Diarrhea and other digestive problems are no fun, especially for people who suffer from them often.
Such problems can be the result of bacteria in food, infection, stress, certain medications, or chronic medical conditions such as colitis, Crohn’s disease, and IBS. But no matter the cause, anyone who has frequent digestive problems faces daily challenges and potential embarrassments.
Do you schedule your activities around your bathroom breaks? Do you turn down invitations and avoid activities in public because you fear having an accident? If that sounds like you, rest assured you’re not alone.
Your doctor can suggest dietary guidelines and may prescribe medication to improve your digestive dilemma. But between checkups, you can take steps that will help you get through each day in greater comfort and ease. These 10 steps – from reducing stress to finding portable products for digestive emergencies – will help you cope better in everyday life. Here are some lifestyle tips from the digestion experts:
1. Master Your Digestion Treatment Plan
Your doctor will determine the reasons for your digestive problems and will prescribe a treatment plan. This may involve taking medication, avoiding certain foods, and adopting some new habits. It may take a while for you to absorb all of this information. Try organizing your notes in a file folder or notebook, along with any instructions and resource materials from your doctor. Review the information regularly and jot down questions you want to ask your doctor.
2. Know Your Digestive Triggers
Many things can trigger digestive upsets; these triggers vary from person to person. Try to pinpoint your own triggers by asking yourself these questions:What foods, beverages, and eating patterns seem to upset your digestive tract? Coffee, dairy products, and carbonated drinks, for example, may trigger gas or diarrhea.
- Which medications (prescription and over-the-counter) cause your digestive problems to flare up? Which medications help? Keep a record of how specific medications seem to affect you, and be sure to discuss them with your doctor.
- Do certain events and situations seem to trigger your digestive problems? Does travel make you unravel? Do menstrual hormones wreak havoc with your digestion? If you suspect a connection, plan so you can anticipate, avoid, or at least prepare for such tricky situations.
To help you make these connections, keep a journal of what you eat and drink, what medicines and supplements you take, and daily events. In time, you may see a correlation between one or more of these factors and episodes of digestive problems.
3. A Balanced Diet Keeps Digestion on Track
Eating right can help prevent digestive problems or soothe your system when problems flare up. Follow your doctor’s instructions on what to eat and what to avoid. Pay attention to portion sizes, as well as how often and how quickly you eat.
What to eat depends partly on the specific cause of your digestive problems as well as what foods you’re sensitive to. Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind:
- Gradually add more fiber to your diet. Fiber-rich foods add bulk to your stools, which helps regulate your digestion. Increase your fiber intake gradually to prevent bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
- Eat several small meals throughout the day to prevent the sudden bowel contractions that large meals can cause.
4. Stay Hydrated, but Drink with Care
Water is essential to good health and normal bowel function. Water also helps keep stools soft but solid and well-formed. Avoid drinking beverages such as coffee or soda if you think they trigger your digestive problems.
When diarrhea strikes, it’s important to drink plenty of fluids to avoid becoming dehydrated. Water and sports drinks (which replace lost minerals called electrolytes) are good choices. Caffeine and alcohol can worsen dehydration.
Increase your fluid intake in hot weather and any time you exercise vigorously. Drinking water helps prevent dehydration, a potentially dangerous imbalance where your body loses more water than it takes in.
To prevent “traveler’s diarrhea,” avoid potentially contaminated water and anything that might have come into contact with water. Sip bottled water, juice, or sports drinks when you’re on the road. Remember that contaminated water may be used to make ice and popsicles, coffee, or tea, and to rinse raw fruit and vegetables.
5. Practice Healthy Hygiene for Better Digestion
Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after you use the bathroom and before eating or preparing food. This helps prevent transmitting potentially dangerous bacteria to your food.
If diarrhea causes pain or itching, try using premoistened, alcohol-free towelettes (not harsh soap) to clean the anal area. Keep the skin dry by wearing cotton underwear and loose, comfortable clothes that breathe.
6. Prepare for Digestive Emergencies
No matter how well you plan, accidents may happen. Be prepared by keeping emergency supplies on hand at home, work or school, and on the road. Discrete, portable packaging is available for many products. Here are some products to try:
- Fast-acting medication (for gas, bloating, or diarrhea)
- Pre-moistened travel wipes
- An extra pair of underwear
- Disposable pads or underwear for incontinence
- Plastic bags to dispose of soiled wipes and clothes
Stash these supplies in your purse, car, suitcase, and your desk at work, then put your mind at ease. If accidents or fecal incontinence persists, talk to your doctor.
7. Manage Stress for Digestive Tranquility
Does stress seem to cause or aggravate your digestive problems? (Having frequent digestive flare-ups can be, in itself, a stress factor.) You may be able to relieve stress with relaxing pursuits such as exercise, yoga, meditation, or a favorite hobby.
Be realistic and flexible as you adapt stress management activities to your individual needs. For example, attending a yoga class might make you feel insecure on a day when your digestive problems flare up. In that case, work out with a DVD in the privacy of your own home.
Not all stress can be avoided. To find ways to deal with tough situations and relationships, consider asking a friend or therapist to help you.
8. Seek Support for Digestive Problems
Don’t try to hide your digestive problems from family, friends, and caregivers. Help them understand how, when, and why digestive problems affect you. Explain what they can do to support you emotionally and practically. Let them know what your self-care plan is. Inform them that problems such as diarrhea or gas pains may strike unexpectedly when you’re with them.
Sometimes it helps to connect with other people who suffer from similar digestive problems. A support group (in person or online) may help end your isolation and provide a forum for exchanging ideas and support. Ask your doctor or local hospital to recommend a group that might be right for you.
9. Take Charge of Your Digestive Problems
Partner with your doctor by providing detailed feedback and asking questions about your condition and treatment program. If the medication your doctor prescribed isn’t effective or has unacceptable side effects, speak up. There may be other medications you can try. Before trying over-the-counter remedies or supplements, check with your doctor or pharmacist about possible side effects and drug interactions. Keep track of your experiences and questions so you can discuss them with your doctor.
10. Beware of Miracle Cures for Digestive Problems
Alternative digestive treatments such as colon cleansing and fasting are widely touted in some articles and advertising. Although some alternative treatments show promise, many are expensive, ineffective, or downright dangerous. Always consult your doctor before trying any alternative therapy or supplement.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: “Women’s Health: Problems of the Digestive System.”
The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: “Preventing Traveler’s Diarrhea.”
Centers for Disease Control: “Clean Hands Save Lives!”
The Mayo Clinic: “Relaxation techniques: Learn ways to reduce your stress,” “Fecal incontinence: Lifestyle and home remedies,” “Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet,” “Dehydration.”