5 Things to Know About Digestive Health

Medically Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on December 16, 2015

Your digestive tract, which starts at your mouth and goes all the way through to your stomach, small intestine, colon, rectum, and anus at the other end, has a big job to do. And when there's a problem with the system, the signs are easy to recognize -- diarrhea, bloating, constipation, and belly pain. Here are 5 top tips from digestive doctors, called gastroenterologists, to help you keep your gut in good working order.

Here's a simple test to tell if you're lactose intolerant.

If you get gas or stomach pains when you drink a glass of milk or eat an ice cream cone, it might be because your body doesn't make enough of the enzyme it needs to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk. That could mean you're lactose intolerant. But it's also possible that your digestive tract can't handle the fat in the milk, says Sheila Crowe, MD, vice president of the American Gastroenterological Association.

She says a simple test can tell the difference: "Drink a glass of skim milk, which has lactose but no fat. If that causes problems, you're lactose intolerant. Then eat a piece of brie cheese, which is high in fat but low in lactose. Can't stomach that? Then you have an intolerance to the fat."

If your body has trouble digesting milk, you don't have to give up all dairy, Crowe says. "Many cheeses and products like yogurt are lower in lactose; try eating small bites to see what you can tolerate."

Ditch healthy eating habits right before a colonoscopy.

The recommended colon-cancer screening at age 50 is a milestone many people dread. But Crowe says there are ways you can make it a little less traumatic. "I tell my patients, for the 3 to 5 days before the procedure, don't eat anything that seems healthy -- like granola, nuts, fruit, and vegetables," she says. "You don't want anything with roughage or fiber in your colon."

Instead, enjoy a 1950s-style diet of mashed potatoes, meat, pancakes, and ice cream. Those will clear your body easily so you won't need as much of the laxatives you take to prep for the test. You also won't have bits of fiber hanging around in your colon, which could make the procedure take longer. Once it's over, though, it's back to healthy eating for a healthy colon.

The best way to get probiotics is in food, not from a pill.

Walk into any health or vitamin store and you'll see the shelves loaded down with probiotic pills and powders. Their labels promise to solve your belly woes by restoring your balance of healthy gut germs. But be warned. The FDA does not require the makers of probiotic supplements to prove their products are effective, Crowe says. "They may be a promising idea, but there's no way to know if what you're spending your money on is going to do any good," she says.

Instead, Crowe says spend your money on foods that are rich in probiotics, like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchee. These naturally have a germ called lactobacillus, which can subdue diarrhea and other GI symptoms.

IBS is not all in your head -- but your head has something to do with it.

For many years, people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) -- a problem in the intestines that can cause cramping, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation -- heard from well-meaning family, friends, and sometimes even doctors that the condition was all in their heads, says Christine Frissora, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. But for the 10% to 15% of Americans who have the condition, it's very real. Today, doctors still aren't sure what causes IBS, but infections or too much bacteria in the gut are two possible culprits.

That's not to say there's no link between your head and your gut when it comes to IBS, Frissora says. Stress raises your levels of a hormone called norepinephrine, which increases the bacteria in your gut and can mean more gas builds up inside your intestines. To control IBS symptoms, try some tricks -- like mindful meditation or talk therapy -- to keep your stress levels down.

Your sugar-free gum may be giving you a stomachache.

If you already have a digestive issue like IBS, artificial sweeteners, like those in sugarless gum and candy, may make your symptoms worse. They are part of a group of foods called FODMAPs, which includes sugars such as fructose, lactose, and sorbitol. Try avoiding them to see if it eases gas, bloating, and other GI problems. While you're at it, Frissora says, keep your belly happy by limiting caffeine and alcohol to one cup of coffee or one alcoholic drink a day.

Show Sources


Christine Frissora, MD, associate professor of gastroenterology and hepatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

Sheila Crowe, MD, professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine and vice president of the American Gastroenterological Association.

American Gastroenterological Association brochure: "A Patient's Guide to Living With Irritable Bowel Syndrome."

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Definition and Facts for Irritable Bowel Syndrome."

MedlinePlus: "Lactobacillus."

Cleveland Clinic: "Probiotics."

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Lactose Intolerance."

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