Your digestive system interacts with your environment more than any other part of your body.
"That's important to recognize because most diseases are caused by environmental factors," says Ece Mutlu, MD, a gastroenterologist at Rush University Medical Center. "And one of the biggest environmental factors is diet. What you eat matters. Everything you put in your mouth has a chance to interact with your body, and this interaction is a major factor in determining whether or not you'll be healthy overall."
That's partially because the food you eat determines what kind of bacteria live in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. In an attempt to improve GI health, many people use probiotics, which are good bacteria found in fermented dairy products, such as yogurt and kefir. Or people may try colon cleanses to rid themselves of bad bacteria. However, Mutlu advises that there is limited evidence that probiotics help, and patients don't have a full understanding of the potential harmful effects of colon cleanses.
Instead, for people who have only occasional digestive problems, Mutlu offers the following advice to help rejuvenate GI health*:
Favor fruits and veggies. Fruits and vegetables provide fiber, which can help with constipation, hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulosis, a condition in which pouches form in the digestive tract. Produce also helps promote the growth of healthy bacteria and micro-organisms — the ones that aid digestion and help you get rid of toxins — in your GI tract. In fact, good bacteria perform many functions, not only in the GI tract but all over your body. For instance, they contribute to a healthy immune system. Additionally, many fruits and vegetables also contain compounds that can inhibit cancer.
Be finicky about fats. Choose good fats — such as those found in olive oil and nuts — over margarine and trans fats, and limit your overall fat intake. High-fat diets are linked to a number of GI-related cancers, including colon cancer. They are also known to aggravate hemorrhoids because unabsorbed fat gets passed, causing loose, oily bowel movements. Bad fats also promote the growth of harmful bacteria in the intestines.
Mind your middle. The first two steps will help with this. When you have too much abdominal fat, your GI tract doesn't function as well as it should. The weight creates excess pressure on your stomach, which can cause acid reflux. Abdominal fat also produces hormones that can increase your risk of heart disease, cancer and metabolic syndrome.
*If you have persistent or frequent digestive problems, see a doctor.
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