Stomach problems are a pain in the gut — and they can affect your quality of life. Before reaching for the medicine cabinet to treat occasional gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, consider changing your environment or lifestyle. Often, some minor changes can result in a healthier digestive tract.
Try these tips to maintain your GI health, and keep your digestive tract happy, healthy, and working correctly.
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Diet and GI Health
What you eat and drink passes through your digestive tract, so a healthy diet is crucial for good GI health. Eating a diet that’s too low in fiber or too high in unhealthy fats can worsen symptoms like constipation or diarrhea. Certain foods can increase symptoms like heartburn or an upset stomach after eating.
For a healthy digestive tract, follow these dietary do’s and don’ts:
- Do make sure you’re getting about 25g to 35g of fiber each day from plant-based foods. This includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. The fiber in these foods helps move waste through your GI tract, preventing constipation.
- Do drink plenty of water — about two liters per day. During digestion, the contents of your stomach mixes with water in your body so it can move through your intestines. Constipation is often a result of not drinking enough water.
- Do eat probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, or kimchi. Probiotics are live bacteria like the ones that naturally live in your gut. They play an essential role in digestion and overall gut health. Getting these “good bacteria” naturally from food sources may be better than from using commercial probiotic supplements.
- Do keep a food and symptom journal to keep track of how certain foods affect your digestive system. Lactose in dairy foods might be to blame for ongoing diarrhea, or foods like broccoli or onions might trigger gas and bloating. Consider working with a dietitian if you need help finding potential triggers and good substitutes.
- Don’t eat excessive quantities of red and processed meats like hamburgers, bacon, hot dogs, or sausages. Compounds created when you cook these meats may increase your risk of colon cancer. Stick to proteins like poultry, fish, beans, tofu, or eggs instead.
- Don’t eat snack foods or fast foods frequently. These are often high in sugar and refined fats and might contribute to symptoms like diarrhea or heartburn. Try to plan ahead so you have healthy ingredients available to make quick meals and snacks.
- Don’t drink too much coffee or alcohol. Both can irritate the lining of your esophagus and stomach, causing pain or inflammation. These are also linked with worse heartburn symptoms.
Lifestyle Factors and Digestive Symptoms
Besides what you eat, certain lifestyle factors significantly impact your GI health.
According to Dr. Sunny Tao, UPMC gastroenterologist, “good gastrointestinal health starts with taking care of both the body and the mind. Our gut relies on the nourishment we provide, but our state of mind can affect how it performs.”
Stress can affect how your entire digestive tract works. Emotional stress often worsens symptoms like belly pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
When you’re under emotional stress, your GI tract might speed up, causing diarrhea, or slow down, causing constipation. It’s not uncommon to experience nausea or vomiting when you’re stressed.
Try different mind-body therapies like meditation, yoga, hypnosis, or cognitive behavioral therapy if you have chronic stress. All can help you learn to manage stress, which may help reduce digestive symptoms.
Poor sleep quality is another factor that has an effect on your GI health. When you don’t sleep well, you’re less productive and more likely to feel stressed.
Sleep affects how your entire body works, including your digestive tract. So, aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
Exercise and regular physical activity can help improve symptoms of constipation, abdominal bloating, and gas retention. Studies recently showed that regular exercise can lead to favorable changes to the gut microbiome, the diverse array of microorganisms that normally live in the digestive tract, which can improve overall gut health. Exercise is also associated with improved sleep and mental health as well as lower stress, all of which, play important roles in how our GI tract functions.
Timing of Meals
Late-night eating — especially large, heavy meals — can increase heartburn symptoms. That’s because larger meals put pressure on the muscle between your stomach and esophagus, causing it to relax.
When that muscle is too relaxed, stomach acid can back up into your esophagus, especially when you lie down. If you have frequent heartburn, try to eat a smaller dinner, and try to stop eating at least three to four hours before bed.
When to See a Doctor
Occasionally, GI problems will improve with dietary and lifestyle changes. But if your stomach troubles don’t resolve, visit your gastroenterologist or health care provider. You should also contact them if you have any of these symptoms:
- Heartburn that’s ongoing or affects your sleep.
- Changes in your bowel habits, like diarrhea or constipation, especially if it lasts more than a few days.
- Vomiting that doesn’t seem related to a stomach bug.
- Blood in your stool.
- Severe stomach pain, especially with a fever.
- Abdominal symptoms associated with unexplained weight loss.
These issues might be warning signs of a more serious GI condition, and you should consider scheduling an appointment with your health care provider.
About Digestive Disorders
The UPMC Digestive Disorders Center cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Whether your digestive condition is common or complicated, our experts can help. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Find a GI doctor near you.