Your gut is essential for more than just instincts. It has to make sure that your body gets fed, which is a very complex job.  The stomach churns food; the small intestine breaks the mixture into smaller enzymes so that the body can absorb nutrients, and the large intestine converts what’s not needed into stool.  When the process works as it should, you’re happily oblivious.  But when one part goes awry, so can the quality of your life!

Gut Gripes

Stomach growling?  A low growl when you’re hungry or right after eating means gas and liquid are mixing together as your small intestine contracts.  While it might seem like everyone in the room can hear it, others usually don’t notice.  If you’re hearing high-pitched squeals, or if the noises are accompanied by abdominal pain, the healthy growling process is happening too aggressively, and you may want to see your doctor to find out why.

Going three times a day?  Has that always been the case?  As long as you’re on a regular routine and you don’t have severe bloating or cramps between bathroom visits, you’re good to go.  The same is true if you go just a few times per week.  That said, if you’re heading to the bathroom more than four times per day or fewer than three times per week and feel uncomfortable, consider consulting your
physician to rule out a more serious problem.

Bloated at the end of the day?  It’s normal if your abdomen protrudes a bit by late afternoon.  At that point your muscles have fatigued and are less capable of restraining your intestines, so they bulge slightly.  It’s also no big deal to feel slightly swollen after a large meal.  But an alarm should go off if your abdomen frequently gest measurably bigger and stays that way for hours.  That may signal an
intestinal obstruction, a problem with the way your intestines contract, an electrolyte disorder (an imbalance of salts in the blood), or liver or ovarian disease.

Home just in time!  If you’ve got to go when you hit your front door, it’s not lucky timing.  If you were not at home that urge may not have come at all.  Our guts and brains are so connected that when you enter the place where you usually do your business, the brain alerts the gut to get moving.  That’s also why you may be constipated when traveling.  Away from your home base, your brain may fail to send the “go” signal to your gut.

Five Healthy Gut Strategies

  1. Commit to exercise.  Exercise gets the colon moving, helping you to maintain regularity.  It’s also useful when dealing with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.

  2. Chew your food.  To be happy, our gastrointestinal tract needs us to take time for our meals and chew our food thoroughly and slowly.  Smaller, more frequent meals may also help you to avoid overwhelming the digestive system.

  3. De-stress.  Psychological interventions can be very helpful when it comes to treating gastrointestinal symptoms.  Mindfulness is a simple meditation technique that involves focusing on the present moment and reframing how you respond to stress.  Talk therapy and even hypnotherapy have also been known to help.

  4. Take a probiotic.  The gut is home to tens of trillions of bacteria, of which about 10% are “bad” (causing digestive distress) and 90% “good” (controlling the bad bacteria).  Probiotics is just another word for good bacteria.  Ingested regularly, they’ll help skew the ratio of bacteria in your gut to the good.  Some forms of yogurt and kefir contain probiotics, but nowhere near the amount in supplements.  How to pick one?  Look for bottle with 8 million or more organisms (or CFU’s: colony-forming units) with at least 5 strains of bacteria (with names like Lactobacillus  cidophilus).   Each person’s gut is different, so if you’re taking a probiotic for relief from a squirrelly gut and nothing changes after a few weeks, it’s worth trying another one.

  5. Keep an eye on it.  This may not sound appealing, but one of the easiest ways to check your gut health is to peek into the toilet before you flush.  Red can indicate blood in the lower gastrointestinal tract, which could be a sign of colorectal cancer, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or hemorrhoids.  Black can point to upper-gastrointestinal-tract bleeding, such as stomach ulcers.  Just be aware that iron tablets and foods like beets can have harmless, color-altering effects.  Firm is good, hard could mean dehydration or constipation, and no shape means diarrhea. Skinny (pencil thin) could also be cause of concern.  It might indicate a narrowing in the colon, possibly from a tumor or strictures.  It’s best to have your doctor investigate.  The best doctor to see (the specialist) would be a gastroenterologist.

Julia Edelstein