Best Ways to Curb Digestive Issues
Simple lifestyle changes can provide relief from gas, heartburn, lactose intolerance, and more
While indigestion and other gastrointestinal (GI) troubles can occur at any stage of life, they tend to become more common as we age. That doesn’t mean they’re inevitable, though. “These aren’t necessarily just a normal part of aging that you have to live with,” says Brijen Shah, MD, an associate professor of gastroenterology and geriatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
Adopting some lifestyle changes can make a big difference. We asked GI experts for their insights about what to do—and not do—to combat some of the most common digestive issues.
What it is: Whether it’s occasional or chronic heartburn (called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD) the symptoms are the result of stomach acid flowing back into your esophagus. “The lower esophageal sphincter [a muscular ring] is the door between your stomach and your esophagus,” says Vijaya Rao, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at UChicago Medicine. “Acid reflux happens when that door opens too frequently.”
What it is: Straining to have bowel movements and/or going less frequently.
What makes it worse: With age, gut motility (the ability of your digestive system to move food through) can slow down. Not eating enough fiber, drinking enough water, or getting enough exercise can also cause or worsen constipation.
What makes it better: “A high-fiber diet is important, but not all fiber is equal,” Rezapour says. Soluble fiber, found in foods like apples, citrus fruits, and oats, bulks up stool, so too much of it can exacerbate the problem. “Insoluble fiber [found in whole grains and vegetables] pulls water into the stool and helps ease constipation.” (Be sure to drink water when you increase fiber.) Staying active also promotes motility.
What it is: A buildup of gas in the digestive system can leave you feeling overly full (bloated) and gassy. You may have stomach pains and feel the need to pass gas or burp to relieve pressure.
What makes it worse: Constipation can leave you feeling perpetually bloated. Gas can also be produced by swallowing too much air when you’re eating. Sucking on hard candies or chewing gum cause you take in more air. And certain foods (such as beans and cruciferous vegetables like cabbage and broccoli) can cause gas, as can suddenly increasing your fiber intake.
What makes it better: You could cut out foods known to increase gas, but you shouldn’t. “Many are really healthy foods,” Rao says. “I also see that people who eliminate foods that are high in fiber because they cause gas end up with constipation.” A better solution is to increase your intake of high-fiber and gas-producing foods slowly to allow your digestive system time to adapt.
Some experts also suggest a probiotic supplement. “An imbalance in your gut bacteria causes dysfunction in your GI system,” Rezapour says. “For some people, probiotics seem to help relieve gas, bloating, and pain.” But the evidence isn’t conclusive, so talk to your doctor. As with all supplements, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t verify that probiotics have what manufacturers say they do, so you can’t be sure you’re ingesting exactly what the label claims.
What it is: Lactose, the sugar in milk, is broken down by the enzyme lactase. Lactase production decreases with age, which can lead to diarrhea and other GI symptoms when you eat dairy products.
What makes it worse: Consuming milk or other foods that have lactose.
What makes it better: You might not have to give up all dairy or rely on lactose-free milk or lactase supplements. (There’s not much evidence that the latter work all that well anyway.) Some dairy foods have little or no lactose, such as cheddar and Swiss cheeses. And the bacteria that’s used to make yogurt can “digest” the lactose in the milk. Also, research suggests that many lactose intolerant people can handle up to 15 grams of lactose—about what’s in a cup of milk—at a time, especially with a meal.