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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2014
Health & Fitness

Smart lifestyle choices support good digestion


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Each day, 70 million people suffer from digestive disorders, including heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux and constipation. To relieve these symptoms, many turn to digestive aids — but certain drugs can have serious side effects.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, findings indicated that those over age 50 who took drugs such as Nexium, Prevacid and Prilosec for more than one year had a 44 percent increased risk of breaking a hip.

While this class of drugs called proton pump inihibitors, or PPIs, is effective at reducing stomach acid, some stomach acid is required to absorb calcium, a mineral essential to maintain strong bones.

So, how do you maintain healthy digestive function without drugs? The process begins simply enough: Lifestyle choices that support general health also support good digestion.

Boost immunity. The digestive system is linked closely to the immune system. (Actually, the gastrointestinal tract contains 70 percent of the body’s immune system.) So, strengthening immunity with good nutrition, exercise and stress reduction will enhance digestion. By eating a diet rich in antioxidants, we can help our body remove free radicals from the bloodstream. Free radicals can damage DNA and suppress our body’s natural defenses. Good sources of antioxidants include spinach, broccoli, watercress, tomatoes, berries, walnuts and apricots.

Go pro. Probiotics are live microorganisms that colonize the intestinal tract and help strengthen immune and digestive function. The most common sources of probiotics are dairy foods like kefir, yogurt and cottage cheese.

Feed your gut. While probiotics ensure the GI tract is filled with healthy bacteria, prebiotics are food for probiotics, promoting their growth and beneficial activities. Good bacteria like to eat carbohydrates that resist digestion in the upper GI tract. These include legumes, cereal, potatoes, fruit, berries and whole wheat.

Manage stress. Chronic stress will sap immunity, but one of the best ways to combat stress is with exercise. Both yoga and tai chi are effective in reducing anxiety. Biofeedback, visualization and Pilates have also been shown to lower the stresses of everyday life, and even walking your dog will work. No dog? No problem. Swim at the Y, or hop on an exercise bike while you’re watching TV.

Reduce dietary fat. A low-fat diet can lessen symptoms of gall bladder disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and irritable bowel syndrome, among other digestive issues. Plus, lowering your fat intake will aid in weight loss. Obesity is a precursor to digestive system cancers and Type II diabetes, which can damage nerves that regulate digestion. So, replace butter and margarine with olive oil; choose fish, chicken and turkey verses beef; and try going meatless a few meals each week.

I’d be remiss if I wrote a story about digestion and didn’t mention some age-old advice that’s tried and true: Eat slowly. No one likes to be rushed, even your digestive system. Taking at least 20 minutes to eat allows your body to properly digest what was on your plate. Chew your food thoroughly. Healthy digestion and nutrient absorption begins with the very act of chewing.

Tina Ruggiero, M.S., R.D., L.D., is a nutrition expert and award-winning author. Her newest book is “The Truly Healthy Family Cookbook.” Find Tina at www.TinaRuggiero.com.

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