Your stomach is like a car. As long as it’s running smoothly, you probably don’t pay much attention to what's happening with it. But as soon as a weird sound is heard or the brakes are squealing, it demands your attention. It’s not only annoying—it may hinder you from going where you want and doing what you want.
Did you know that a majority of all people with damage to the nervous system (SCI, MS, ALS or Parkinson’s disease) have some kind of stomach trouble? The most common problems are constipation, abdominal gas and bloating. Reasons for constipation can be a sedentary life style, low fluid intake and medications like painkillers (e.g. morphine and codeine), diuretics or antidepressants. Many people also are simply incontinent and the bowel tends to have a life of its own, which often creates stress and anxiety surrounding having an accident in public.
Some bowel problems demand medicines or other therapies, such as transanal irrigation (TAI), but all people, regardless whether a therapy or an other medical procedure is necessary, benefit from a healthy digestive system. In fact your diet can help prevent or ease secondary health complications such as pain, bladder infections, osteoporosis, obesity, pressure sores and cardiovascular disease. You have everything to gain.
Ready to get your digestive system on track? Here are the 10 best tips for a healthy stomach from nutrition counselor and wellness expert Anna Carin!
1. Keep a high-fiber diet
Fiber increases the volume and weight of the intestinal content, which improves the bowel movement and passage. On top of that, fibers even out the blood sugar levels, give a feeling of satiety and improve the blood fat levels: a win-win-win! And for the record—lettuce and cucumber don't make the cut; some better options are cauliflower, broccoli, beans and peas.
But remember to increase the fiber intake slowly. A dull side effect is temporarily increased gas and bloating before your stomach has become accustomed. To complicate things a bit more, fiber can add to constipation for some people with spinal cord injury. If that happens you should decrease the intake again and ask your doctor for advice.
2. Don’t forget to hydrate
Drink 1.5 to 2 liters of water/fluid every day. If you are dehydrated and don’t drink enough, the body will compensate by taking fluid from your bowel and use it for other important body functions. This causes dryer and harder stools. Ample hydration is even more important if you are on a high-fiber diet. Unfortunately, you can’t count fluids in terms of coffee, soda and alcohol. That could be counterproductive since they have a slightly diuretic effect.
3. Avoid constipating foods
Avoid processed carbohydrates, such as white bread, pasta, white rice and baked sweets. This type of food is low in fiber and contributes to constipation.
4. Get (good) fat
Not all fats are created equally! You should choose good fats such as vegetable oil and oil that comes naturally in avocado, nuts and fatty fish. A healthy dose of this good fat helps lubricate the bowel and makes the stool softer. However, be cautioned that unhealthy fats (like those found in butter) does not offer this benefit.
5. Try probiotics for a happy bowel
Your bowel needs billions of good lacto bacteria to function, as these small powerhouse organisms manage the fermentation and degradation of the foods. Add healthy bacteria to your tract by eating garlic, onion, sour milk, plain yogurt and different types of probiotic foods. (Tip: look for "live active cultures" on the label!)
6. Magnesium—your personal plumber
Magnesium has a mild laxative effect. You will find this mineral in oat and wheat bran, sunflower and sesame seeds, black beans and quinoa.
7. Eat little and often
When you have stomach problems, it is especially important to let the bowel work in a healthy rhythm in order to help with digestion. Eat small portions at regular times: breakfast, lunch and dinner with one or two small snacks in between. It also is important to truly taste what you're putting into your mouth; chew slowly and carefully to help the digestion and nutrient uptake.
8. Move your body
Physical activity will help speeding up a slow bowel.... so get moving!
9. Practice regular bathroom habits
The bowel likes consistency and works best at set times. For example, it is most ideal to use the restroom within 30 minutes after a meal or a hot drink. The best chance to get your digestive tract moving is to relieve yourself right after breakfast when the body and bowel have naturally started up. This schedule reminds your digestive system that the day has begun and that it has a job to do!
And speaking of time, don’t rush things while you're taking care of business. Make the restroom a stress-free zone and give your body the relaxation it needs to truly be relieved!
10. Mind your sitting posture
Make sure that the way you sit helps the bowel evacuation. A crouching posture with support for your feet is preferable. Move your upper body back and forth a little bit to further facilitate the evacuation.
Anna-Carin Lagerström has a Masters of Science and works as a physiotherapist, health educator and nutrition counselor at the Spinalis’ foundation for people with spinal cord injuries, where she meets a lot of people with bladder and bowel problems. Ms. Lagerström has also written a book alongside her colleague, Kerstin Wahman, titled The Art of Healthy Living with Physical Impairments.