Effective habits for good digestive health

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Woman in pain. Courtesy of Sora Shimazaki

Digestive system problems such as heartburn, gas, bloating and constipation reflect what’s happening throughout the body. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the digestive system consists of the oral cavity (mouth), esophagus, stomach, gut (small and large intestines), and rectum. Also, it includes the liver, gall bladder, salivary glands, and the pancreas.

“As we age, the natural cycles slow down and don’t work as well,” says Johns Hopkins gastroenterologist Gerard Mullin, M.D. The main drivers of gut health change are shifts in stomach acid, gut immunity and gastrointestinal flora—the complex ecosystem of bacteria in your digestive system. When gut health is good, he says, you’re less likely to experience damaging inflammation and lapses in immunity.

There are tips for having good gut health. The following ways to protect your digestive system may sound surprising because they’re not just about diet. “Everything ties together,” Mullin says. Mullin advises people to eat the right food which consists of a balanced diet. This is a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables and provides the fibre that builds good bacteria and gut health. “Americans’ fiber intake is 40 to 50 percent of what it should be,” Mullin says.

According to John Hopkins Medicine, other foods that build a healthy digestive system include leafy greens, such as spinach or kale, are excellent sources of fiber, as well as nutrients like folate, vitamin C, vitamin K and vitamin A. Research shows that leafy greens also contain a specific type of sugar that helps fuel growth of healthy gut bacteria. He also advises patients to ask their health care provider about foods for specific problems such as constipation or bloating. Adequate sleep also aids in proper gut health, “not getting enough sleep is linked to a higher prevalence of obesity, which sets you up for digestive system disorders,” notes Mullin.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, most sleep problems are a result of snoring, medication side effects and underlying medical conditions, such as acid reflux, depression and prostate problems. Addressing those issues with your doctor is a good start. You can also enjoy more satisfying sleep by creating a calming space, dedicating enough time for sleep and practicing relaxation techniques.

There is the constant need for regular exercise because it is the best way to lose weight and maintain a healthy body weight to ward off digestive system problems. Meanwhile, reducing stress is fundamental to reducing heartburn, Mullin says. “There’s no magic diet that works.” He recommends relaxation therapies along with other distraction techniques. And for issues like anxiety and depression professional help is required because “mood and digestive system health (especially disorders like irritable bowel syndrome) are closely linked via the brain-gut connection,” Mullin advises.

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