Before you self-diagnose yourself with a food intolerance, check this list for a few fixable things that impact your belly.
You're Sleep Deprived
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You can thank all that tossing and turning for why you're craving a bagel for breakfast and a cookie for lunch. All it takes is one bad night's sleep to make you reach for more sugar and carbs. (In fact, one fewer hour of good sleep can affect your control over cravings.) "Lack of sleep increases the hormone ghrelin, which causes an increase in cravings for fats, sugars, and caffeine—all of which can irritate the digestive system," says Nicolas Pavouris, M.D., F.A.A.F.P., a family physician in Florida.
These cravings are a "natural response to soothe the body when exhaustion strikes," says holistic nutritionist, Kristin Dahl, who recommends eating balanced meals and adequate protein to combat these cravings.
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Lack of sleep and increased stress tend to go hand in hand, and their impact on digestion is similar. Dahl says that because the digestive process is controlled by your parasympathetic nervous system (otherwise known as "rest and digest"), stress can easily impact this process, causing unrest in your nervous system. "Whenever the body is in a state of stress or there is any kind of perceived threat, your 'fight or flight' response is triggered, and digestive muscles may exert less effort and digestive enzymes may be secreted in smaller amounts," she says.
Short-term, this could cause a few uncomfortable hours, but long-term, it's much more serious. "Constant stress and anxiety impairs your ability to digest and metabolize your food properly and, over an extended period of time, reduces the amount of nutrients you're able to absorb," says Dahl.
While stress is not entirely avoidable, relaxation techniques can help calm the mind and body for smoother digestion. (Here, read up on these 15 ways to beat everyday anxiety.)
You're Not Exercising Enough
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Increased exercise has been found to have a positive impact on the amount of gut microbiota in the body, which means a healthier digestive tract and, likely, more efficient digestion. Microbiota, or "gut flora," is basically the ecosystem of your gut and helps supports a healthy immune system. Staying hydrated and active are two crucial factors in the digestion equation, and both will help to keep things moving in your GI tract.
You Have Bad Posture
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Stand tall with your shoulders back and your head held high. This advice might sound like advice on how to approach your boss for a raise, but it's also an old Hollywood secret for good digestion from none other than Audrey Hepburn. Impeccable posture is said to help prevent indigestion, constipation, and back and neck pain.
You're On a New Medication
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"While there is a time and a place for antibiotic treatment, overuse can severely disrupt gut bacteria," says Dahl. "Antibiotics work to kill off bacterial infections; yet, in the process they often wipe out 'friendly' gut bacteria, which are needed to maintain balance in the micriobiome and support digestion." She recommends eating fermented foods and getting plenty of probiotics to increase the amount of healthy bacteria in your system.
Another culprit can be found right on the shelf, no prescription required—acid-reducing OTC meds. Although less acid may sound like it would lead to less digestive disruption, Pavouris says that "acid has a vital role in the initial digestive process of breaking down proteins, and undigested proteins can lead to bloating, constipation, and the inability to absorb vital nutrients." If you suspect your stomach is awry because if your new Rx, discuss it with your doctor before you decide to stop taking them cold turkey.
You're Going Overboard with Probiotics
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If antibiotics kill good bacteria and probiotics help good bacteria flourish, the more the merrier, right? Wrong. "Too much of a good thing can cause digestive issues," says Pavouris. "When people are first taking probiotics or eating fermented foods they start feeling better, so they think, 'Why not double or triple the amount and I'll feel that much better?' But, unfortunately, an imbalance of good bacteria can also give you digestive issues." His advice? Start low (dose) and go slow (frequency).
You're Gulping Water with Meals
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If you're thinking "but you just told me hydration helps with digestion," you're not wrong. But how you're drinking your water could make a difference. Dahl says that many people gulp water and other drinks while eating, which encourages gas and bloating. "Drinking during meals dilutes digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid, slowing down the digestive process," she says. "It's best to drink water 15 minutes before you eat and at least 30 minutes to one hour after."
You're Chewing All Wrong
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Because chewing is one of the first steps in the long journey of digestion, how you chew makes a difference. In fact, Dahl says that along with how you drink, your chewing habits can also have a "profound impact on how your body feels throughout the day." Digestion begins in the mouth. Saliva contains enzymes that help break down food particles before they enter the digestive tract. So the longer food is exposed to saliva (through chewing), the more easily it moves through your intestines and the less gas it creates, she says. Dahl recommends chewing each bite 20 to 30 times (no you don't have to count) before swallowing to ease digestion and improve absorption of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.
You've Self-Diagnosed a Food Allergy or Intolerance
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Although food allergies are common considerations on restaurant menus and in food manufacturing these days, there is still a lot of confusion over what constitutes a true food allergy, which are actually pretty rare, says Pavouris. The self-diagnosis of a gluten or diary allergy, for example, has only heightened this food confusion.
"A food allergy is a very serious condition that causes an immune reaction and can be life-threatening," say Pavouris. "But symptoms of a food intolerance are less serious and are mainly limited to the digestive tract."
The biggest problem with self-diagnosis is "people may feel that they have a food intolerance and the symptoms might be masking a very serious underlying condition," he says. In addition, elimination diets may not always solve the problem, as he says cutting entire food groups from your diet could end up causing even more digestive problems.
Many people place the blame on entire food groups when the underlying issue has more to do with stress, anxiety, too much caffeine, or underlying bacterial imbalances in your digestive system, says Dahl. So work with your doctor to determine if you really do have a food allergy, or if you're suffering from another digestion destroyer.