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The Worst Digestive Health Habits
Wonder why you have digestive problems? Tummy troubles can be traced to a variety of lifestyle choices. These tips for better digestion can ease your discomfort.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Belching, bloating, and constipation — you may not want to talk about these digestion problems over dinner, yet how and what you eat (or don’t eat) could actually be among the bad digestive habits causing these issues.
Digestion problems often lead people to see a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specializes in the health of the digestive tract. “We see two big areas of digestive health complaints,” says gastroenterologist Amanda Pressman, MD, of the Center for Women’s Gastrointestinal Medicine at the Women’s Medicine Collaborative at Brown University in Providence, R.I. “People complain of heartburn and reflux or constipation, gas, and bloating.”
But in many cases, some simple dietary and lifestyle changes can help save your stomach and get your digestion back to normal. Dr. Pressman says that what she learned in her gastroenterology training and practice has triggered changes in her choices: “I definitely eat less red meat and more varied fruits and vegetables.”
13 Digestive No-Nos
Could your own bad digestive health habits be the source of your digestion problems? Here are the worst offenders, along with tips for better digestion:
- Ignoring the urge to go.Constipation is a big complaint, says Pressman, who adds that many people get a little backed up because they ignore the urge to have a bowel movement (usually because it’s inconvenient) and then can’t make it happen on demand later on. There’s not much you can do about it when your body wants to pass a bowel movement, she says. “Your body is digesting throughout the day and then, after you eat, sends a signal that basically says, ‘Make some room down below,’” Pressman says. That’s why it’s typical to get the urge to go relatively soon after a meal in the morning as your body is getting ready for the day. “Listen to your body,” she suggests.
- Taking too many NSAIDs.Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, might seem like a harmless way to treat pain, but these medications can add to digestive problems by causing ulcers in the gastrointestinal tract. Instead, Pressman suggests that you “take acetaminophen for everyday aches and pains.”
- Eating late.Chowing down too close to bedtime, whether a meal or a snack, can increase your feelings of heartburn through the night. That's because the food in your stomach can get pushed back up into your esophagus more easily when you’re lying flat. Try these tips for better digestion: Stop eating at least 2 to 3 hours before you plan to go to bed and consider placing phone books under the legs at the head of your bed so that you sleep with your head slightly higher than your feet.
- Not eating enough fiber.Simply put, "people do not have enough fiber in their diet,” says Pressman. Experts recommend 25 grams of fiber a day. Fiber has numerous benefits, including keeping your bowel movements regular, preventing constipation, and reducing the risk for more troubling digestive problems like diverticulosis.
- Supersizing your meals.Eating or drinking too much at a single sitting leads to unpleasant fullness, reflux, and bloating. “Smaller, more frequent meals eaten more slowly may be easier to digest for people with these symptoms,” advises gastroenterologist Ian Harnik, MD, an assistant professor in the department of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y.
- Scarfing down food.If your dinner companions tease you about “inhaling” your meal, slow down for better digestion. “Eating too quickly may lead to uncomfortable fullness by not giving the stomach adequate time to expand,” explains Dr. Harnik. You could also be swallowing a lot of air during rapid eating, he says, which adds to that bloated feeling and to belching. Chew each mouthful thoroughly, put your fork down between bites, and swallow. You’ll also enjoy your meal more by taking the time to savor it.
- Gulping too many beverages with dinner.Whether it’s water, tea, or some other drink that accompanies your meal, too much liquid can have the same bloating side effect as too much food. It also contributes to reflux symptoms by flushing overfull stomach contents up into your esophagus. Drink fluids throughout the day to stay hydrated, but resist gulping them down during meals.
- Drinking soda.Carbonated drinks are notorious for increasing feelings of fullness, bloating, and the need to belch — and they can also be a trigger for reflux symptoms. Cut down on soda or cut it out completely. Sip water with fruit added for flavor or enjoy other healthy noncarbonated drinks, such as low-fat milk.
- Gum chewing.Tastes good and keeps your mouth busy, so what could be wrong with chewing gum? Turns out it can lead to swallowing too much air, which leads to more burping, gas, and feeling bloated. Sucking on hard candies has similar effects, so for an alternative try sipping on lightly flavored water through the day instead.
- Drinking too much alcohol.“Alcohol acts as a stimulant to the gastrointestinal tract,” says Pressman. People who drink to excess or drink too frequently may have stomach discomfort and diarrhea. Alcohol can also contribute to ulcers or prevent them from healing. Women should have no more than one drink a day, and men, two.
- Smoking.Cigarette smoking underlies a number of digestion problems, including ulcer development and heartburn. Try cutting back on how much you smoke until you manage to quit entirely.
- Postponing a colonoscopy (again).It’s no day at the spa, but a colonoscopy is a screening that can save your life. “Just having a colonoscopy if you have polyps reduces your risk of dying from colon cancer by 50 percent,” says Pressman. Most women should get their first colonoscopy at age 50, but if you have risk factors, such as a family history of colon cancer, or worrying symptoms, such as blood in your stool, start earlier.
- “Cleansing” the bowels.Some people swear by trendy bowel cleanses or laxatives. When healthy, your intestines and bowels generally do a fine job of “cleansing” themselves just by digesting food and nutrients, stresses Pressman. “Stimulant laxatives can be addicting,” she warns. Instead of using cleanses or laxatives, just clean up your other bad bowel habits and see how much better you feel in a week or two.
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