Autumn is amazing for many reasons, but mostly because it’s a comfortable time of year—and nothing adds comfort to our lives quite like food. So the season is also associated with eating, with ever-present Halloween goodies followed by Thanksgiving, which then ushers in the holiday season and even more festive fare.
For many Americans, however, this time of year can be hard to digest. That’s because almost one in four Americans—an estimated sixty to seventy million—suffers from gastrointestinal (or GI) conditions. It gets worse as you age, too: approximately one-third of people sixty-five and older have such conditions. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however. In many respects, we can determine how our digestion affects us, simply by the choices we make.
Establish Healthy Habits
Habits are usually learned at a young age, and a lot have to do with food: don’t eat with your fingers. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Finish everything on your plate. One habit in particular, though, can aid your digestion: chewing your food slowly. Simply put, methodical eating allows your food to travel through the digestive system smoothly, as it’s meant to. Besides, there’s a reason for the term “inhaling your food”—when you rapidly shove food into your mouth, you’re also forcing in air, which often leads to digestive discomfort.
You were probably also told to leave time for your food to digest before running around or you’d get cramps. While there’s truth to this adage (it’s a good idea to leave up to a few hours between eating and exercising depending on what and how much you ate), getting exercise can actually be helpful for your digestive system—if done properly. Among the benefits are increased blood flow to your digestive tract, which strengthens it and pumps up your digestive enzymes for overall better gut health. In fact, research has shown that moderate exercise can make a noticeable difference to people with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, and it may even lessen the risk for colon cancer.
Keep in mind, however, that, much like with food, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Strenuous exercise can actually exacerbate digestive issues (even in well-honed athletes), so try consistent light to moderate exercise, and make sure to ask your doctor about it beforehand. Similarly, too much of a bad thing can also wreak havoc on your digestive system. Smoking, for instance, can severely worsen most digestive issues and is linked to a host of GI cancers.
Eat, Drink, and Be Wary
It’s been said that you are what you eat, and this is especially true for your gastrointestinal health—the primary way you can improve your digestion is to be smart about what you consume. Here’s what the experts have to say about strengthening your system through proper sustenance.
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Let’s start with foods that tend to be bad news for your gut health, starting with the usual suspects. Greasy foods and processed foods are harmful in a litany of ways, thanks to largely being the most difficult options to digest. (For example, the latter can contain artificial preservatives and sweeteners.)
Certain foods and drinks otherwise considered to be healthy can cause digestive repercussions as well. Some diet staples, including broccoli, beans, and corn, have components that are naturally difficult for the human digestive system to process. And if you like a little zing to your food, be careful: citrus fruits and chili peppers can irritate your stomach lining. Minimize such foods, and there’s a good chance you’ll notice the difference in how you feel.
Speaking of acidic, everyone’s favorite morning drink, coffee, is naturally acidic as well—plus, it can cause dehydration, diarrhea, heartburn, and indigestion, thanks to its caffeine content. (Sorry, chocolate: that goes for you, too.) Also be mindful of your alcohol intake: these drinks tend to irritate the digestive tract. And, of course, avoid soda, which, outside of a pick-me-up, isn’t very good for your body.
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One important rule of thumb you should follow for good digestion is to eat natural foods. When you do, opt for those that pump up your fiber intake gradually—fiber is what keeps the entire digestive system working as it should. Per the USDA, women under age fifty should aim to get twenty-five grams of fiber per day and men thirty-eight grams per day, and this should be reduced to twenty-one for women over fifty and thirty for men over fifty.
Carbs are everywhere in the American diet, so be sure to choose fiber-rich “good” carbs for digestive health, such as whole wheat bread and brown rice.
Seeds and nuts
These foods make for great healthy snacks—in addition to being plentiful in fiber, many have omega-3s, which also aid in digestion.
Truly green greens, such as spinach and kale, have lots of vitamins in addition to good fiber content. As a bonus, experts believe they spur healthy bacteria growth.
These cultures, which are the healthy bacteria in your system, are most often found in foods like yogurt and in drinks like kombucha.
Being healthy often comes down to proper hydration, and your digestive system is no exception: it needs water to function correctly, so drink it often. If you want a little flavor, add a squirt of lemon juice or choose a noncaffeinated beverage with little sugar.
If you experience constant digestive problems, ignoring them won’t make them disappear. Be honest with yourself and talk to your doctor—and accept that you very well may have to change your diet or lifestyle to see results, and that further testing may be necessary. What you learn may be hard to swallow, but it can be the first step toward living a happier and
healthier life this season and beyond.
For more info, visit gi.org/patients or gastro.org/practice-guidance/gi-patient-center