“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Michael Pollan’s advice makes eating well sound deliciously simple. And for many people, it is! However, for those of us who live with digestive problems, the dinner table can feel like a minefield. When you’re never certain which foods will trigger gastric distress, every bite is filled with worry.
That’s no way to eat, and it’s certainly no way to live. Gastrointestinal disorders have a big impact on your quality of life. Not only must you deal with the discomfort of digestive problems, but worrying about flare-ups also affects your ability to work, socialize, and live life to the fullest. Thankfully, many digestive problems are effectively managed through natural methods, and some of them can be prevented entirely.
Digestive Disorders: A Common Problem
Digestive ailments affect millions of people every day, but since the topic rarely comes up in polite conversation, we don’t realize our friends and neighbors are struggling with the same digestive woes as we are.
The causes of digestive problems are complex. Some, such as celiac disease and Crohn’s disease, are genetic and can only be managed, not cured. Others are a result of undiagnosed food intolerances or structural abnormalities. However, lifestyle choices play a role in many gastrointestinal problems.
Diet and Digestion
What and how you eat has the biggest impact on gastrointestinal health. If you eat a diet low in fiber and high in processed foods, digestive problems are inevitable. Eating foods you’re intolerant to, eating too fast, and a low-variety diet also increases your risk of stomach problems.
The best diet for gut health incorporates a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, plant-based proteins, and high-fiber foods. Water, not sugary, caffeinated, or alcoholic beverages, should be the primary source of hydration, and meals should be eaten slowly and chewed thoroughly to make the digestive tract’s job easier. It’s also beneficial to focus on keeping “good bacteria” in your system happy. For example, you can boost bacteria like lactobacillus through eating probiotics like fermented foods (think sauerkraut and tempeh), or help pump up bifidobacteria in your gut through prebiotics like whole grains, bananas, and artichokes.
People who eat clean but still experience stomach upset should keep a food diary to identify trigger ingredients (VeryWell Health explains how). If it’s making healthy food choices that are the challenge, a meal delivery service takes the effort out of meal planning so eating well is easier.
How Exercise, Sleep, and Stress Affect Digestive Health
Diet isn’t the only factor that influences digestive health. Your other lifestyle choices also affect how well your GI tract functions.
Studies have found exercise to be effective at preventing and managing IBS, constipation, GERD, diverticulitis, and gallstones. However, the intensity and timing of exercise matters. Read more about how exercise affects different digestive disorders at the GI Society.
In the short term, stress disrupts digestion and causes stomach pain, nausea, and indigestion. When stress is prolonged, it can actually contribute to digestive problems like heartburn and ulcers in an otherwise healthy person.
Stress is especially bad for people with existing GI disorders like IBS, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis, as stress worsens symptoms of these already distressing conditions. Managing daily stress and learning relaxation strategies are key to living with these disorders.
If your current job is causing significant stress and anxiety, it may be time to start a new career. For example, if you’d like a more fulfilling profession, you could become a nurse or teacher. Fortunately, online programs are affordable and offer flexible learning options so you can keep working as you learn.
Sleep plays a role in every aspect of health, and digestion is no different. Research has found that poor sleep diminishes the number of beneficial bacteria present in the gut and triggers inflammation. This makes it easier for digestive problems to develop and worsens symptoms of existing ailments. Make quality sleep a priority, and if digestive problems are disrupting your sleep, take steps to solve it, like sleeping on your left side and avoiding meals before bed.
Eating should be a joyful experience, not a stressful one. Unfortunately for people living with gastrointestinal ailments, food can seem like the enemy, not the answer. Rather than giving up on your gut, consider how your lifestyle can be a tool for healthier digestion.
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