Lifestyle adjustments can help keep your digestive system on track.

A lifestyle that includes daily helpings of stress, poor sleep and unhealthy dietary choices can cause a number of physical problems, but one of the most common and frustrating is the onset of digestive symptoms.

Heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain all are issues that affect many people’s lives, can be difficult to discuss and sometimes even more tough to fix. Learning what can bring about these symptoms is the first step to take before you address the key lifestyle changes and standard remedies that can provide needed relief.

The effects of stress and diet

Stress comes in two forms acute and chronic and can impact people in different ways. Acute stress is short-term and affects the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract (see diagram) by slowing down emptying of the stomach and typically bringing about nausea, discomfort and sometimes even vomiting. Irritation of the lower GI tract can speed up the colons activity, causing diarrhea or increased bowel movements.

The same symptoms can be brought about through chronic stress (constipation may also occur), but they are typically longer lasting and can cause higher sensitivity in the internal organs. This condition is marked by recurring pain and pressure in the abdomen and bowels. Disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and other abdominal pain conditions like diarrhea are common with this ailment.

The foods we eat and drink can also have a negative effect on digestion. Fatty/spicy foods empty out of the stomach more slowly than proteins and carbohydrates. Along with caffeine, alcohol and peppermint, these dietary items also can relax the lower esophageal sphincter, a valve between the esophagus and stomach. The result is heartburn and acid reflux, which occurs when stomach acid irritates and comes back up into the esophagus and sometimes all the way up into the throat.

Managing the issues

Positive lifestyle changes to alleviate stress and streamline your diet are a good start to work your way through digestive issues, but several over-the-counter remedies help provide relief and can actually change the flora in your gut. Probiotics contain live bacteria that can help restore balance essential to healthy digestion to the unfriendly bacteria in your digestive system. Using probiotic capsules and yogurt products will aid in boosting immune health and regular bowel function, while fiber supplements are particularly helpful for constipation.

Excessive heartburn can be alleviated with proton pump inhibitors (long-lasting drugs that shut down acid production) and H2 blockers (a class of drugs that simply reduce it). Products containing simethicone reduce bloating and discomfort from excessive gas; a variety of anti-diarrhea medications can help relieve urgency and frequent bowel movements.

In addition, taking steps to improve poor sleep, which can also worsen digestive issues, are typically helpful. Of course, symptoms that persist warrant seeing a physician to help pinpoint whats causing your condition. But for many, combining dietary and medication interventions while lowering your stress with lifestyle and behavioral changes can relieve GI symptoms and lead to a healthier mind and body.

In addition to the types of foods we eat and drink, eating large meals can increase symptoms of digestive conditions.
Food intolerances to the following items may bring about gas, bloating and stomachaches:
Glutena protein found in grains
Fructosea sugar occurring naturally in fruits, along with some sweeteners
Lactosea sugar found mainly in dairy products

Dr. Lin Chang, MD, is a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Digestive Diseases and Department of Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. She is the Co-Director of the Center for Neurobiology of Stress at UCLA, and Director of the UCLA Digestive Health and Nutrition Clinic.