Your gut affects everything in your body, from your immune system to your mental state. Still, the most common way people notice a problem in their gut is when they start regularly experiencing digestive issue like bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, or diarrhea.
As a gastroenterologist, I have many patients who come to me with gut-relieving suggestions they've read about, such as taking probiotics or drinking more water. While these things are helpful, they're not a cure for digestive issues, and there's still not much scientific evidence behind their claims.
Rather, the biggest factor in digestive health is your diet. Everything you eat correlates directly with your digestive health. But don’t worry; you don’t have to completely adjust your diet to see better digestion.
Here are nine easy steps I recommend for a healthier, happier gut:
1. Treat your diet as medicine.
Everything you consume correlates directly with your body’s health and well-being. When you ingest a high-sugar meal, snack, or drink, it can immediately result in an insulin spike. Insulin is produced by your pancreas to help your body convert food into usable energy, but with constant high levels of insulin you’re likely to experience fatigue, hunger, and high blood pressure.
I always suggest reading labels and avoiding anything artificial whenever possible and strongly encourage eating more dark green vegetables and various gut-friendly fruits such as bananas.
2. Eat the right kind of fiber.
You may have heard that fiber helps with symptoms of constipation, but there are actually two types of fiber we should all be aware of: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber.
Soluble fibers actually slow digestion, which prevents quick spikes in your blood sugar, whereas insoluble fibers help move food through your intestines, which can help prevent constipation. Insoluble fibers are found in nuts, whole wheat, whole grains, seeds, and rice, while soluble fibers can naturally be found in oats, beans, peas, flaxseed, berries, and apples.
Make sure to avoid soluble fibers added to processed foods that add sugar substitutes made from dextrose, sorbitol, and citric acid, which can cause gas and bloating.
3. Buy veggies with flavonoids.
Remember chemistry class? You may have learned how different structures are made up of molecules. Well, certain fruits and vegetables have more molecules known as flavonoids, which make up their bright pigments.
Flavonoids are very beneficial for your digestion. A powerful antioxidant, flavonoids are found in romaine lettuce, onions, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and bell peppers. Incorporating more flavonoid-filled veggies can help you maintain healthy digestion.
4. Find a method of stress management.
Stress not only affects your mental state but can also take a toll on your physical well-being. Stress negatively affects every part of your digestive system, causing your colon to spasm or even increases the acid in your stomach, causing indigestion.
If you’re not exercising regularly, I recommend finding a workout or active activity you can do at least three times per week. It can relieve tension and release endorphins that improve your mood. Eating a healthy diet and deep breathing can also drastically relieve stress.
5. Sleep eight hours a night.
Many of my patients who happen to have GI problems also have issues falling asleep. Multiple studies have found a relationship between sleep disorders and GERD, IBS, IBD, and ulcers.
A solid eight hours of sleep is imperative to keep your digestive track healthy—and coincidentally keeps your mind and body healthy. So if you already suffer from a digestive issue, it's important to work on your sleep schedule.
An easy tip is to write down your daily tasks and ask yourself which things you can consolidate or cut out to create more sleeping hours in the day. Not only will it help by decreasing symptoms, but a full night’s rest will help your immune system fight off any infections by giving time for your antibodies to react.
6. Avoid artificial sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners can be extremely detrimental to your digestive health. Any artificial sweeteners—particularly mannitol and sorbitol—can cause diarrhea because they don’t get digested and then bacteria will break them down and cause problems.
Take note after you eat any artificial sweeteners; if it affects your stomach, you should to avoid them!
7. Prevent "leaky gut."
Many of my patients come to me with leaky gut when they're experiencing bloating, gas, cramps, digestive irregularities, and aches and pains.
Leaky gut is just a term to describe the increased intestinal permeability than can happen if there's inflammation in the intestines. Your tight junctions in your intestines typically control what passes through the lining. Someone with leaky gut will have increased passage of antigens and toxins, which result in an inflammatory cycle that can affect the whole body, not just the gut!
Leaky gut is preventable and an important issue to address. The most common cause of leaky gut is small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). To help prevent leaky gut, consider seeing a gastroenterologist to figure out a plan for you.
8. Make smart alcohol choices.
Occasional alcohol intake is fine for your digestive system. However, excessively drinking alcohol can lead to digestive issues such as heartburn and inflammation of the stomach, and it can even increase the risk of small intestine cancers and leaky gut.
Not only does alcohol create problems, it can also increase symptoms of IBS and can cause both diarrhea and constipation. Be smart about your alcohol intake and your gut will thank you.
9. Get screened.
Don’t ignore symptoms—if you're experiencing constant heartburn, diarrhea, or constipation, your digestive system is trying to tell you something. The longer you wait to visit your gastroenterologist, the more intense and severe symptoms become and the harder they become to treat.
Ignoring symptoms such as acid reflux can over time turn into Barrett’s esophagus, which if untreated can lead to cancer of the esophagus. Screenings, like those for colon cancer, are useful tools to keep you and your digestive system healthy.
If you're constantly experiencing digestive irregularities and diet changes are not making a difference, do your research. Find a medical professional, such as a gastroenterologist, who will help you diagnose your symptoms correctly and effectively. The sooner you take charge, the sooner you’re on your way to relief.