By Dr. Raymond Cross

Living with digestive health problems can be challenging. Digestive health problems can impact on your ability to enjoy foods and beverages, can affect your ability to work and engage in social situations, can limit personal relationships, and can decrease quality of life. Fortunately, effective medical treatments usually control most digestive health problems. Listed below are some simple health strategies to improve digestive health.

1. Keep up with health maintenance.

It is very important that you keep regularly scheduled appointments with your doctor. If you must miss a visit, contact your doctor's office to schedule another appointment as soon as possible. The simple act of following up with your doctor can improve digestive health.

2. Mind your medications.

It is very important that you maintain a regular schedule for your medications. Missing doses can increase symptoms or complications of digestive disorders.

3. Battle the bulge.

Many foods can worsen digestive symptoms. Beverages or foods that contain alcohol, chocolate, caffeine, peppermint, spearmint, coffee, carbonation, and acidic fruits and vegetables can trigger heartburn or acid reflux. A large intake of fluid and/or salt can cause fluid retention in patients with liver disease. Caffeine, alcohol, dairy products, acidic fruits and vegetables, spicy foods, and foods high in fiber can worsen diarrhea in patients with Crohn's disease, colitis, or irritable bowel syndrome. In patients with Crohn's disease, high fiber foods, such as uncooked vegetables, and dry, over-cooked meat can trigger a bout of intestinal obstruction ("blockage"). Avoiding or limiting these foods and beverages can prevent symptoms. Sometimes, keeping a food diary can be helpful so that you can identify what foods trigger digestive problems.

4. Limit your intake of alcoholic beverages.

Consumption of alcoholic beverages can worsen heartburn and diarrhea. People with alcohol-induced liver and pancreatic disease are at risk for recurrent symptoms if exposed to even small amounts of alcohol. It is very important that you resist the temptation to drink if you have alcohol-induced liver disease or pancreatic disease. Moderating your intake of alcohol is recommended for patients with heartburn or diarrhea. It can be helpful to avoid situations in which alcoholic beverages play a large part in the celebration (for example, this year's Super Bowl party!). Involving a sponsor or counselor can help. Of course, never drink and drive!

5. Don't overdue it.

Stress can have a major impact on digestive diseases. For example, increased stress can trigger a flare in Crohn's disease, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome. Try to minimize stress as much as possible. Don't take on more things than you can handle. Get sufficient sleep.

6. Know when to self-medicate and when to seek advice.

Symptoms from some digestive diseases can be treated with over-the-counter medications. Antacids (for example, Tums and Maalox) and H2 blockers (for example Zantac and Pepcid AC) can be used for breakthrough heartburn symptoms. Imodium can be used to treat diarrhea in irritable bowel syndrome. In addition, many alternative or complimentary medicines are available for use without a prescription. Examples include but are not limited to probiotics, fish oil, aloe vera, milk thistle, ginger, and vitamin E. Many of these forms of therapy have not been to be of proven benefit and some can cause harm. To avoid digestive and other health problems, seek advice about over the counter medications and supplements with your doctor before using them.

7. An ounce of prevention.

Monitoring for potential problems is important in digestive health. For patients with cirrhosis, checking body weight daily is very important. An increase of 3 pounds or more can be a sign of fluid overload. Informing your medical provider of such an increase in body weight can prevent an unnecessary visit or hospital stay. Patients with cirrhosis can also experience confusion (hepatic encephalopathy) triggered by excess protein intake. Persistent diarrhea and/or rectal bleeding can be a sign of a flare of Crohn's disease and colitis. Alert your doctor to these symptoms promptly for appropriate management.

IBD Research and Clinical Trials

Person touching an image of a stomach
The University of Maryland Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Research Program is a national leader in clinical research.