Health has many components, and there are plenty of things that can make us feel better or worse. One thing is for sure, though: If your digestive system is having issues, you're going to feel like crap.
As we learn more about the role digestion plays in our overall health, keeping your system in balance continues to seem like one of the best things you can do for your body. Here are some tips to help keep your digestive flow on track.
Factors such as stress, lack of sleep, antibiotics, illness, aging and poor diet choices can lead to an imbalance of your digestive tract bacteria. Certain probiotics, mostly found in dairy products and some fortified cereals, can help to maintain the balance of "good" bacteria in the digestive tract. Try a daily helping of yogurt with probiotics.
Consistently eating the right amount of fiber can help promote bowel function. High-fiber foods such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains also help you feel full, which can help lower your chance of overeating throughout the day. Keeping a running tab on the fiber you consume to help give you more energy.
Water is one of those essential elements for a healthy digestive system. Adequate hydration gives your digestive system the moisture it needs to properly function. Also, sometimes our bodies mistake hunger for thirst, so stay hydrated to prevent unnecessary overeating. Try keeping water with lemon slices around to help boost your intake.
Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day to keep your metabolism revved up, your blood sugar balanced and your energy up. This can also help you avoid feeling ravenous at your next meal, which in turn can lead to eating larger portions of high-fat foods that can slow your digestion. Try ruining your appetite before going to a party or out to dinner with a nutrient-dense snack like a handful of nuts or a plain yogurt.
Exercise can help create a healthy digestive environment by allowing food to move through the large intestine much quicker, which also decreases the amount of water lost in the stool. Intestinal muscles that contract during exercise also contribute to more efficient movement of stools.
Some researchers claim that the more you chew your food, the less you eat. Chewing foods slowly also increases the digestive enzymes in your mouth, which allow for better overall digestion as the food moves through your digestive tract. Besides, who wants to feel like the elephant in the room by expelling gas caused from eating too fast?
Festive holiday foods, such as red wine, holiday citrus punch, spicy shrimp appetizers or tomato bisque soup, are all examples of foods that may irritate the digestive system. By avoiding trigger foods such as these, your digestive system will operate smoother.
Having a smaller plate means that a smaller amount of food can fit on it. With less food on your plate, of course, you'll eat less. Portion control is important not only for weight management, but for reducing the stress on the digestive system that comes from overeating.
Heavy, wintry foods, such as duck confit, eggnog and apple pie not only stay in the digestive system longer, but they cause more stomach acid to be produced, which can also lead to gastric reflux. Processed comfort foods such as instant mashed potatoes, canned gravy and cranberry sauce may be challenging for your digestive system; avoid these and your stomach will thank you.
For those dishes that just can't be trimmed of fat and calories, go ahead and go for it — but in a conscious manner. Avoid the post-meal sluggish feeling by cutting the portion in half and feel empowered having a controlled portion. Always try to have a cup of tea on hand — try mint or cinnamon tea. This will help slow down your eating, allowing you to listen to your body and be more mindful.
Keri Glassman is a dietician and founder of Nutritious Life.
A version of this article was originally published in January 2012.
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