To a great extent, we owe recent improvements in digestive health to President Ronald Reagan. During his second term of office, the president sought to stem the tide of gastrointestinal illness. At the time, digestive disease was widespread, the #1 cause of hospitalization in the US. To encourage more research into cures, the president instituted “National Digestive Disease Awareness Month.”

In May 1988, when the president made his proclamation, digestive disease was the #2 cause of disability. Now, 30 years later, it’s dropped a notch, currently ranked #3.

Therefore, we must continue striving for digestive wellness. This blog explains how to help your gut run smoothly. Perhaps some information will be new for you.

1. Relieve stress with exercise and relaxation techniques.

Tension hampers digestion, promoting constipation, heartburn, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and irritable bowel syndrome. Here’s a brief video explaining how stress affects digestion.

Exercise melts anxiety by releasing endorphins, joy-producing hormones. It also curbs the output of cortisol, a hormone secreted by our adrenals when we’re edgy. Cardio exercise strengthens abs, propelling food through the digestive tract. It also revs blood flow to abdominal organs, improving their function.

Every day, try to engage in vigorous activity that’s fun for you. For example, if weather permits, you might go hiking, biking, or walking outdoors. Other means of taming stress are dancing, singing, gardening, meditating, yoga, tai chi, and professional massage. Together, exercise and relaxation techniques help to prevent digestive problems.

2. Take a probiotic supplement.

A healthy colon houses 100 trillion friendly bacteria, with numerous benefits. Called “probiotics,” these microbes destroy pathogens and aid nutrient assimilation. They produce folate, Vitamin K, and fatty acids. Probiotics also assist the movement of food through the large intestine.

However, probiotics are depleted by alcohol, antibiotics, smoking, insufficient dietary fiber, and stress. When harmful bacteria predominate, we’re more prone to gastrointestinal illness.

By improving digestion and immune strength, probiotics are therapeutic for many GI disorders. Among them are irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, diarrhea, constipation, peptic ulcers, and ulcerative colitis.

When shopping for a probiotic supplement, choose one with at least the following strains – L. acidophilus, B. longum, B. bifidum, L. plantarum, and L. rhamnosus. Also, ensure that each dose delivers between 20 and 50 billion colony forming units or CFUs. The label should state “guaranteed live” through the expiration date.

Take your probiotic on an empty stomach, preferably 30 minutes before breakfast. Without the impediment of food, the bacteria will quickly get to your large intestine, where they need to colonize.

3. Assess your fiber intake.

Fiber consists of non-digestible plant foods. Our diets must include roughage for several reasons. Fiber adds bulk to stools, facilitating evacuation. It lowers cholesterol and blood sugar, reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Probiotics need fiber to survive! Additionally, roughage is filling, preventing overeating.

Fruits and Vegetables

In 2005, the Dietary Guidelines for fruits and vegetables were revised. Currently recommended is five to 13 daily servings, the specific amount depending on caloric intake.

On a 2,000 calorie diet, the daily goal is nine servings or 4½ cups of produce, roughly divided between fruits and veggies. That probably seems like a lot of fiber, right? Still, it’s what we need to avoid digestive disorders, such as constipation and diverticulitis.

So, eat a range of colorful produce daily. For vegetables, try to vary between five types – orange, dark green, leafy, starchy, and beans. Regarding fruits, choose fresh and frozen kinds, without added sugar.

Nuts and Seeds

Did you know that nuts and seeds also have fiber? Good sources are almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds. Aim to eat ¼ cup of unsalted nuts and seeds per day.

Whole Grains

Round out your diet with whole grains, and your gut will be humming along nicely. As of 2011, the Dietary Guidelines for whole grains were also changed. Aim for three to five servings daily.

Tasty examples are whole wheat English muffins, oatmeal, quinoa, and low-fat popcorn. Rather than white rice, choose red, black, brown, or wild. Here’s a comprehensive list of yummy whole grain options.

Fiber Grams

The daily recommended amounts of fiber are based on gender and age:

  • women under 50 = 25 grams
  • men under 50 = 38 grams
  • women 50+ = 21 grams
  • men 50+ = 30 grams

Try to familiarize yourself with the fiber amounts in whole foods. To help monitor your intake, here’s a chart of high-fiber foods, along with the grams they supply.

4. Drink sufficient water.

photo of woman jogger in the park drinking waterOur digestive systems need water to function well. Water helps you absorb nutrients. It also softens fiber, so it moves quickly through your digestive tract, preventing constipation. Without water, all the fantastic fiber you eat hardens, clogging your colon and generating gas.

Then, straining to evacuate raises intestinal pressure, forming pockets in the colon wall, termed diverticula. When food and bacteria lodge in diverticula, they can get inflamed and infected, a condition called diverticulitis. Difficult bowel movements can also cause hemorrhoids, anal fissures, and rectal bleeding.

There are two ways to ensure you’re drinking enough water. One is a formula based on body weight. Divide your weight in pounds by two. The result is the ounces of water you require daily. For instance, a person weighing 160 pounds needs 80 ounces or 10 cups of water each day.

Perspiration further raises the need for water. Every hour during hot weather or robust activity, drink an additional quart.

The second way to gauge hydration is by noting urine color. Dark urine means the kidneys are laboring to conserve water. When well-hydrated, your urine is either clear, pale yellow, or light yellow. A pale honey color indicates borderline dehydration. Dark yellow and amber mean your cells are pining for water. Orange and brown urine signifies a medical emergency. Here’s a color chart for reference.

Other signs of dehydration are thirst, headache, parched lips, muscle cramping, and feeling light-headed, irritable, or tired. To stay well-hydrated, throughout each day, sip from a pint-sized water bottle, refilling it as needed to reach your water quota.

5. Avoid inflammation triggers.

Irritation of the digestive tract can both cause and worsen GI disorders, such as pancreatitis, peptic ulcer disease, heartburn, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.

Common inflammatory agents are tobacco, caffeine, alcohol, fatty foods, and processed sugar. When medically possible, avoid long-term use of steroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin, Motrin, Advil, and Aleve.

6. Wash your hands frequently.

Always thoroughly clean your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer when preparing food, before eating, pre and post bathroom use, and after handling pets, garbage, raw meat, and diapers. Regular hand-washing slashes the risk of digestive illness.

Tip – After rinsing your hands of soap, close the faucet with a paper towel, rather than your bare hands. Otherwise, you’ll re-contaminate them by touching the dirty spigots.

7. Eat mini-meals.

Large meals burden digestive organs. Symptoms are bloating, heartburn, and acid reflux, the backwash of stomach contents into the esophagus.

Rather than three sizeable meals daily, eat five mini-meals. Each should combine healthy protein, carbs, and fat and be within the 100 to 400 calorie range. Remember to include fibrous foods – totaling 2 cups of fruit and 2½ cups of veggies, spread across your day. Here’s guidance on how to prepare mini-meals, along with sample recipes.

Note – While eating, take your time and chew thoroughly, reducing the likelihood of bloating and indigestion. To curb heartburn and reflux, avoid lying down after meals for at least two hours.

8. Seek professional GI care.

If you have ongoing or severe digestive symptoms, don’t delay medical treatment. Also, see a gastroenterologist if there’s a family history of digestive disease, even if you’re currently symptom-free. Early diagnosis and preventive steps can spare you future discomfort. Here’s a video clip, describing some common digestive disorders.

Our four board-certified gastroenterologists will skillfully diagnose and treat the source of digestive problems. We also have a registered dietician on staff, available for nutritional guidance and meal planning.

Digestive Care Physicians has four North Atlanta offices, in Cumming, Lawrenceville, Johns Creek, and Alpharetta. Our locations are convenient to residents in Milton, Suwanee, Duluth, Marietta, Roswell, Canton, Sandy Springs, and neighboring towns. To schedule an appointment, call us at (770) 227-2222 or (470) 210-7766 for the Lawrenceville location.

Gut Wisdom

To avoid digestive illness, exercise and de-stress daily, take a probiotic supplement, get adequate dietary fiber, drink sufficient water, avoid inflammation triggers, wash your hands often, and eat five mini-meals daily, rather than three large ones. For severe and ongoing GI symptoms, obtain professional care.

On this 30th anniversary of National Digestive Disease Awareness Month, we affirm our commitment to your digestive well-being. Share what you’ve learned from this blog, and together, we can help our fellow Americans enjoy better health.

Note – The information posted here cannot substitute for professional medical advice. For all GI concerns, contact the board-certified doctors at Digestive Care Physicians.

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