Do you suffer from digestive problems? Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as heartburn, bloating, and constipation, may be an occasional occurrence or an indication of a more serious condition, such as a gastrointestinal disorder or disease. While health conditions should always be addressed with the help of your healthcare provider, learning about lifestyle approaches that support your gastrointestinal system can empower you to make helpful changes.
Addressing digestive problems
Generally, addressing digestive problems involves avoiding or minimizing factors that are known to impair gastrointestinal health, while making lifestyle changes that support the gastrointestinal system. Evidence-based tips for gastrointestinal health are outlined below; however, it’s important to consult your integrative healthcare practitioner for help addressing your individual digestive problems.
Foods that help digestion
The best dietary components and best foods for digestion include:
- Dietary fiber, found in whole grains and vegetables, which increases stool bulk and shortens transit time in the GI tract
- Polyphenols, plant compounds found in berries, cocoa, grapes, and tea, which can reach the colon and be metabolized by microbiota
- Prebiotics, substances found in a variety of fruit, vegetables, and grains, which are fermented by microbiota in the colon and reduce the severity and risk of infectious, inflammatory, and functional gastrointestinal conditions (9)
- Probiotics, found in foods such as cultured yogurt and fermented foods, which provide beneficial bacteria that improve gastrointestinal health (19)
An overall dietary pattern that focuses on increasing plant-based foods and moderating red meat intake may help improve microbial diversity and regulate bowel habits in individuals with IBD, (8) as well as reduce colon cancer risk. (5)
Foods that harm digestion
Certain foods and dietary components should be avoided or minimized, as they may damage the gastrointestinal barrier (lining), (5) impair microbial balance, (8) and contribute to or trigger digestive symptoms. (15) Foods that have been found to impair digestive health include:
- Carbonated beverages, which may exacerbate symptoms of dyspepsia and GERD (12)
- Fructose, a sugar found in fruit and used as a sweetener, which may harm the gastrointestinal barrier and increase the risk of fatty liver disease when consumed in large amounts (5)
- Gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, which is often incompletely digested and associated with certain cases of IBS (7)
- High-fat diets and large meals high in fat, which may trigger functional dyspepsia and IBS (12)(15)
- Saturated fats, typically found in animal protein (meat) and dairy products, may increase pro-inflammatory gut microbiota (9)
Overall, a typical Western diet is detrimental to microbiome health and may contribute to digestive problems. Western diets are generally high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, animal proteins, and calories and low in fruits, vegetables, and dietary fiber. (8)(9)
Individuals with food allergies or intolerances may benefit from an elimination diet to identify dietary triggers and/or to help manage their symptoms. (5) One example is the low-FODMAP diet, which eliminates a group of poorly-digested carbohydrates and polyols and is commonly used in the treatment of functional gastrointestinal disorders. (18)
If you suffer from digestive problems such as GERD or functional dyspepsia, having large meals may trigger your symptoms. Consuming smaller meals is often recommended as part of the treatment for these conditions. (12)
Several common pharmaceuticals have been associated with digestive symptoms. (5)(12) One example, proton pump inhibitors, are a group of acid-blocking medications that are commonly used to treat GERD. Excessive (i.e., long-term) use of proton pump inhibitors may result in malabsorption, contribute to nutrient deficiencies, and promote bacterial growth in the small intestine (i.e., dysbiosis). (12) If you’re a patient, speak to your practitioner about digestive side effects of any medications you take. Remember, you should never change or stop your medications without consulting your healthcare provider.
Research has associated reduced fluid intake with an increased risk of constipation. Trials in individuals with constipation have examined the effects of increasing water intake to at least 68 oz (2 L) per day, either on its own or in combination with fiber supplementation. In both cases, increasing water intake may improve stool regularity. (14) To help maintain bowel regularity, ensure you drink at least 68 oz (2 L) of water daily.
Yoga for digestion
Research suggests that regular yoga practice may help alleviate digestive problems. A systematic review found that practicing yoga is associated with decreased IBS severity, bowel symptoms, and anxiety, as well as improved physical functioning and quality of life in individuals with IBS. The authors note that further high-quality studies are needed to inform specific recommendations for yoga for digestion. (20)
Yoga poses for digestion that have been used in IBS interventions include:
- Marjariasana (cat pose), a gentle backbend which involves coming to hands and knees on the ground and rounding your back toward the ceiling
- Trikonasana (triangle pose), a standing pose which involves placing the feet one leg-length apart and extending over the right leg to reach the right hand down to the the shin, foot, or ground, with the other arm stretched up towards the ceiling (then repeating the pose on the left side)
- Shashankasana (hare pose), a forward-bending pose which involves kneeling down with knees spread sideways and toes touching behind you, then sliding the palms on the ground in front of you and folding forwards
- Surya Nadi pranayama (right-nostril breathing), a breathing exercise which involves covering the left nostril and taking deep breaths through the right nostril
- Vajrasana (diamond pose), a kneeling pose which involves placing your hips on your heels, toes pointed backward, and palms resting on your knees (21)
Exercise for digestion
Regular physical activity may have a protective effect against digestive problems such as IBD due to the anti-inflammatory effects of exercise. Trials in individuals with IBD suggest that regular exercise is associated with a reduced risk of progressing from remission to active disease state. Further, moderate exercise such as walking, running, or yoga can improve quality of life in these individuals. It’s important to note that moderation is key, as high-intensity exercise may trigger inflammation followed by immune function suppression. (4)
Excessive alcohol consumption has been shown to result in dysbiosis, intestinal inflammation, and damage to digestive organs and intestinal lining (i.e., increased intestinal permeability). Chronic alcohol intake is associated with an increased risk of digestive diseases such as alcoholic liver disease and gastrointestinal cancers. (6) Current recommendations for alcohol intake in adults are a daily limit of two standard drinks for men and one standard drink for women. A standard drink is defined as a 12 oz (355 mL) regular beer (5% alcohol), a 5 oz (148 mL) glass of wine (12% alcohol), or 1.5 oz (44 mL) of 80 proof distilled spirits (40% alcohol). (22)
Cigarette smoke may harm the gastrointestinal system by damaging gut mucosa, impairing mucosal immune function, and irritating the gastrointestinal tract. Smoking cigarettes has been associated with an increased risk of many digestive conditions, including IBD, peptic ulcer disease, and colon, esophageal, liver, pancreatic, and stomach cancers. Speak to your healthcare provider for support and resources to help you quit smoking. (2)
Did you know? Over 60 carcinogenic and harmful chemicals have been identified in cigarette smoke. (2)
Research has found strong associations between sleep disturbances and digestive problems, which may result from the increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines seen following sleep dysfunction. There seems to be a bidirectional relationship in which poor sleep may exacerbate gastrointestinal symptoms, and digestive issues may interrupt the sleep-wake cycle and harm sleep. (13) For information on improving your sleep health, visit the Fullscript blog.
Did you know? Approximately 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders. (13)
Gut health supplements
Various supplements may help support digestion and improve symptoms in digestive conditions. It’s important to consult with your integrative healthcare practitioner for individual guidance on gut health supplements as certain products may worsen digestive symptoms when taken inappropriately. (3)
Digestive enzyme supplements
A randomized trial in individuals with digestive problems compared the effects of full-spectrum plant-based digestive enzyme supplements with a pharmaceutical medication that increases gastrointestinal motility. After a five-day intervention, both treatments were associated with a significant improvement of symptoms, with the digestive enzyme group experiencing greater improvements in abdominal pain. (17)
Peppermint oil, derived from the plant Mentha piperita, contains an active compound called L-menthol, which has been found to have antispasmodic effects in the gastrointestinal tract. A meta-analysis of trials of peppermint oil supplementation in individuals with IBS concluded that peppermint oil is a safe and effective intervention, reducing pain and IBS symptoms. (1)
Systematic reviews of probiotic supplementation in individuals with IBS have shown that probiotics may reduce pain and symptoms such as bloating and flatulence. (10)(11) The benefits of probiotics for digestive problems may result from modulating neurotransmitters involved in pain, supporting gut barrier function, and improving inflammatory profiles. (10)
Soluble dietary fiber
A type of fiber known as soluble fiber, found in supplements including psyllium and guar gum, may help improve abdominal pain, regulate bowel movements, modulate microbial balance, and decrease symptom severity in individuals with IBS. (3)(16)(23)
The bottom line
You can maintain the health of your gastrointestinal system by incorporating certain lifestyle behaviors, such as consuming foods that help digestion, exercising regularly, practicing yoga for digestion, and minimizing your exposure to substances such as alcohol and cigarette smoke. (5) When recommended by your practitioner, gut health supplements may also be used to address digestive problems.
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- Berkowitz, L., Schultz, B. M., Salazar, G. A., Pardo-Roa, C., Sebastián, V. P., Álvarez-Lobos, M. M., & Bueno, S. M. (2018). Impact of cigarette smoking on the gastrointestinal tract inflammation: Opposing effects in Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Frontiers in Immunology, 9, 74.
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