Your Guide to Digestive Health
Your digestive tract—a.k.a. “the second brain”—is a smart system that is acutely sensitive to your feelings. Here’s how to keep it healthy (and happy).
And Then If You’re Still Having Trouble...
1. See a specialist. It’s important to make sure that you don’t have a serious problem, and a gastroenterologist can make that call. When lifestyle
changes fail to calm your gut, prescription medication (such as anti-spasmodics, antibiotics, or antidepressants) can help.
2. Keep an FFS diary. “That stands for ‘food, feelings, and symptoms,’ ” says Elaine Magee, a registered dietitian in Northern California and the
author of Tell Me What to Eat If I Have Irritable Bowel Syndrome ($13, amazon.com). Magee suggests writing down everything you eat, the time you eat it, any symptoms you have, and the stress and emotions
you experience each day. This will help you uncover your lifestyle and dietary triggers.
3. Eat more fiber, and drink more water. If you suffer from constipation, make an effort to consume 50 grams of fiber a day, suggests Virgin. Slowly increase your
intake by 5 to 10 grams every couple of days until you reach your goal amount.
4. Cut back on alcohol and caffeine. These are digestive stimulants that can send you into turbo mode. If you have diarrhea, your digestion is already too fast—you don’t want to speed it up any further.
Some digestive-system signals are perfectly normal.
“Every day around 11 a.m., my stomach gurgles. Loudly.”
A low growl when you’re hungry or right after eating means gas and liquid are mixing together as your small intestine contracts.
While it might seem like everyone in the conference room can hear it, “others usually don’t notice,” says Brandt. If you’re
hearing loud, high-pitched squeals, or if the noises are accompanied by abdominal pain, the healthy growling process is happening
too aggressively, and you may want to see your doctor to find out why.
“I’m going three times a day.”
Has that always been the case? As long as you’re on a regular routine and you don’t have severe bloating or cramps between
bathroom visits, you’re good to, well, go. (The same is true if you go just a few times a week.) That said, if you’re heading
to the loo more than four times a day or fewer than three times a week and feel uncomfortable, consider consulting your physician
to rule out a more serious problem.
“I feel so bloated at the end of the day.”
It’s normal if your abdomen protrudes a bit by late afternoon. “At that point, your muscles have fatigued and are less capable
of restraining your intestines, so they bulge slightly,” says Brandt. It’s also no big deal to feel slightly swollen after
a large meal. But an alarm should go off if your abdomen frequently gets measurably bigger and stays that way for hours. That
may signal an intestinal obstruction, a problem with the way your intestine contracts, an electrolyte disorder (an imbalance
of salts in the blood), or liver or ovarian disease.
“I got home just in time!”
If you’ve got to go when you hit your front door, it’s not lucky timing. If you weren’t at home, says Brandt, that urge may not have come at all. Our guts and brains are so connected that when you enter the place where you usually do your business, the brain alerts the gut to get moving. That’s also why you may be constipated when traveling. Away from your home base, your brain may fail to send the “go” signal to your gut.
If Your Gut Is Always Grumpy
Everyone has diarrhea every now and then—from a bad turkey sandwich, say, or a handshake from someone who’s sick, or a shift
in schedule. And some constipation is normal with changes in routine or diet.
Signs of Trouble
If you frequently suffer from diarrhea or constipation, or alternate between the two, you could have irritable bowel syndrome,
or IBS. It’s among the most common digestive diseases, affecting 10 to 15 percent of the population. IBS isn’t just a catchall
diagnosis for anyone with mild digestive distress. “The definition for it is chronic abdominal discomfort associated with
altered bowel habits,” says Brandt.
While there’s no hard-and-fast understanding of what causes IBS, one theory is that symptoms stem from an ultrasensitive gastrointestinal
tract. “In people with IBS, the bowels are sensitive to the stimuli of normal digestion at a much lower level than in the
average person,” says Brandt. “Their brains interpret those sensations—which a normal person wouldn’t notice—as pain.” Symptoms
ensue as a result.
More Serious Problems
Frequently troubled digestion can signal other conditions, too. Check for blood in the stool, narrowing of the stool, unexplained weight loss, diarrhea for more than 48 hours, loss of bowel control, or awakening from sleep for bowel movements, any of which could indicate a serious (but often treatable) illness, such as inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, or colon cancer.