Ask The Expert
January 27, 2012
Last reviewed on January 27, 2012
By Paulette Chandler, M.D., M.P.H.
In recent years many products have been touted for rejuvenating the intestinal tract and enhancing digestive health through "colon detoxification and cleansing." But despite the glowing claims, almost all these products have no scientific proof of effectiveness. The real keys to a healthier digestive system are diet and regular exercise. Refined, processed, low-fiber foods, animal fats, chronic stress and a lack of physical activity are the foundation for a host of gastrointestinal diseases, including colorectal cancer, heartburn, diverticulitis and constipation. Proper digestion, absorption of nutrients and elimination of waste products are aided by a good exercise program and healthy diet.
Digestive problems can occur at any weight, but bloating, heartburn, and constipation are more common in people who are overweight. Extra pounds increase pressure within your abdomen and force stomach acid (reflux) into your esophagus. This reflux of acid produces heartburn a burning sensation in your esophagus. Excess weight also can predispose you to gallbladder disease and, possibly, colon cancer.
The Exercise Tonic
Exercise is a great tonic for the mind, body and stomach. Exercise helps to control weight and prevent constipation. Aerobic exercise (exercise that increases your breathing and heart rate) and deep breathing exercises are very beneficial for healthy digestion, because they stimulate the natural contraction of intestinal muscles, helping to move food through your intestines more rhythmically.
Avoid heavy exercise after a large meal. Digestion requires a large amount of blood flow to your stomach and intestines. If you exercise immediately after eating, digestion will be put on hold while blood is redirected to support the increased work of the heart and muscles. With the reduction in blood supply to the gut, the gut muscles contract less vigorously, digestive enzymes are secreted in smaller amounts, and the transit of food waste shifts into slow motion. This can lead to heartburn, bloating and constipation.
Stress can cause a similar shift in blood flow away from the gut, as muscles tense and heart rate accelerates, demanding more oxygen delivery to the active muscles. Daily exercise is a well-known stress buster through a variety of mechanisms, including boosting the release of endorphins the "happy" hormones. The same neurotransmitters and receptors that dictate mood in the brain exist in great abundance in the gut and influence digestion.
Other Strategies for Good Digestive Health
The same good behaviors that prevent heart disease and stroke daily doses of exercise, regular checkups, a daily multivitamin, healthy diet and no smoking boost digestive fitness.
Paulette Chandler, M.D., M.P.H. is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an attending physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital.