Settle those digestive disagreements

By Cristina De Castro-Dela Cruz, M.D., internal medicine, Providence Medical Group-West Linn.

Food, glorious food. It nourishes our cells, fuels our bodies, feeds our families and satisfies our souls. It's essential to life, and often a source of great pleasure. We look forward to some foods so much that we begin the digestive process – by salivating – before we've even popped the first bite into our mouths.

What happens after that, however, can be a bit less pleasant for those with digestive difficulties. As food makes its way through the rest of the digestive process on a one- to three-day journey through the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, colon, and then finally out of the body as waste, it can trigger some rather indelicate side effects. In many cases, these side effects are simply the body's reaction to something it didn't agree with. To avoid any unpleasantries, try these five strategies for more agreeable digestion:

Eat the right amount of food for your body: Eating too much at one sitting can cause bloating, gas and heartburn. Overeating on a regular basis can lead to weight gain, which makes all of these problems worse. On the flip side, eating too little can cause problems as well, including nutritional deficiencies and problems with absorbing nutrients. For happy digestion and a healthy body, it's important to strike the right balance. 

Eat the right foods: The salt-sugar-fat combination that fast-food companies and snack manufacturers have perfected may tantalize your taste buds, but it's not doing any favors for your body. What your body needs to help it run smoothly and efficiently are vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy foods (unless you are lactose intolerant), and moderate amounts of healthy fats from foods like olive oil, nuts and avocados. Feed your body what it needs, and it will reward you with fewer digestive disagreements.

Focus on fiber: High-fiber foods are the housekeepers of the digestive system, scrubbing their way through the gastrointestinal tract as they sweep food through the system. These foods also bulk up the stool to decrease problems with constipation and hemorrhoids. Keep your digestive system clean and efficient by adding more crispy apples, crunchy broccoli, red, black and white beans, oats, fresh berries and other high-fiber foods to your daily diet.

Make water your beverage of choice: Most of your body is made up of water, and every part of your body – including your digestive system – needs water to function properly. Water helps produce the hormones, acids and enzymes you need to digest foods. It helps soften the stool to prevent constipation. And if you suffer from acid reflux, it's about the only drink that won't trigger your heartburn. Contrary to what the manufacturers of sweetened, caffeinated and alcoholic beverages want you to believe, water is the only beverage your body really needs. Meet all or most of your daily fluid needs with water.

Have a moving experience: Muscle contractions along the digestive tract propel food efficiently from one end to the other, but it's a very long tract – about 30 feet in total – and sometimes things get a little bogged down. You can help keep things moving along by getting out and moving yourself. Regular exercise is one of the best ways to stay regular. If you are having a problem with constipation, a few minutes on the treadmill is like a massage for your bowels. For infants with colic, moving their legs in a gentle bicycle motion can help get things moving, too.

If you are plagued by frequent bouts of burping, bloating, burning reflux or backed up bowels, give these five strategies a serious try. If your symptoms are increasingly affecting your life, or if you have more serious digestive symptoms, see your doctor. Abdominal pain, nausea, black or bloody stools or vomit, or unintentional weight loss may be signs of more serious medical problems and should be checked out by a physician.