Walk down the aisle of any store and you’ll see hundreds of over the counter medications that target digestive woes. From heartburn to gas to constipation to indigestion, there is a pill for every ill, and often dozens of choices that claim to treat them all.
However, with any medication there are always side effects. The most commonly used over the counter medication for heartburn lists fever, cold symptoms (stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat), stomach pain, gas, nausea, vomiting, mild diarrhea, and headache as it’s most common side effects for short-term use. Fun.
However, since issues like heartburn tend to be systematic and long-lasting when not treated by lifestyle changes, many people take these OTC medications for YEARS! Long term side effects of these proton-pump inhibitors (PPI) include vitamin B, calcium, and magnesium deficiencies, C-diff infections, and pneumonia. These side effects are not listed on the packaging and are often not mentioned by physicians. Serious nutritional deficiencies, pneumonia, and a horribly difficult to treat, sometimes life threatening bacterial infection characterized by severe, often explosive diarrhea.
Sounds like a fantastic trade-off for less heartburn, right?
With 74% of Americans reporting to have regular digestive issues, we need a solution that doesn’t cause worse side effects than the symptoms we’re trying to treat! If you’re looking for a way to manage or even cure digestive distress, here are several simple lifestyle changes you can make that won’t cause any harm.
- Eat whole foods: Digestive issues are often the side effect of our body’s inability to break down processed foods. When food is eaten in it’s most whole form (or as close as possible), our system is able to recognize and digest everything without causing stomach pain, gas, heartburn, etc. Focus on eating as much whole food as possible while cutting back or completely eliminating processed foods. By doing this, not only will you be getting great nutrition, but you’ll also be sure to get enough gut-loving soluble and insoluble fiber. Bonus points for the inclusion of high amounts of fresh, raw fruits and vegetables that contain live enzymes to aid in digestion!
- Chew!: Chew, chew, and chew some more! We’ve talked about the importance of chewing your food before, but if you’re dealing with digestive issues, make chewing a top priory to take the pressure off your digestive system.
- Lemon Water: Drinking water with a little freshly squeezed lemon throughout the day is an age old remedy for soothing the stomach. While we know that water is hydrating, it’s the lemon that helps stimulate gastric juices, namely pepsin-the chief digestive enzyme that breaks down protein. Our natural stomach pH level is 1.5-3.5. This highly acidic environment is not only key to breaking our food down before it enters the small intestine, but also helps to kill off any pathogenic bacteria that may make us ill. When we have weak/low stomach acid or our stomach pH is too high because we do counter-intuitve things such as drink alkaline water, our food isn’t able to break down properly before it heads into the small intestine. If this happens repeatedly, there can be irritation and inflammation of the small intestine walls, causing the cell lining to form gaps over time–Leaky Gut can then ensue leading to further auto-immune symptoms. Drinking lemon water will help to boost your digestive power to break food down more easily. NOTE: You can also try drinking a TBS or so of raw apple cider vinegar in a cup of water about 40 minutes before you meals, but lemon juice in water is usually a bit more gentle and easier on the palate for most people).
- Suss out intolerances: Often times digestive woes are the signal that our body is intolerant to a certain food or ingredient. While it’s easy to spot the warning signs of a full-fledged allergy, intolerances can be much harder to identify. Try keeping a food diary and see if you can pick out patterns of foods that make you feel bloated, gassy, or unwell. Cut the offending foods out for several weeks to see how you feel. (HINT: Dairy, eggs, sugar, artificial sugar, chemicals, food-dyes, oils, and gluten are heavy hitters in the food intolerance realm. Start there!).
- Avoid eating when stressed: Our nervous system has two main modes: Fight or Flight, and Rest/Digest. When we are busy and stressed, the high levels of cortisol in our body keeps us in the Fight or Flight mode in which our digestive system is slowed down to send vital energy to our extremities and brain. There is copious research being done on this Gut-Brain Axis, but the most important thing to know is that our mental and emotional state has a huge effect on our digestion! Eating while our nervous system is in over drive can really wreak havoc on our digestion. If you’re feeling stressed before a meal, try taking a few minutes to do some deep breathing or take a short walk.
- Movement: Our bodies were made to move. Regular movement throughout the day not only burns calories (energy), but also helps to stimulate intestinal contractions to move food through the digestive system (peristalsis). Lack of movement slows the metabolism and leads to food staying in your system longer (hello constipation!). Try taking a short walk after meals as well as adding in regular exercise to your routine.
- Avoid liquids 30 minutes before and after meals: Hydration throughout the day is key to a healthy body, but drinking too much liquid just before, during, and directly after meals can dilute the stomach acid and lead to digestive upset as food is unable to break down. We tend to think that issues such as heartburn is caused by too much acid, when in fact, it can actually be a lack of or diluted stomach acid that isn’t able to signal to the esophageal sphincter to close off and keep the caustic acid from splashing up into the delicate esophagus! No wonder acid reducing medications (and alkaline water) can make symptoms worse! Experiment with avoiding liquids about 30 minutes before, during, and after meals to see how it effects your digestive system. If you’re thinking you’ll choke during a meal without drinking, this may be a good time to add more water-rich fruits and vegetables to your meals instead of just drinking liquids.
- Combat dysbiosis: As a result of eating processed foods, living in a toxic world, taking antibiotics, and dealing with the stress of life, many of us have some sort of dysbiosis (or overgrowth of bad bacteria) in our gut. By focusing on eating whole foods, cutting out sugar and processed foods, reducing or eliminating alcohol, and avoiding antibiotics (and antibacterial products like soaps and surface disinfectants), we can help our body to reach a better bacterial balance which will smooth digestion and improve our immune system. We can also support our good bacteria by eating fermented foods and/or taking a good quality, multi-strain probiotic supplement. There are over 500 different species of bacteria in our gut! Taking a probiotic with just a few strains of good bacteria isn’t going to cut it. Look for a refrigerated multi-strain probiotic (There are some with 10, 15, even up to 30 strains available at health food stores). Make sure to rotate brands/strains of probiotics every few weeks to cultivate as many healthy bacterial strains in your gut as possible. And don’t forget to FEED your probiotic friends by eating PREBIOTIC foods (aka plenty of fresh, fiber-rich fruits and veg!).
Which one of these tips are you going to try first to help you go from digestive distress to digestive delight?
** Please Note: I am NOT a doctor! As an Integrative Nutrition Holistic Health Coach I specialize in addressing lifestyle changes that help you live a happier and healthier life. If you are currently on medication, please consult with your doctor about any dietary changes you would like to make and if you can formulate a plan to reduce or stop your medication (if that’s your desire). It is possible to deal with digestive issues without medication utilizing diet and lifestyle (I’ve done it myself), but always work with a qualified medical professional to make sure that there are no underlying health issues. Please see my full disclaimer here.