Why Your Belly’s Not Better: seven sneaky things messing up your gut

You’re avoiding gluten, minimizing carbs and taking your supplements—and you’re still experiencing indigestion, bloating, stomach upset or constipation. It may be that common daily habits, even “healthy” ones, are harming your gut. Check out these seven sneaky saboteurs that mess with your belly.

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1. That Starbucks addiction. Coffee causes an increase in stomach acid and can lead to heartburn, acid indigestion or reflux. Caffeine also stimulates peristalsis—the rhythmic contractions of the intestines that move stool matter—which can cause diarrhea or loose stools in some people. And drinking coffee can slow digestion: caffeine increases the production of adrenaline and noradrenaline, which causes the heart to beat faster and can result in decreased blood flow to the intestines. It’s also a diuretic, which can impact gastrointestinal health. None of this means you can’t ever drink coffee; just moderate your consumption and drink a full glass of water after every cup of coffee. If you suffer from heartburn, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or excess stomach acid, try a lower-acid coffee, or switch to a coffee substitute made from mushrooms or adaptogenic herbs. And on a happier note: some studies suggest coffee is good for gut bacteria, increasing diversity and promoting growth of some friendly strains.

2. Your super-healthy diet. Beans, lentils, cashews, beets, cauliflower, blackberries, apples and other plant foods are nutrient dense and loaded with fiber—but if you’re sensitive, they can wreak havoc on your digestive system. These and other good-for-you foods are high in FODMAPS, or Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols—carbohydrates that aren’t fully digested and can be fermented by gut bacteria, causing pain, gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea in some people. Even if you’re not sensitive to FODMAPs, a sudden and dramatic increase in high-fiber foods can overload your digestive system and cause distress. And some studies show decreasing fiber may improve constipation in people following a high fiber diet. We’re definitely not saying you should stop eating beans, fruits and vegetables; but if you’re new to a high-fiber diet, start slow. Add fiber-rich foods gradually and drink plenty of water to keep stools soft and avoid digest issues. To make beans easier to digest, soak them overnight to remove oligosaccharides, then drain the soaking water before cooking. And if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other chronic gut issues, consider a low-FODMAP diet; studies show it can improve symptoms.

3. The wrong probiotic supplement. Dozens of studies have linked a healthy microbiome to improved gut health, mood and immune function. But new research is casting a wary eye on probiotic supplements. One study found taking probiotic supplements after a course of antibiotics could actually do more harm than good, by inhibiting the regrowth of the body’s natural gut bacteria. And some research suggests probiotics may evolve in the gut and cause harm, possibly damaging the protective layer that lines the intestines. Additionally, many probiotic supplements contain prebiotics, usually FOS (fructooligosaccharides) or inulin, designed to “feed” intestinal bacteria. These compounds can cause side effects like gas, bloating, cramps, abdominal pain and diarrhea. If you’re using a probiotic supplement, choose a high-quality version with a wide variety of strains, and skip the added prebiotics. And consider getting most of your probiotics from fermented foods like yogurt, kim chi, naturally fermented pickles or sauerkraut, miso and tempeh.

4. The Keto plan. Short for ketogenic, the Keto plan is a very low-carb, high-fat diet that drastically reduces carbohydrate intake, replacing it with high quantities of fat. While low-carb diets have many benefits, they can cause problems with digestive health. Studies suggest a diet high in saturated fat tends to increase harmful gut bacteria while diminishing beneficial bacteria. Keto and other low-carb diets generally tend to be higher in animal protein, which also has an unfavorable impact on the microbiome. Red meat in particular may promote the growth of harmful intestinal bacteria and potentially increase the risk of IBS and other gut disorder. And some sugar alcohols, used as sugar alternatives on low-carb diets, can cause gas, bloating and other digestive issues. You don’t have to ditch your low-carb diet—but if you’re struggling with belly issues, be careful with your red meat and saturated fat intake, and skip those sugar alcohols.

5. Your boozy libations. That daily drink not only harms your liver, it may be messing with your gut as well. Alcohol irritates the stomach lining, interferes with gastric acid secretion in the stomach, impairs muscle movement in the intestines and relaxes the esophageal sphincter, which increases the risk of heartburn. Studies also show alcohol can cause an imbalance in gut bacteria and increasing the numbers of harmful bugs. Drink in moderation, and not every day. And if you do drink, switch to red wine. In one study, hard liquor reduced beneficial bacteria, while moderate amounts of red wine increased good gut bacteria and decreased harmful bactera.

6. Your go-go lifestyle. If your high-action way of life means fewer hours of shut-eye, you may be compromising gut health. Lack of sleep increases stomach acid, decreases intestinal motility and hampers blood flow and digestion. In one study, only two nights of sleep deprivation altered gut microbes and increased the abundance of bacteria associated with weight gain, obesity and type 2 diabetes. A disruption in your body’s circadian rhythm—lots of parties or late-night work dinners—can increase the risk of a variety of gastrointestinal diseases, including IBS, GERD or peptic ulcer disease. And a high-stress job or lifestyle can dramatically impact digestive health and also lead to changes in gut microbiota, reducing overall diversity, lowering beneficial bacteria and increasing potentially harmful bacteria.  

7. Skipping the gym. Regular physical activity not only lowers stress, encourages weight loss and reduces the risk of chronic disease , it can also positively impact intestinal bacteria and improve gut health. If you’re not moving,  the digestive tract can’t move waste through properly, leading to constipation, IBS  and other gut health issues. And recent studies suggest physical activity can improve gut flora, promoting diversity and increasing levels of beneficial bacteria. You don’t have to be a superstar athlete to reap the benefits; any regular physical activity, even at low-to-moderate intensities (think walking, gardening, ballroom dancing), is beneficial.