of Okinawa are known for their practice of hara hachi bu—eating until they are 80 percent full.
2. Choose plenty of high-fibre foods
Fibre may not be as sexy as the latest superfood, but it’s still a nutritional superstar. According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, a diet high in fibre can prevent constipation and lower the risk of hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and diverticular disease (pouches that form in the large intestine).
A diet high in fibre can help lower your cholesterol, control your blood sugar levels, and may even help you to lose weight. Fibre is also considered an anti-inflammatory food and may help decrease your risk of developing a variety of different chronic conditions.
Fibre comes in two forms: insoluble fibre, found in whole grains, nuts, and vegetables, adds bulk and helps material move through your digestive system; soluble fibre, found in oats, beans, and apples, forms a gel when combined with water and lowers cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
3. Supplement with probiotics
I’ve raved about probiotics for at least a decade, and the evidence supporting their benefits continues to grow. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health in the US, there is encouraging evidence for the benefits of probiotics in treating diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and shortening the length of intestinal infection caused by C. difficile, a serious infection that can occur following antibiotic use.
A 2009 review published in the journal Current Pharmaceutical Design reported that probiotics can also improve certain components of our general immune response, reduce the risk of traveller’s diarrhea, and decrease the risk and severity of allergic disease. I’ve written about the latter before and consider it to be essential information in an age when we see so much allergic disease, particularly in children.
4. Beat the bloat
Almost everyone has experienced uncomfortable gas and bloating, and some, particularly those with IBS, experience it more than others. Eating mindfully and slowly reduces air gulping. Being relaxed at meals and decreasing stress in general can do much to lessen the painful cramping and bloating of IBS.
I used to think that I had IBS because I’d often experience painful bloating after meals. There certainly was an element of stress that was causing my symptoms, but I also found that taking capsules of mixed digestive enzymes with meals made a huge difference. Check with your health care practitioner before taking these, because in some conditions, such as ulcers, enzymes might do more harm than good.
5. Use antacids with caution
Prescription and nonprescription antacid medications can bring substantial relief to people suffering from ulcers, acid indigestion, and heartburn but may come with potential risks. Several studies have found that patients taking proton pump inhibitors and histamine-2 receptor antagonists had an increased risk of hip fractures. The cause is unknown, but it may be that proton pump inhibitors decrease the body’s ability to absorb calcium. Another study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention reported that antacids were associated with an increased risk of cancer of the esophagus.
If you have a serious condition such as severe heartburn or an ulcer, it may be necessary to take a prescription antacid medication, at least for the short term. However, drug-free lifestyle modifications such as avoiding smoking, caffeine, alcohol, and irritating citrus foods can make a big difference.
If you’re experiencing any kind of digestive problem or new gastrointestinal symptoms, it’s important to see your health care practitioner for a proper evaluation.