Digestive Health for Women

Maintaining digestive health is an essential part of healthy living. The foods you eat are not in a form that you can use until your body breaks them down into smaller molecules that can be absorbed and carried by your blood to every part of your body where they provide the nourishment and energy you need to stay alive.

A Healthy Diet for Digestive Health

"Digestive health requires a well-balanced diet of lean protein, moderate carbohydrates, and less saturated fats," explains Amit Bhan, MD, a gastroenterologist at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Mich. A healthy diet is good for food digestion and also decreases your risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. Components of a healthy diet include:

* Moderate Carbohydrates- "Too many carbohydrates can cause fat growth around your mid-section and can contribute to type 2 diabetes," says Dr. Bhan.

*Lean protein- A healthy diet should include less red meat. "Cold water fish are a good source of protein and supply omega-3 fatty acids that may increase cardiovascular health and lower your risk of stroke," advises Bhan.

*Antioxidants- "Include antioxidants found in brightly colored fruits such as blueberries and strawberries," says Bhan. Antioxidants are substances that protect your body from cell damage that can lead to heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. Other good sources of antioxidants include vegetables, grains, and fish.

*Healthy fats- "Mono and polyunsaturated fats are good fats that help lower cholesterol and protect you from heart disease. You can get monounsaturated fats from olive oil and peanut oil," says Bhan. Polyunsaturated fats come from vegetable oils. "Nuts such as walnuts and almonds are also a good source of healthy fats," adds Bhan.

Digestive Health: How Exercise Helps

Aerobic exercise is important in preventing heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, and also boosts digestive health. "In the same way the aerobic exercise benefits the circulation in your cardiovascular system, it also benefits the gastrointestinal circulation. Just as being overweight and out of shape can lead to blood vessel disease in other parts of your body, it can also affect the important blood vessels that are needed for digestive health," explains Bhan.

Digestive Health: Subdue the Stress

If you have ever had butterflies in your stomach before a presentation at work or a big exam, you have experienced one of the effects of stress on your digestive health. "Stress does not cause ulcers, but it does increase gastric acid and can cause heartburn and indigestion. Stress doesn't cause irritable bowel or inflammatory bowel disease, but it can make these diseases act up," explains Bhan.

You can reduce stress by getting regular exercise and learning how to handle stress in better ways through relaxation training and other mind-body techniques. You can also reduce stress on your digestion by following a few simple steps:

Chew your food completely. This helps reduce the work of your stomach.
Eat slowly. This makes digestion easier and you will tend to feel full sooner.
Take smaller portions. Using a smaller plate and learning how to measure appropriate portion sizes are good ways to keep your portions better balanced.
Don't gulp. "People who take big bites also swallow air. This can cause a condition known as 'aerophagia' that can cause bloating and pressure," warns Bhan.

Probiotics and Digestive Health

"A lot of digestive heath complaints come from the growth of abnormal bacteria in the colon. This can be seen in bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis and can also be caused by antibiotics that kill off healthy bacteria and allow the growth of harmful bacteria. Probiotics are supplements to your diet that attempt to promote the growth of normal, or healthy, bacteria," explains Bhan.

Probiotics are live bacteria similar to the healthy bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract. Experts at one recent conference sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the American Society for Microbiology reported that there is some encouraging evidence to support probiotics in the treatment of diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome. Generally, probiotics are safe and have few harmful side effects. There is not enough evidence to say that probiotics can cure any digestive diseases, and you shouldn’t attempt this without talking to your doctor. Probiotics are in foods such as yogurt, fermented milk, miso, and some soy beverages. You can also take probiotics as a dietary supplement in capsule or powder form.

If you want to boost your digestive health make sure you eat the right foods, exercise, and do your best to manage stress. Take time to enjoy your food, without rushing and without overeating, and your body will thank you by digesting it well. By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD