10 tips for better digestion

Perhaps we ate the wrong thing, too much of a good thing or simply too much? Maybe it was a stomach bug, or food poisoning? Or perhaps it’s just age… or nerves.

It’s easy to excuse uncomfortable symptoms like irregularity, cramps, bloating, nausea and heart burn and reach for an over-the-counter product. However, our health and well being relies on our ability to properly digest foods and absorb nutrients, not to mention eliminate wastes.

We may not be able to control the effects of aging or the “stomach” we’re born with, but here are some ways to keep your digestive system happier.

Tips for healthier digestion

Chew thoroughly. Good digestion starts in your mouth — that is, breaking up food and saturating it with saliva. Our “spit” contains amylase, the enzyme that helps break down carbohydrates, so it’s important to mash up those grains.

Get your daily dose of fibre. Not only will it help prevent constipation, it will add bulk to help prevent diarrhea. How much is enough? Exact numbers may differ depending on age and sex, but here’s a general guideline from the Mayo Clinic: For people under age 50, males should get 38 g of fibre per day and females should get 25 g. Over age 50, those numbers drop to 30 g and 21 g respectively.

If you aren’t near these guidelines, gradually increase your fibre intake over a period of several weeks to allow your insides to adapt. You don’t need to load up on supplements — that healthy, balanced diet we should be aiming for contains plenty of fibre-rich foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables and legumes.

Keep active. There’s something to be said for “walking it off”. Physical activity helps keep the digestive system moving and helps maintain a normal weight — another factor for healthy digestion. You don’t have to fit in a full workout every day or get moving after a meal, but regular activity like a short walk or taking the stairs can make a difference.

When nature calls, answer. It’s better to eliminate waste sooner rather than later because it loses fluid the longer it stays around — and becomes more difficult and uncomfortable to move.

Drink plenty of fluids. In case you didn’t take the hint above, fluid is a good thing. The intestines secrete it to keep things moving.

And if you’re adding extra fibre to your diet, experts warn you should also up your intake of fluids to compensate. This often-overlooked step can help you dodge symptoms like gas and constipation as your body adjusts.

Eat at regular intervals. Yes, it’s okay to snack and it’s still a bad idea to skip meals — even if we’re in a rush. Eating regular meals and snacks not only keeps your metabolism on track, it helps the passage of food through your digestive system and keeps stomach acid at bay.

Avoid known triggers. Some foods are simply easier to digest than others, while certain foods can trigger acid production or cause the esophageal sphincter (which keeps stomach acid from splashing up into the esophagus) to relax. This list of potentially problematic foods includes high-fat, spicy or fried foods, citrus fruits, foods or beverages containing caffeine (like coffee and chocolate). If something “disagrees” with you, experts recommend avoiding it as much as possible.

Identify food sensitivities. Even healthy foods — or components of foods — can cause upset if we have an intolerance — that is, we’re missing a chemical or digestive enzyme needed to digest and absorb it. Intolerances can be tricky to pinpoint because symptoms may not show up for hours or days after you eat it, so a little professional help may be needed to identify the culprit. Once the cause is identified, you can avoid the food — or take a digestive enzyme supplement to compensate.

Not to be confused with food intolerances, food allergies — which involve an immune system response — can also affect the gastrointestinal track, usually within the first hours of eating a food. Food allergies and food intolerances can develop well into adulthood, so a “safe” food in the past may not be quite so agreeable now.

(For more information, see Food allergy or intolerance?)

Consider a probiotic supplement. Our insides are host to healthy bacteria that help ward off harmful bacteria, support our immune system and promote regularity. Probiotics replenish and maintain these beneficial microbes, especially if they’re wiped out by infections or medications. Many foods contain probiotics, but the amount may not be sufficient to do more than help you digest that food.

For the best benefit, many experts recommend taking a supplement on an empty stomach, like half an hour before a meal. Make sure to buy a good quality brand, and keep the container in your fridge or freezer. (For more details, see Some germs do you good.)  

When to seek help from an expert

It may be embarrassing to discuss, but your doctor should be aware of any digestive issue you’re experiencing. It’s important to find the cause — and the right treatment. Left undiagnosed and improperly treated, some digestive disorders can have long-term consequences — like a lack of key nutrients in the body, permanent damage to the esophagus or intestine and an increased risk for cancer.

Even some of those over-the-counter remedies can lead to health issues. For instance, a recent study demonstrated that proton-pump inhibitors (which are used to shut down the stomach’s acid producing mechanisms to fight acid reflux) can lead to an increased risk for fractures or infection.

Furthermore, some serious conditions like thyroid disease, heart attacks and ovarian cancer can present with gastrointestinal symptoms. Those seemingly common symptoms may require a closer look.

When should you see a doctor? Occasional upsets aren’t cause for alarm, but you should see a doctor if you experience

– Persistent symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain.

– Symptoms that wake you up at night.

– Chest pain.

– Unexplained weight loss.

– Pain in the stomach or abdomen that gets better or worse when you eat.

– Difficulty swallowing, or a feeling of a lump in your throat.

– Persistent fever.

– Frequent heartburn that isn’t helped by over-the-counter antacids.

Some symptoms — like chest pain or dried blood (specks which look like coffee grounds) in the stool — could require immediate attention at an emergency room.

For more information about digestive health and digestive disorders, visit:
The Canadian Digestive Health Foundation
The National Digestive Disease Information Clearinghouse

Additional sources: About.com, EatRightOntario.ca, the MayoClinic.com, WebMD

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Jon Schulte

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