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I Have a "Gut Feeling..."

Keys to Digestive Health

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Every day we discover more about the important role the digestive system plays in our overall health and well-being. Our “guts” can tell us a lot about what’s happening in our bodies. Believe it or not, “gut” is an actual scientific term that refers to the alimentary canal, or the tube through which our food is delivered through the digestive organs. It is also referred to as the gastrointestinal (or “GI”) tract and includes the route from mouth to anus—input through output!

So there’s a lot going on in the digestive system, and most of it we take for granted—until something goes wrong. This might be a little creepy to think about, but your gut contains, literally, trillions of microorganisms living in a complex ecosystem. Some of them we classify as good, and some bad; they can be affected by many factors, including diet, antibiotics, and other medications. The trick to optimal digestive health is to keep these microorganisms and bacteria in balance. There are proactive steps we can take to make this happen.

A healthy diet is critical to good digestion. It should be evenly balanced with:

  • Lean protein, such as chicken, fish, lean beef, and moderate amounts of dairy products. (There are lots of healthy protein choices widely available these days—whenever possible, choose free-range or grass fed meats that are not raised with steroids and antibiotics. They are a bit more expensive, but worth it in the long run.)
  • Healthy carbohydrates, mostly from vegetables and fruits; some bread/grains in moderation are okay for most people. (I am also a fan of foods grown organically without pesticides. Again, a bit more expensive but worth the investment in your health.)
  • Good fats from sources like avocados, nuts and seeds, olive oil.
  • Plenty of bulk/fiber, which is found in fresh vegetables, beans, and whole grains.

Of course, it’s okay to splurge on dessert or some French fries once in a while, but these should be treats, not staples. Sugar, fried foods and fast foods can wreak havoc on your digestive system.  And highly acidic foods, like orange juice, tomatoes, and even chocolate, can equal digestive disaster for some people.  Ask your doctor about coffee and alcoholic beverages. It may be perfectly fine for you to have a cup of coffee in the morning and a glass of wine with dinner but, for some people, they cause problems.

A nutritionist can be an invaluable ally if you are having trouble with digestion and foods. They will typically have you keep a food journal for a week. That is, write down absolutely everything you eat, when you eat it, and how your body feels afterward. This process can be surprising and enlightening! The nutritionist will be able to look at your journal and make recommendations about specific changes to your food intake and habits that will likely make you feel much better—probably without intervention of medications.

The bottom line with food is this: pay attention to what you eat. If it bothers you, stop eating it and see what happens. Too many of us don’t listen to what our bodies are trying to tell us.

Get your regularly scheduled colonoscopy. This important screening procedure can give us a wealth of information about what’s going on internally and rule out any abnormalities (such as diverticula – small sacs that form in the wall of the colon - and polyps, precancerous lesions). Everyone should have their first colonoscopy at age 50. If the results are normal, you should get one every 10 years thereafter until age 80; if there are any concerns or interventions required, you may need a follow-up screening every three to five years.

Drink the right amount of water. Staying hydrated—giving your body enough water—is important to optimal functioning of all biological systems. Yet most people do not drink enough water. Water keeps the digestive process moving throughout the gut, so dehydration can bring everything to a halt, causing constipation.

On the other hand, as we get older, our kidney function tends to decline and, for some people, too much water can be harmful. Ask your primary care provider to check your electrolyte level (this should be something that shows up on your blood work at your annual wellness visits) and to advise you about proper water intake.

Pay attention to your poop. While you may feel uncomfortable talking about your excretory processes, it is important to pay attention to your day-to-day output and know what is normal for you. Most people should have a smooth, well-formed bowl movement every one to three days. Temporary constipation or diarrhea may be caused by foods, medications, travel, or other conditions, but any troubling or ongoing conditions should be reported to your primary care provider.  While such symptoms can be horrible enough on their own, they can also point to serious medical conditions that require attention.

Consider taking probiotics. There’s a lot of talk about probiotics these days as we’re becoming more aware of their health benefits. Probiotics are organisms (yeast or bacteria) that come in supplements like capsules or tablets, and are also found in yogurt and other fermented foods. It doesn’t really matter which form you choose in (supplement vs. yogurt); however, some studies are showing that capsules need to stay refrigerated to keep the cultures alive. I generally recommend either Align or Florastor brands. With yogurt, while some brands are now labeled as probiotic, all types contain the active cultures. Just take care to avoid large amounts of added sugar in yogurt, which might be labeled as high fructose corn syrup.

We know that antibiotics can tip the balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in the colon the wrong way. So, when I prescribe an antibiotic to a patient, I also prescribe a probiotic. And although the jury is still out on this, some studies are showing that regular use of probiotics may have immune system-boosting and other health benefits.

Cleanses, colonics, and detoxing? Although there are people and practitioners who believe that the colon needs to be “cleaned out” from time to time using enemas, colon hydrotherapy, detoxing fasts, and other such methods, I do not recommend them. I’m not convinced that there is any good evidence to support the benefits of such procedures and, in fact, they can be harmful in some circumstances. If you feel this is something you would like to explore, please talk to your primary care provider about it first.

Listen to your gut instinct. Conditions like gas, bloating, heartburn, abdominal pain, and irregular bowel movements are not “normal” and you don’t have to live with them. There are changes you can make to feel better and have a healthier digestive system. Talk to your primary care provider and take proactive steps today!

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