Many people live with digestive problems, thinking it’s normal to feel not-that-great most of the time—that is, until issues like bloating, diarrhea, IBS and/or constipation start to make it physically impossible to get to the 9am department meeting or Junior’s soccer game.
Although it's very common, gastro-intestinal distress is not normal—it’s your body’s way of telling you that your gut isn’t functioning properly and needs your attention. The good news is that the majority of belly complaints can be treated relatively easily, resulting in a well-functioning digestive system that will energize you, help your immune system, and prevent all sorts of diseases. Ignore it and you may find your stomach’s bad behavior ruling your life, curtailing activities, bloating you up and making you feeling lousy most of the time. Clearly, this is no way to live!
Here are some thoughts on how to take charge of your belly, banish the bloat, and support the health of both your body and your mind:
1. Soothe your brain, and you'll soothe your belly.
When it comes to restoring the gut to optimal function, I always remind my patients of the gut-brain connection. An agitated brain can manifest itself in the belly with stress-induced GI disorders. When combined with poor eating habits and/or medications, this can create food allergies, IBS, ulcers, and more. These GI conditions, in turn, can tip the balance of microbial flora in the gut—the cauldron for our body’s immunity.
When bad bacteria outweigh the good, the lining of the GI tract can break down, allowing leakage and a wide range of inflammatory diseases—from skin allergies, urinary issues, and kidney problems to arthritis, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, arthritis and skin disorders.
To help soothe all this the stress-induced inflammation, the first thing to do is to add stress-reducing techniques such as meditation, exercise, or yoga to your routine. The key is to get into the habit of becoming aware of when your stress levels are rising, and make time to consciously bring those levels down with stress-reducing techniques. Another soothing activity? Sleep! Aim for 7 hours of good, restful, sleep; it’s like a vacation for your brain.
2. Chew the daylights out of your food.
Your mouth is where digestion begins and saliva is the first step in the digestive process, so help the process along by chewing thoroughly break down the food before swallowing it. The more “processing” you do in your mouth, the easier it will be on your digestive tract, resulting in less bloating ‘round the mid-section.
3. Give your GI system a heads-up.
To stoke the GI engine, whenever possible, try to munch on something bitter before your meal. It will help stimulate your body’s own digestive juices and aid the start of the digestion process. A small salad with arugula or dandelion root is a great way to literally get the juices flowing. Another idea: take a teaspoon of Swedish bitters before each meal. And if that’s not possible, try one to two tablespoons of Apple Cider Vinegar in a glass of water before eating.
4. Make mealtimes your unwinding time: savor bites and don’t rush.
Whoa, Nelly! Where's the fire? Inhaling a meal as if it were your last can create and exacerbate digestive problems. Eating slowly gives your body enough time to gear up, stoke the digestive fires and signal to the GI system that it’s time for digestion to begin. Gulping your food in a hurry is akin to putting a pile of logs in the fireplace and expecting a crackling fire to materialize without striking a match. As a general rule of thumb (with the exception of meal replacement shakes), if what you’re eating doesn’t require utensils or, for that matter a plate, chances are, you’re probably eating it too fast.
5. Drink like a grown-up.
There are hundreds of reasons not to drink soda or carbonated beverages—and here’s another: they bloat your belly! You know the saying “garbage in, garbage out?” The same is true for bubbles. They go in one end and eventually out the other (with or without sound effects!), but in the meantime they tend to pause in your belly, causing your mid-section to temporarily inflate. Why do that to your poor belly? Another bloat-avoidance tip: don’t drink through straws or chew gum, as both activities send extra air into the mid-section and can further inflate your belly.
6. Shop with your whole body in mind.
All the digestion tricks in the book won’t keep bloating and GI problems at bay if you’re eating nutritionally bankrupt foods. So give your body the nutritional support it craves by buying whole, unrefined, unprocessed, high quality foods. Eat organic and local to get the most bang for your nutritional buck. Your belly will know the difference and behave better for it. Concerned about the added gas some veggies can cause? Eat smaller servings to start and gradually increase veggie serving sizes over the course of a week or two to give your body time to adjust.
7. Give your belly a bedtime.
Every part of your body needs its rest; even your belly needs a time out. The easiest time to do it? After your evening meal. Get into the habit of resting your digestive system for at least 10 hours at night. For example, if you eat breakfast a 7am, try not to eat anything after 9pm. Another tip: don’t eat within 2 hours of bedtime.
8. Take a vacay from processed foods, sugars, alcohol, gluten, and dairy.
You can take the resting process a bit further by doing my free Daily Living Eating Plan for at least 2 weeks. You'll eliminate all refined sugar, processed foods, alcohol, gluten and dairy. Notice how your digestion usually improves.
9. Yum! More bacteria, please!
Help your belly along by adding probiotics, aka “good bacteria” to the mix. Add fermented foods to your plate plus a probiotic supplement. Boosting good bacteria is one of the simplest ways to restore the gut’s bacterial balance and start repairing gastrointestinal systems under siege.
10. Give your gut a roadmap.
To help support the GI tract and the immune system, I take a multi-faceted approach called The 4R Program, which is an extremely effective way to address gastrointestinal dysfunctions and promote gastrointestinal health. Developed by Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D. and his associates at the Functional Medicine Institute, the 4R Program simplifies the complex interactions in gastrointestinal health by asking four questions and designing a program of appropriate health-supporting measures based on a patient’s responses.
Here’s to a happier and healthier belly!