Indigestion, bloating, constipation and other belly woes are incredibly common— but that doesn’t mean you have to live with them. These proven lifestyle tweaks can help you feel better now.
veggie digestive system
Credit: Getty Images/David Malan

Remember the classic children's book Everyone Poops? It could have just as easily been Everyone Cuts the Cheese, Everyone Burps or Everyone Has Occasional Bouts of Constipation—because about 61% of all Americans report experiencing at least one gastrointestinal problem in the past week, according to a recent study of more than 71,000 people published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. The most common digestive issues include heartburn, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. And almost 60% of those folks have had two or more symptoms in the same time frame. But there's good news: "Digestion is very responsive to what you eat and drink, your physical activity and your mood," says gastroenterologist Folasade P. May, M.D., Ph.D., researcher and director of the Melvin and Bren Simon Gastroenterology Quality Improvement Program at UCLA. "And making changes to address those things can have a big impact." Here's where to start.

Nosh more fiber

"If you've been suffering with digestive issues, upping your fiber intake is the closest thing that I have to a silver bullet in my practice," says gastroenterologist Will Bulsiewicz, M.D., author of Fiber Fueled. Most people fall short—averaging only 16 grams of the recommended 25 to 38 grams of fiber most women and men, respectively, need. According to a meta-analysis in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, consuming a fiber-rich diet significantly improved stool frequency (what constipation?). To gradually increase your intake—which will help you sidestep gas and bloating from getting too much fiber all at once— start by simply eating the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables every single day, which is 2 cups of fruit and 21⁄2 cups of veggies, says Tamara Duker Freuman, R.D., author of The Bloated Belly Whisperer. From there, try adding 5 grams of fiber to your daily diet one week at a time. (That's about half an avocado, one apple or 1⁄2 cup raspberries.) Some fiber-filled options to add to the menu include lentils, black beans, pears, broccoli, green peas and quinoa.

Don't forget prebiotics

While all fiber (soluble and insoluble) is great for gut health, be sure to get plenty of the prebiotic variety found in foods like beans, onions, apples, leeks and asparagus. It feeds your "good" gut bacteria—including several species that produce short-chain fatty acids. "These compounds are associated with reducing inflammation in the GI tract," says Duker Freuman. A 2018 report in Current Developments in Nutrition backs this up and found that consuming prebiotics can also reduce the severity of inflammatory bowel disease and alleviate constipation. "I'd shoot for a couple of sources of prebiotic fiber a day," says Duker Freuman.

Up your H2O intake

"Water is essential to digestive function, helping to break up food and acting as a lubricant, keeping intestinal surfaces moist and moving waste smoothly," says Bulsiewicz. Plus, fiber needs water to make stool soft and bulky. "And if you don't get enough, you may wind up with gas, bloating, discomfort and even constipation," says Bulsiewicz, who suggests hydrating with two glasses of water first thing in the a.m. "You're at your most dehydrated in the morning, since you likely haven't had anything to drink for eight or more hours— and have potentially been to the bathroom overnight," he explains. Then sip water throughout the day—especially with meals.

Check your meds

There are quite a few prescription and OTC drugs that cannot only lead to GI distress, but also may cause side effects that mimic conditions like inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a report in the journal Frontline Gastroenterology found. Some common culprits include anti-histamines, antidepressants, progesterone-only birth control, nitrate-containing heart meds, iron supplements, certain blood pressure drugs and NSAIDs, like ibuprofen. "While we often use some of these medications to treat GI conditions, we also recognize that starting, stopping or changing the dose of many medications may cause nausea, vomiting, cramps or changes in bowel movements," explains May. "If you're concerned that any of your medications are causing GI issues, talk to your doctor about changing the dose or finding a substitute."

Get physical

"Body movement translates into bowel movements," says Bulsiewicz. "Even taking a short 15- to 30-minute walk after a meal helps to mobilize and empty your stomach, which improves digestion and reduces the likelihood of acid reflux."

Eat dinner earlier

"Not every bodily function operates at full strength 24/7, digestion included," says Duker Freuman. "Because our stomachs naturally empty more slowly at night, meals eaten close to bedtime sit in our bellies longer, potentially causing reflux and discomfort." For that reason, she says, it's best to have your last bite of food three to four hours before turning in.

Cut back on saturated fats

"While all fats take a long time for the body to digest and process, having a lot of saturated animal fat in your diet can make digestion more difficult, which may result in abdominal discomfort, bloating, gas and abnormal stools," says May. Adding to the issue: Regularly consuming saturated fat may reduce the total number and diversity of bacteria in the gut, according to a 2019 systematic review in the journal Clinical Nutrition. This type of imbalance may trigger conditions like IBS. On the flip side, researchers found that a diet rich in polyunsaturated fats (in foods like salmon, walnuts and flaxseed) is linked to favorable changes in gut microbiota. May's advice: Increase your omega-3- rich polyunsaturated fat intake, stick to mostly lean cuts of meat and "start to scale back on your consumption of red and processed meats, little by little."

Chew... A lot

"Taking time to chew food thoroughly helps reduce the likelihood of indigestion," says Duker Freuman, who notes that when you chomp quickly and inefficiently, it takes longer for your stomach to liquefy your meal and it requires more acid to do the job. A couple of clues that you may be a fast chewer include burping during meals (due to swallowed air) and spying pieces of recognizable food in your stool. She advises putting your fork down after every bite and not picking it up again until you've thoroughly chewed and swallowed what's in your mouth.

Chill out

Stress can cause belly butterflies, but it impacts your gut in other ways too. Namely, it messes with how quickly food moves through the body, which can vary from person to person—speeding it up or slowing it down, and leading to diarrhea or constipation. It may also exacerbate abdominal pain, bloating and nausea and heartburn severity, according to the American Psychological Association. (We can thank the gut-brain axis—the pathway that connects the emotional centers in the brain with neurons in the GI tract—for that.) The upshot? Quelling stress helps. After just eight weeks of daily 30-minute mindful meditation sessions, 70% of folks with IBS said they experienced significantly fewer GI symptoms, according to a 2020 study in the journal Neurogastroenterology & Motility. If meditation isn't your bag, try yoga or another type of exercise, cognitive behavior therapy, deep breathing exercises or acupuncture, says May: "All of these have improved symptoms in my patients."

EatingWell, November 2020