It seems like I can’t scroll through my Facebook newsfeed anymore without running across one or another of my friends frustrated because they can no longer eat dairy, gluten or another type of food. While digestive issues may not be something brought up in daily conversation (although, if you are affected by one of these diseases, it may well be), it does appear that they are becoming more prevalent. And based on my research, the best weapon to avoid these issues is diet and exercise (however, please remember that I am not a doctor and not in the business of providing medical advice; if you have a digestive issue, you should consult your physician). A high fiber diet consisting of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and daily exercise is your best bet to avoid stomach problems. That’s not to say that all digestive issues are that easy to combat. I am sure if they were, my fellow Facebookers would all be much happier regarding their digestive health.
Recently, scientists have begun studying the microbiome in relation to an entire host of diseases, including obesity and cancer. The microbiome refers to the trillions of bacteria that your body hosts. In an average adult, there are more bacterial cells present that human cells. In an average adult, there are more bacterial cells present than human cells. The gut microbiome specifically refers to all of the bacteria present in your digestive tract (from your mouth to your esophagus, to your stomach, intestines and down to the anus.) Interestingly enough, your gut microbiome can be influenced by more than just your diet. In a CBS interview conducted by Dr. Jon LaPook, Dr.Ilseung Cho of the NYU School of Medicine said it can, for instance, be influenced by whether an individual is born by C-section or by vaginal birth. Before birth, no bacteria are present in the body. Traveling through the birth canal exposes newborns to the bacteria located there, while those born by C-section are only exposed to bacteria on the mother’s skin and in her breast milk if she nurses.
Antibiotic use can also affect the microbiome. Overuse of antibiotics can result in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can alter the bacteria responsible for regulating weight. Dr.Cho explained that some bacteria in your gut microbiome can digest parts of your diet that you otherwise would not be able to absorb and by absorbing these additional calories instead of passing them through the body, weight gain can occur.
Another scientist, Jeff Leach, in an interview with Eating Well’s Gretel Schueller, discusses the importance of diet on the microbiome. According to him, diversity is key (again, a negative impact of antibiotic overuse). He tells Schueller that “We should start thinking about diets from the perspective of what we should be feeding our gut microbes.” In order to study the effect of diet on the microbiome, Leach founded the Human Food Project. After several studies of varying his own diet, Leach found that a high fiber diet leads to a more diverse and more beneficial microbiome.
Probiotics are growing trend which can positively affect the microbiome. Probiotics microbes, mainly bacteria, which can aid in the digestive process. They are commonly found in yogurt (they are the “live and active cultures”) and can also be taken as a supplement by taking probiotics, you would not be introducing new bacteria, but merely tipping the balance of the “good” bacteria in your favor to the microbiome. According to the American Gastroenterological Association, researchers are still studying the exact effects of probiotics and working to see which are beneficial and which are not necessary. In general, probiotics are thought to be safe, however, the AGA says that more research needs to be done before a blanket statement can be made.
On a larger scale, these potential issues with the microbiome are not the only digestive problems individuals face. Many chronic issues are treated with a mix of dietary changes and medication. Lactose intolerance means the person lacks the enzyme lactase which breaks down the sugar lactose, found in milk and other dairy products. Usually, by cutting out dairy products or taking a lactase substitute, lactose intolerance be combatted.
Another chronic digestive disorder that we are hearing about more frequently is the autoimmune Celiac disease. Celiac disease is caused by a negative reaction to gluten, which is found in wheat products and is managed by a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free products are becoming much more popular with the emergence of more people having negative reactions to gluten.
Other types of digestive disorders tend to be acute, affect more of the population, and are the types that can sometimes be avoided with the right practices.
While reflux issues can be both chronic (for example gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD) or acute, one of the most common forms is heartburn, which people commonly treat with antacids or acid reducers. According to WebMD, heartburn can also be prevented or treated with some simple lifestyle changes like:
- Avoiding trigger foods, such as caffeine, chocolate, fried/fatty food, citrus or tomato products, and spicy foods.
- Elevate your bed when you are sleeping, not just your head. By elevating just your head, you may be putting more pressure on your stomach, which could make the heartburn worse.
- Eat smaller portions and more frequent meals, and eat them more slowly.
- Don’t eat during the three hours before bed.
- Wear loose-fitting clothes; tight clothes can put pressure on your stomach, making your symptoms worse.
- Vigorous activities like running can make heartburn worse. If you are experiencing heartburn, try less vigorous exercise and drink plenty of water.
- Chew gum, this will create more saliva which can help neutralize the stomach acid.
WebMD defines constipation as bowel movements becoming more difficult or less frequent. And while constipation can have many causes, some of these include:
- Not drinking enough water
- Not getting enough fiber in your diet.
- Too little exercise
And with this list of causes, some treatments and ways to avoid constipation become clear. Drink plenty of water, eat a high fiber diet or use fiber supplements if necessary, and exercise daily. The last two are really cases to work around instead of avoiding. We all live with daily stress, so you may want to do some activities to help manage your stress: do yoga, meditate, exercise, write, or listen to music. If you are pregnant, the What To Expect website recommends using some of the same treatments suggested above: eat a fiber-rich diet, drink water, and exercise.
According to WebMD, the most common form of ulcer (the peptic ulcer) is a break or hole in the lining of the stomach or small intestine. And while the common thought was that ulcers were induced by stress, there is actually no clear evidence of that. The most common belief is that ulcers are due to a bacterial infection (there’s that gut microbiome again).
- Other factors that seem to contribute to ulcers are
- Overuse of over the counter painkillers such as aspirin and ibuprofen
- Heavy use of alcohol
- Age-ulcers are more prevalent in older people
- Luckily, peptic ulcers are fairly easy to treat, with common treatments being antibiotics, antacids, and other drugs that reduce stomach acid.
In summary, the best way to maintain a healthy digestive system is to eat a high fiber diet, drink lots of water, and exercise daily. But it can be so much more than that, too. Your gut microbiome plays a larger part in your health, probably more than you have ever imagined, and the key to a healthy microbiome is diversity. Considering the importance, it seems like probiotics may be a peek into the future of medicine, but I suppose this is one of those cases where only time (and continued research) will tell.