Feeling Out of Whack? Common Digestive Woes and What To Do About Them

By Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, FAND

Simple steps can help relieve some of the most common digestive problems.

Many of us eat too much or eat too fast. We don’t eat enough fiber. We skip meals and then
subject our systems to a gigantic plate of food. Considering how much use and abuse our
digestive systems have to withstand, it’s a wonder we don’t suffer more than we do.

Gas, bloating, occasional heartburn, or “having a hard time going”— these common digestive
disturbances can often be relieved with some simple diet and lifestyle changes. Let’s look at
what you can do to ease any strain on your digestive system.

Gas

Gas production is actually a normal part of the digestive process and, unless it’s excessive, it
usually indicates a healthy intake of fiber and a well-functioning digestive tract. Most foods that
contain carbohydrate—anything from beans to bagels—are not completely broken down during
the digestive process, which means that some partially digested carbohydrate travels into your
lower tract. There, the resident bacteria take over, producing gas as they complete the
digestive process. The average person passes gas about 14 times a day, releasing about a half
liter of gas in the process. Foods like cabbage, beans and broccoli are often called out as major
gas-producers.

If you have gas:

  • Rather than eliminating ‘gassy’ foods like beans, cabbage or broccoli, try eating small
    amounts of these foods over several days to give your system time to adjust.
  • Try soaking beans overnight in water, then cooking in fresh water the next day.
Bloating

Bloating is often described as a ‘puffed up’ sensation that comes on rather quickly, mostly in the
upper abdomen right after eating. It’s often the result of air that gets trapped in your digestive
tract, which can come from a surprising number of sources. Often, it’s simply a matter of
swallowing a lot of air while you eat, which can happen if you eat too fast or do a lot of talking
while you’re chewing. You also swallow a lot of air when you chew gum, or when you drink
carbonated beverages, too. Some people get that bloated feeling when they eat a rich meal –
fat delays the time it takes for food to leave your stomach, so it can leave you feeling
uncomfortable. Of course, there is also the possibility that you have a food allergy or
intolerance that leads to gas and bloating, but that’s best determined by your doctor.

If you have bloating:

  • Avoid carbonated beverages
  • Eat slowly
  • Avoid chewing gum
  • Keep your meals low in fat
Occasional Heartburn

Heartburn is a bit like a plumbing problem in your digestive tract. At the bottom of your
esophagus – where it meets the stomach – there’s a ring of muscle that is designed to snap
shut after food enters the stomach. But sometimes the muscle doesn’t quite close all the way.
As a result, stomach acid can back up into the esophagus, causing irritation. Spicy foods,
greasy foods, alcoholic drinks and large meals can all contribute to occasional heartburn.
You’re also more likely to get heartburn if you lie down too soon after eating. And, if you’re
overweight, you’re more likely to develop heartburn, too, since excess weight around the middle
puts upward pressure on the stomach.

If you have occasional heartburn:

  • Reduce your intake of greasy foods, chocolate, onions, coffee, alcohol, orange juice,
    tomato products and spicy foods – all of which contribute.
  • Reduce the size of your meals.
  • If you’re overweight, work on getting your weight down.
  • Try not to lie down for a few hours after you eat – sit upright or take a walk instead.
Irregularity

Irregularity is one of the most common digestive complaints—and it’s also one of the most
misunderstood. Many people think if they don’t visit the bathroom on a daily basis, they’ve got a
problem. But if things are moving smoothly—whether it’s three times a day or three times a
week—you probably don’t have anything to worry about. On the other hand, difficult or painful
bowel movements can signal constipation. Lack of fiber, inadequate fluid intake and inactivity
can all contribute.

If you are irregular:

  • Aim for the recommended 25-30 grams of fiber a day from whole grain breads and
    cereals, beans, fruits and vegetables.
  • Keep your fluid intake up. You do obtain some fluid from watery fruits and vegetables,
    but make a point to also drink fluids throughout the day.
  • Stay active. People who exercise regularly are less likely to suffer from constipation.
  • As always, if you are suffering these problems chronically, you should seek medical advice.
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