Help keep your digestive system happy — a 5-step plan

By Maria Masters

Make these lifestyle changes to help support your gut health

Yes, your body changes with age — you see it in the mirror and you feel it in your joints.

But your gut ages surprisingly well, largely functioning as it did when you were younger, says Joanne Wilson, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Duke Health.

In fact, many of the gastrointestinal (GI) problems that arise in older adults aren’t caused by aging itself, Dr. Wilson explains. Rather, they result from lifestyle changes like being too sedentary or not eating a healthy diet, she says.

Other times, digestive troubles occur as a result of a disease, such as a stroke, or are a side effect of a certain medication.

Tell your doctor about any new GI symptoms you’re experiencing, since they could be a sign of a more serious problem, says Dr. Wilson. “But don’t assume you’re just getting older,” she says.

The good news: Many common GI problems may be improved by taking a look at your daily habits and making changes, if necessary. These 5 steps are a good place to start.

Step #1: Examine your medications

“With any kind of gut problem, one of the first things we do is look at medications,” says Dr. Wilson. Some medications, including certain blood thinners and antidepressants, can cause constipation, whereas other medications, such as antacids and antibiotics, can cause diarrhea.

Even supplements, which can be purchased over the counter, can cause GI problems. “Some people think more is better, but taking too many calcium supplements or too much fish oil can give you diarrhea, bloating and gas,” says Dr. Wilson.

If you’ve recently started taking a new medication (prescription or over-the-counter) and have started experiencing stomach issues, tell your doctor or health care provider, she says. They might be able to prescribe you a different drug (one with fewer side effects) or add a medication to your regimen that can help ease your symptoms.

Step #2: De-stress with deep breathing

Ever felt butterflies in your stomach before a big event? That sensation happens because your digestive tract has its own nervous system, complete with more than 100 million nerve endings, says Sarah Kinsinger, Ph.D., director of behavioral medicine for the Digestive Health Program at Loyola University Health System.

What’s more, your GI tract’s nervous system is in constant communication with your brain. “Because of this brain-gut communication,” says Kinsinger, “the GI tract is often one of the first places that people feel the effects of stress.”

Short-term stress — say, the anxiety you feel when you’re running late for an important appointment — usually just triggers temporary GI discomfort, she says. The feeling usually goes away after the moment passes. But ongoing (or chronic) high levels of stress can cause longer-term GI symptoms, such as indigestion, frequent stomach cramps, diarrhea or constipation.

To combat stress and keep stomach problems at bay, Kinsinger recommends doing a very simple deep (or diaphragmatic) breathing exercise. “It has a calming effect on the gut,” she says.

Here’s how to do it: Find a comfortable place to sit. Place one hand on your stomach and inhale through your nose for three to six counts. As you breathe in, feel your stomach expand. Now exhale through your mouth for three to six counts. Try to do it at least once a day for 5 to 15 minutes, she says.

Step #3: Fill up with fiber

More than half of American adults over the age of 60 have diverticula, or small, bulging sacs that form on the inner wall of the intestine, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The inflammation of these pouches is called diverticulitis, and it may be caused by a low-fiber diet and strained bowel movements.

One way to decrease the risk of developing diverticulitis is to eat more fiber, says nutrition consultant Leslie Bonci, R.D., M.P.H. “Eating enough fiber is important for bowel regularity and helps prevent food from getting caught in the diverticula,” she says.

Fiber also provides the “fuel” for a healthy gut microbiome — the collection of trillions of microorganisms that live in our guts and help support a healthy immune system.

You can find fiber in plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes. To up your intake, aim for about two to four servings of fruit and three to five servings of vegetables, says Bonci.

And try to make sure that at least half of the grains you eat every day are whole grains (think whole-wheat bread versus white bread). Women over the age of 60 need at least 21 grams of fiber per day, and men need at least 30 grams per day, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

While the idea of eating more fiber may not sound too appealing, Bonci says that you can get creative in the kitchen. For example, she likes to make a quick overnight oatmeal using Greek yogurt, canned pumpkin and ground flaxseed. The oats and pumpkin contain soluble fiber, and flaxseeds contain lignans, which is another type of fiber that has anti-inflammatory effects.

Step #4: Keep your water glass full

It’s not unusual for you to feel less thirsty as you get older, according to the National Institute of Aging. But it’s still important to drink plenty of water.

Fiber absorbs water as it moves through your GI tract, so drinking enough fluids can help ward off constipation and help you pass soft stools, says Dr. Wilson. Try to get in the habit of drinking a glass of water with each meal, says Dr. Wilson.

Step #5: Find a physical activity you enjoy

If you’re less active than you once were, you aren’t alone. But avoiding exercise can also increase your risk for GI issues like constipation, states the National Institute on Aging.

One of the simplest exercises you can do to help regulate your bowel movements, says Dr. Wilson, is walking. It’s easy to start and easy to stick to. You can also do gentle exercises like tai chi and yoga.

Whatever type of physical activity you choose, know that you’re not only doing your gut health a favor, but you’re also helping to combat stress. “Successfully aging people have a fitness routine,” says Dr. Wilson.

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