Of all our bodily functions, we probably focus more on our digestive system than any other. I’m sure one reason for this is that we have plenty of opportunities to ‘touch base’ with our digestive tract and take a reading. After all, you get signals from your digestive system all day long – everything from “feed me!” to “could you loosen the belt a little?“ to “air comin’ your way!” Your digestive system has a way of speaking up – and has a lot to say about what you put in it… as well as how much and how often.
Many of us eat too much or eat too fast. We don’t eat enough fiber. We skip meals – and then subject our systems to a gigantic plate of food. Considering how much use and abuse our digestive systems have to withstand, it’s a wonder we don’t suffer more than we do. Gas, bloating, “having a hard time going” – not a day goes by that someone doesn’t complain to me about one of these common digestive problems. Let’s look at what you can do to ease any strain on your digestive system.
Gas production is a normal part of the digestive process and, unless it’s excessive, usually indicates a healthy intake of fiber and a well-functioning digestive tract. Most foods that contain carbohydrate – anything from beans to bagels – are not completely broken down during digestion, so the resident bacteria in your intestines take over, producing gas as they complete the digestive process. The average person passes gas about 14 times a day, releasing about a half-liter of gas in the process.
Some people describe feeling bloated after eating – sort of a ‘puffed up’ sensation that comes on rather quickly, mostly in the upper abdomen. It is often the result of air that gets trapped in your digestive tract, which can come from a surprising number of sources. Often, it’s simply a matter of swallowing a lot of air while you eat – which often happens if you eat too fast or do a lot of talking while you’re chewing. Sometimes carbonated beverages can leave you feeling bloated since you’re taking in a lot of air along with your liquid. Some people get that bloated feeling when they eat a fatty meal – fat delays the time it takes for food to leave your stomach, so it can leave you feeling uncomfortable.
Irregularity is one of the most common digestive complaints – it’s also one of the most misunderstood. Many people think if they don’t visit the bathroom on a daily basis, they’ve got a problem. But if things are moving smoothly – whether it’s three times a day or three times a week – you probably don’t have anything to worry about.
Fiber is the structural portion of a plant, so it’s found in good-for-you foods like fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains. Adults should be eating in the neighborhood of 30 grams of fiber a day, but the average intake among adults in the US is only about a third of that. Our busy lifestyles contribute to the problem – when we’re eating on the go, we’re less likely to find the fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Aim to have a fruit or vegetable with every meal or snack, toss some beans into a soup or salad, and choose whole grains over refined “white” breads, cereals, rice and pasta.
Your digestive system is home to thousands of strains of beneficial bacteria that help to break down foods that are resistant to normal digestion – which allows you to obtain more nutrients from your foods. The bacteria in your system also help to keep the growth of other, potentially harmful, bacteria at bay – thus promoting healthy digestion.While the idea of consuming bacteria in the diet may not sound appealing, the probiotic bacteria found in yogurt and other fermented foods can promote digestive health. Aside from yogurt, you can pick up some of these “good” bacteria in other fermented soy products (miso, tempeh, kefir), as well as in pickled foods like cucumber pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi.
Fluid helps the fibers in foods to “swell” and helps to add more bulk to the material passing through the lower digestive tract, which keeps things running smoothly. Watery fruits and vegetables go a long way towards meeting fluid needs, but it’s still important to drink fluids throughout the day, too.
Exercise isn’t just for the muscles you can see, it’s good for the smooth muscles of your digestive tract, too. Exercise stimulates the muscles to contract, which keeps things “moving along”. Exercise is also a great stress-reducer – which makes it particularly good for those whose digestive systems act up when they get stressed out.
When you go too long without eating, a couple of things are likely to happen – you’ll eat quickly because you’re so hungry, and you’ll eat too much because you’re starving. Either way, you could end up with a touch of indigestion. Your digestive system is likely to be a lot happier if you eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day.
Often when people are bothered by gas, they figure the best thing to do is to eliminate ‘gassy’ foods like beans or broccoli from the diet. But rather than eliminating these healthy foods, try eating just small amounts over several days to give your system time to adjust. Similarly, if you’re trying to add more fiber to your diet, work your way up to the recommended 25-30 grams of fiber gradually.
When you eat too fast, not only does it lessen the enjoyment of your meal, but you’re more likely to swallow air which can lead to gas and bloating. And, when you eat too quickly, you’re more likely to overeat since it takes your stomach about 20 minutes to tell your brain that you’re full… and that can lead to further digestive discomfort. Lastly, when nature calls, be sure to listen. Too many people put off visits to the restroom if the urge to “go” strikes at an inconvenient time. Sure, the urge may pass – but if you put it off, you’re more likely to have trouble getting the job done.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.