Written by: Anthea Levi | Registered Dietitian & Health Writer | alivewellnutrition.com
Strange but true: gut health is one of the hottest topics in health and wellness, and for good reason. Research shows that the gut microbiome is home to trillions of beneficial bugs that have the power to influence everything from skin health and mood to digestion and disease risk.
The only problem? The microbiome is highly individualized, so it can take some trial and error to figure out how to keep our guts in great shape. What works for one person may be a no-no for another.
Despite these differences, there are a few GI complaints that commonly pose problems, like chronic gas and bloating, irregular bowel movements (or BMs), and acid reflux.
Below, I break down possible causes of each problem, plus simple steps you can take to start feeling your best stat.
Gas & Bloating
Real talk: there are a million possible reasons you may feel gassy and bloated. Did you eat a massive salad packed with raw veggies for lunch? Are you a seltzer addict? Where are you in your cycle? All of these things can contribute to gas and bloating.
When it comes to eating the rainbow, there’s a happy medium we want to hit. That is, eating too few fruits and veggies can lead to constipation and bloating. On the other end of the spectrum, eating a ton of raw veg (especially cruciferous ones like broccoli and cauliflower) can do a number on our digestion thanks to their high fiber content. A lot of people are also sensitive to raffinose, a carbohydrate found in foods like beans, broccoli, and brussels sprouts that can bring on serious gas.
My point? Fiber is fab, but you can have too much of a good thing, and when it comes to fiber, overdoing it can lead to gas and — you guessed it — bloating.
What to do? If you feel like a balloon after eating a big salad for lunch, try choosing cooked veggies instead of raw ones; cooked foods can be easier to digest. If you’re just starting to add more fruits and vegetables to your diet, make H2O your best friend. We need an adequate amount of fluid to help keep things moving through the system. Aim for 64 ounces, or 8 cups, of water daily at the very least.
Wish you had more regular BMs? You’re not alone. Again, there are countless reasons why your poops may be off, including undiagnosed IBS (which can include diarrhea, constipation, or both), food sensitivities, or just plain old stress.
What to do? Start by journaling your symptoms. Taking stock of potential triggers can help clue you in to what’s messing with your digestion.
Don’t go crazy journaling every last thing you ate (that can cause a whole new load of stress). Instead, simply note when you notice irregularities and the circumstances surrounding them. Did your BMs get weird right when you started a new project at work? Or after you tried a new probiotic? Tune in to recent changes that may have set your schedule off, then make mini changes (like starting a meditation practice to combat the work stress or taking a few days off the new probiotic) to see if they help you get regular again.
Reflux ain’t cute, but it affects tons of us. That uncomfortable burning sensation can be caused by acidic stomach contents bubbling back up into the esophagus.
Common causes of reflux include high fat meals (think: fried foods), chocolate, spicy dishes, caffeine, and alcohol, among others. Certain meds like those for asthma and seasonal allergies, as well as some antidepressants, can also bring on acid reflux. Interestingly, low levels of stomach acid can also trigger reflux, since an adequate amount of the stomach juices are necessary for normal digestion.
What to do? If you know which foods set off your symptoms, do your best to avoid them. If not, try to limit your intake of the possible culprits mentioned above to see if you find any relief. If you deal with reflux often, your doctor may recommend appropriate medications as needed.
Lifestyle changes like eating in looser clothing and eating dinner at least two hours before turning in for the night can also be helpful. Lying on the couch after a meal can cause acidic stomach contents to back up (cue the heartburn), so it’s best to stay upright for at least an hour after eating to keep things moving in the right direction.
Anthea Levi is a New York City-based Registered Dietitian and health writer, currently completing her master’s degree in clinical nutrition at New York University. She has been published in Health magazine, BuzzFeed Health, Livestrong, Eat This, Not That!, and Nutritious Life. Anthea’s mission is to help you eat well to feel well, from the inside out. Find her original recipes and health tips on her website and on Instagram @ALIVE+WELL Nutrition!