While you might not enjoy talking about digestive health with your friends, your family members, or even your doctor, it's a necessary conversation. Between 70 and 80 percent of the cells that support your immune system are found in your gut, which means your digestive system plays a significant role in keeping your other systems healthy.
If you've had gastrointestinal issues before, or if you're concerned about your gut, understanding how to improve digestive health can give you insights into how to care for your whole body more effectively.
Digestive Problems and Symptoms
Many different types of digestive diseases and disorders exist, each of which causes its own subset of symptoms in the human body. However, some symptoms prove fairly consistent across the spectrum of digestive disorders. If you've experienced any of the following red flags, you should make an appointment with your primary care physician:
- Diarrhea or constipation: Changes in bowel movements often signify the early stages of digestive problems.
- Bloating or stomach pain: If you feel excess gas in your digestive tract or discomfort in your stomach, you might have a food allergy or another condition.
- Nausea and vomiting: These symptoms (absent a short-term viral or bacterial illness) indicate an issue with the way your body processes food.
- Weight gain or loss: Unless you are actively trying to lose or gain weight, these changes could suggest a digestive problem.
You might notice other symptoms, as well, such as blood in the stool, chronic heartburn, or difficulty swallowing. None of these symptoms are normal, so it's important to keep track of them and to discuss them with your physician.
Why You Need a Healthy Digestive System
When your digestive tract works the way it should, your immune system can function at its highest level. This means your body can fight off illness and keep you healthy. If you find yourself catching more colds than other people, or if you feel under the weather even when you don't have symptoms of a specific illness, you might have a digestive issue.
Correcting a digestive problem can help you keep your immune system healthy. These two systems are connected in several ways, many of which you might not expect. Issues ranging from stress and energy levels to disease management can influence how these two systems function together, and if you neglect your digestive health, your immune system could suffer as a result.
High Stress Is Correlated With Digestive Distress and Decreased Immune Health
If you constantly feel bloated or uncomfortable, your stress levels will increase. You'll dread your next meal because you're worried about the consequences, and you'll feel self-conscious during interactions with others. In many cases, this causes a vicious cycle because stress feeds on itself.
According to Everyday Health, high levels of stress can cause digestive problems. When your body is under stress, its fight-or-flight response kicks in. As a result, your body shuts down systems it doesn't need right away, including digestion and your immune system. If you're constantly under stress, neither of those essential body systems can function properly.
Your Immune and Digestive Systems Need Energy to Function Properly
None of your body's systems work without energy. The food you consume is directly related to the energy in your body; if you don't eat enough nutrients and calories, your immune system suffers. Unfortunately, digestive issues can lead you to make unhealthy dietary choices.
For instance, you could develop an intolerance to high-fiber foods if you consistently load your plate with high-carbohydrate, high-fat choices. You might suffer bloating and discomfort when you eat vegetables and other healthy foods with a high fiber content. This leads to a series of unhealthy choices that leave you without sufficient energy or essential nutrients.
Digestive Problems Can Eliminate Good Bacteria
You probably think of bacteria in negative terms; after all, it's the cause of many unpleasant diseases. However, good bacteria helps keep your digestive system functioning properly. If you don't have enough beneficial bacteria in your stomach and intestines, it can't fight off the harmful bacteria. Additionally, good bacteria are responsible for keeping your body's yeast levels within a healthy range.
When yeast (a type of fungus) is allowed to flourish in your body, you might get yeast infections or suffer from digestive distress. Though yeast infections are often cited as a concern for women only, men can also have problems with yeast overgrowth. Since yeast feasts on sugar, people who consume too many carbohydrates may have an increased risk for yeast-related issues.
Your Digestive Health Can Complicate Diseases and Conditions
According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) plagues 10 to 15 percent of Americans. This condition causes chronic gastrointestinal distress, from diarrhea and constipation to food intolerance and sleep disturbances.
Experts don't know what causes IBS and other digestive disorders, such as Chron's disease and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), but an unhealthy diet or a digestive imbalance might complicate or contribute to your symptoms. Since many of these conditions lack cures, it's essential to maintain a high level of digestive health.
Improve Your Digestive System at Home
While it's essential to tell your doctor about any digestive-related symptoms so he or she can evaluate your condition professionally, you can also improve your digestive health at home. These strategies will allow good bacteria to flourish in your gut and relieve some of your symptoms.
1. Keep a Bottle of Water With You at All Times
You don't have to buy cases of pre-bottled water to keep yourself hydrated. Take a more eco-friendly approach, and fill a reusable bottle with cool, clean water every time you leave the house. Remind yourself to take sips every few minutes to stay hydrated.
Another strategy is to drink a glass of water before your first cup of coffee in the morning and another before you fall asleep each night. Hydration helps prevent constipation by naturally softening your stool, so it can pass easily through your intestines. It also boosts the immune system and prevents symptoms of dehydration, like headaches, nausea, and muscle cramps.
2. Take Digestive Supplements
Your digestive system relies on enzymes that break food down and encourages quick processing of the nutrients you consume. If your body lacks these enzymes, you might experience increased constipation, diarrhea, bloating, and other symptoms that negatively impact your quality of life.
Consider digestive enzyme supplements to help improve your gastrointestinal health. By taking just one pill before each meal during the day, you can enhance your gut function and help eliminate uncomfortable symptoms. Just make sure you choose a trusted product that contains no unnecessary ingredients.
You can also take probiotics to help stimulate the ecology in your gut. Probiotics replenish the good bacteria that keep your immune system running strong. They can also fight off yeast infections and reduce episodes of diarrhea, constipation, and bloating.
3. Take Stock of Your Diet
Junk food and processed products can negatively impact your digestive health as well as your immune system. If you find yourself resorting to fast food more often than not, or if you reach for sugary snacks several times throughout the day, you might need to make a few dietary changes.
Introducing fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber foods to your diet can have a tremendous impact on your digestive health, especially when combined with digestive enzyme supplements and probiotics. Your body will digest food faster and more efficiently, which means you will reap the full benefits of all the vitamins and minerals you consume.
You might experience discomfort if you make radical changes to your diet overnight. For instance, if you're not used to high-fiber foods, your gut may protest the first few times you eat them. Start slowly by incorporating small amounts of healthier fare into each meal, then gradually increasing the portion sizes.
Excellent high-fiber foods to add to your plate include:
- Fruit: Try oranges, raisins, apples, pears, and figs.
- Vegetables: Go with broccoli, Brussels sprouts, artichokes, and kale.
- Grains: Choose whole-wheat bread and pasta, as well as brown rice and foods that contain oat bran.
- Legumes: Try beans and seeds as snacks.
4. Make Time to Relax
Stress can slow the digestive process and lead to stomach discomfort. If you regularly experience a high degree of stress, take time to relax. Meditate, do yoga, work on a jigsaw puzzle, or curl up on your couch with a good book. Stretching can be extremely relaxing, and has the added benefit of aiding digestion.
If you allow stress to take over your life, you risk further digestive complications. To prevent this problem, consider talking with a therapist or removing high-stress activities from your schedule. Feel free to say no to projects or obligations that introduce anxiety or stress into your life.
Learning how to improve digestive health can have a positive impact on your immune health. If you take care of them both, you can eliminate uncomfortable symptoms and reduce your risk for gastrointestinal disease. If you can't resolve the problem on your own, make an appointment with your doctor to explore professional treatment.