You’ve probably trusted your gut when making certain decisions. But did you know you should also rely on your digestive system when it comes to your overall health and wellness?
Digestive hiccups like heartburn, gas, bloating and constipation are reflections of what’s happening throughout your body. “We have more bacteria in our bodies than our own cells,” said Dr. Jessica Hafner, Holland Hospital General Surgery. “That’s why maintaining the health of your digestive system is so important. Irregularities in gut health can result in lapses in immunity. Gut bacteria also helps us absorb vital nutrients that are essential to fighting illnesses.”
So how do you keep your gut healthy and happy? Start by following these tips:
- Fill up on fiber (at least 25 grams/day). Fiber helps you stay regular and fills you up, too––supporting a healthy weight. “Plant foods like whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits and veggies are rich in fiber. Research suggests the more plant foods you eat, the more diverse your gut bacteria, which can help increase your defense against a multitude of health conditions,” said Lynsey Hargrove, registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), Holland Hospital Healthy Life Programs.
- Drink enough fluids, especially water. Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages can actually dehydrate you and make constipation worse.
- Avoid heartburn by quitting smoking (if you smoke); drinking alcohol in moderation; eating smaller meals more often; not eating anything at least three hours before you go to bed; forgoing fatty, spicy and other trigger foods (e.g., chocolate, peppermint); and raising the head of your bed six to eight inches. If you have persistent heartburn that won’t go away, make an appointment with your health care provider to check for a more serious condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Left untreated, GERD or acid reflux can sometimes lead to significant health complications, such as Barrett’s esophagus.
- Sooth stress. To combat heartburn and nurture better digestion, quell your stress. Yoga, meditation, journaling and therapy are all effective ways to lower angst and anxiety.
- Eat or take probiotics, which increase the amount of good bacteria in your gut. Some foods that naturally contain probiotics (or have probiotics added to them) include yogurt, tempeh (fermented soybeans), kimchi and kombucha. While eating a varied, balanced and nutrient-dense diet offers gut health advantages over supplementation, taking probiotic supplements can also be beneficial. “Probiotic supplements are not ‘one size fits all,’” Hargrove said. “To work effectively, it’s important to find the right kind for the specific health condition or symptom and take it for the right amount of time. Your doctor or a registered dietitian can help you find the probiotic supplement that’s best for you.”
- Stay on the move. Exercise is not only good for your heart and waistline, but also gets your colon moving (promoting regular bowl movements) and can help manage the symptoms of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). “Maintaining constant, frequent activity is good for you for so many reasons, including promoting optimal gut health,” Dr. Hafner said. “However, to avoid indigestion, try to schedule exercise before meals or wait at least an hour after eating.”
- Rest up. Poor sleep can wreak havoc on your gut bacteria, potentially leading to other health issues.
If you have digestive symptoms that persist, talk to your doctor. Don’t have a primary care provider? Holland Hospital can help you find one.