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Gut Talk: Digestive Health FAQs

We’re not shy about gut health…but you might be. Browse this page for answers to digestive health FAQs, even ones you’re too embarrassed to ask.
I’m pooping every day, but when I go it doesn’t feel like I’m really emptying completely. Is this normal, and does it matter?

This is a form of constipation—small, hard, rabbit-like droppings that take a lot more effort than you’d like. Bowel movements like this don’t allow your colon to empty properly, letting bacteria that should only be temporary get a little too comfy and set up shop in places along your GI tract they don’t belong. This can lead to small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or other gut dysbiosis. So, what can you do about it? Well, it depends. This type of constipation can be caused by diet, which is corrected through—you guessed it—eating better, but it may also be caused by muscle weakness or malfunction (common with older age and pregnancy). An anorectal manometry test can determine if it’s the latter. This test uses a balloon-type device inserted into the rectum to measure the strength and reflexes that are necessary for a normal bowel movement. Maybe not the most pleasant exam, but it can give some insight that leads to huge relief.

What is the best (and fastest) way to relieve constipation?
  1. Immediately increase your fiber intake to at least 25g a day
  2. Water, water, water. Immediately boost your daily water intake to at least 1L (more is better)
  3. If these two fail, consider an over-the-counter stool softener or laxative.

Psst… If you constantly suffer from constipation, then it’s time for some permanent diet changes. (If you’re a GIThrive member, your dietitian can help.) Start by implementing two of the tips above—increasing water intake and eating high-fiber foods—every day.

What should I eat when I have diarrhea?

Stick to plain, simple foods, especially in the first 24-48 hours. Certain foods can make it worse, so here’s a go-to list of generally safe foods to eat while you’re dealing with diarrhea.

  • Oatmeal
  • Bananas
  • Plain rice
  • Applesauce
  • Toast
  • Plain crackers, like saltines or pretzels

These foods should get you through the worst of your symptoms for the first few hours. TIP: Remember to drink LOTS of water!

For better digestion, can it really be just as simple as changing my diet?

Yes! Diet has a lot to do with digestive symptoms like bloating, gas or general discomfort. Some digestive problems can be dealt with by making small, simple changes to how you eat, too. Bad habits like eating too quickly or eating large, greasy meals can upset your stomach (but you know that already). Conversely, good habits like eating at a slower pace and chewing your food thoroughly can help digestion. TIP: To slow down, count the number of chews before swallowing, 5 to 10 for soft foods, about 30 for denser foods. Additionally, try eating several small meals throughout the day instead of 2 or 3 larger meals.

Is it normal to have gas after eating things like beans and broccoli?

Everyone fartsmen, women, children, adults. We fart because we need to release the gas that comes from 1) swallowing air and 2) the normal bacteria in our guts breaking down the food we eat. Some foods cause more gas than others, like beans, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, green peppers, onions, celery, and carrots, to name a few. These foods feed the normal bacteria that reside lower down in the GI tract where the gas byproducts mentioned above are more likely to be released at the nearest exit.

What can I do to improve my digestion?

Here are some simple things you can do immediately:

  • Eat a high-fiber diet (at least 25g a day).
  • Cut way back on high-fat foods.
  • Cut back on red meat. Choose lean meats like chicken and turkey instead.
  • Add probiotics into your diet.
  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Minimize alcohol.
  • Minimize caffeine.

When should I see a doctor about my digestive problems?

Most digestive problems can be handled with a few dietary changes and occasional use of an over-the-counter fix like Pepto-Bismol or Tums. Things might be a little more serious if you notice any of the following:

  • Heartburn that just won’t go away or gets worse (even with medication)
  • Stomach discomfort that interrupts usual activities or day-to-day life
  • Vomiting blood
  • Major weight loss that you can’t explain
  • Bloody or black stools
  • Diarrhea that doesn’t go away
  • New or lasting constipation

If you notice any of the symptoms above then it might be a good idea to make an appointment with your healthcare provider.

What exactly is heartburn?

Let’s start from the beginning. When you swallow food, it passes from your mouth into your stomach via your esophagus. Guarding the entrance of your stomach is a ring of muscle called the sphincter. The sphincter acts like a gatekeeper. It controls access to your stomach by allowing food in and keeping stomach acid trapped where it belongs, inside the stomach. If the sphincter doesn’t close properly or becomes too relaxed, stomach acid can splash back up into the esophagus. This backward movement is called acid reflux. When it happens, it can cause a cough, a sore throat, a nasty taste in the back of your mouth, and a burning sensation in your chest, aka heartburn. Gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD) is when reflux happens more than twice a week or when it starts to damage your esophagus.

How often should I be pooping?

Boy, if we had a nickel… This is such a common question, but unfortunately the answer isn’t that straightforward.  If you’re asking, it’s probably because you feel like something’s not right, so keep reading.

The reason for pooping too little or too much can be related to lots of things: a chronic condition, inflammation in the GI tract, a virus or other infection, age, hormones, activity level, stress, medications (some Rx pain meds can really block you up), a bowel obstruction, diet, hydration…

Regarding what’s “normal,” for well-hydrated people who eat very balanced diets that are high in fiber and low on processed ingredients, pooping 3 – 4 times a day, after each meal, is totally normal. Normal can also be once a day or once every couple of days.

Tip: For constipation, try upping your water intake significantly. Remember the 8 x 8 rule: eight 8-ounce glasses of water every day. (If this doesn’t work, talk to your doctor. If you’re not pooping at least every 4 days and you don’t know why, that’s another sign it’s really time to talk to your doctor.)

Occasional diarrhea or loose stools, especially if it’s related to something you ate, is usually no cause for alarm. If you feel like you’re pooping too much, it could be related to diet, but it could also indicate something more serious. In this case, consistency really matters. Watery or super thin poop for more than a couple of days is a reason to talk with your doctor.

If you’ve got a chronic GI condition that involves periodic bouts of diarrhea or constipation, the GIThrive Care Team can help with personalized solutions to keep your bowel habits in check.

What are the signs that my digestive system isn’t working properly?

The digestive symptom is such a complex thing, isn’t it? This can make it hard to tell a major issue from a minor one. Sometimes the gut doesn’t work exactly the way it’s meant to because of a temporary stomach bug or from eating undercooked food. In other cases, it’s because of a long-term problem like a digestive disorder that fundamentally changes the whole system. Here are some signs your system isn’t operating at 100% and it’s time to get to the bottom of it:

  • Ongoing problems with bloating (clothes not fitting right at the end of the day)
  • Frequent belching and gas (disrupting conversations or interfering with daily life)
  • Frequent nausea and vomiting
  • An acidic taste in your mouth
  • Burning in your stomach or upper belly
  • Longstanding stomach pain that isn’t relieved by medications

If you’re a GIThrive member, you can track your symptoms and diet through the GIThrive app. Our smart technology can spot patterns and identify correlations. From there, your GIThrive dietitian can tailor a food plan specifically to your needs. Often, people find that just tweaking their diet can end some of their worst GI symptoms. Knowing what tweaks to actually make can be the hard part. That’s what we’re here for!

What's causing my bloating and gas?

Bloating can be a one-off symptom after a big meal (think Thanksgiving dinner), or if it’s an ongoing problem, it might be a sign of a digestive disorder. So, what actually causes bloating? Once food enters the GI tract, friendly bacteria help to break it down into nutrients that can be easily absorbed by the body. This break-down process is normal and good and produces a small amount of gas. The breakdown of dairy products and high-fat foods tends to produce large amounts of gas, though. For people with a bacterial imbalance in the gut, even seemingly harmless foods can result in excess gas production. It’s this excess gas that causes discomfort, clothes fitting too tight around the middle, and that uncomfortable bloated sensation. Eating slower, digesting your food properly and minimizing dairy and high-fat foods may help. If none of this works, you may have a bacterial imbalance. A GutCheck microbiome analysis can help you know for sure.

If the color of my poop is something other than brown, should I be concerned?

Not usually. If you see something weird, you can usually chalk it up to food. Leafy greens, red fruits and veggies (like beets), medications or supplements, and artificial food coloring can alter the color of your poop. However, a significant amount of bright red blood in your poop could signal a polyp in your large intestine or rectum, rectal inflamma­tion, diverticulosis, or even colon cancer. Very small amounts of blood are usually just a sign of fissures or hemorrhoids. Tarry black poop could be older blood from higher up in your digestive tract, possibly due to a stomach or upper-GI ulcer. Yellow poop may indicate a problem with fat digestion and absorption.

So, how do you know when to be concerned? If it’s food related, your poop color should return to normal in a day or two. If the unusual color continues or if you have other digestive symptoms (urgency to go, vomiting, stomach cramping, diarrhea, etc.), then you need to talk with your doc.

Do I have a food allergy or a food intolerance?

This one is a little bit tricky. One way to tell the difference between the two is that a true food allergy is much more serious. Your body’s reaction to the food in question could be life-threatening and involve symptoms like swelling all over the body, a rash, or in extreme cases, difficulty breathing. By contrast, food intolerance symptoms are generally less serious and are usually limited to digestive problems. If you have a food intolerance, you may be able to eat small amounts of the offending food without too much trouble. If you have a food allergy, you probably won’t. At the end of the day, if you’re still unsure, ask your doctor about setting up a food allergy test.

How can I increase the amount of "good" bacteria in my gut?

There’s no need to go on a colon cleansing detox or start a restrictive diet. One simple thing you can do to boost good bacteria is start consuming probiotics. You can get probiotics one of two ways: from a supplement or through the foods you eat. We suggest the latter. Some probiotic-rich foods are:

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir, a fermented probiotic milk drink
  • Sauerkraut, a finely shredded cabbage that’s been fermented by lactic acid bacteria
  • Tempeh, a fermented soybean product
  • Kimchi, a fermented, spicy Korean side dish
  • Soft cheeses like Gouda
  • Sourdough bread

Will smoking or alcohol really worsen my GI symptoms, or is that a myth?

Sorry, not a myth. It’s true that smoking and drinking aren’t great for the digestive system, but the science shows they’re even worse than we once thought. Alcohol irritates the digestive tract. Drinking—even a little—makes your stomach produce extra acid, which can cause gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining). This can trigger stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea and, if you’re a heavy drinker, even bleeding.

When it comes to smoking, the secret’s out—the list of risks is long. There’s not much we can say that you haven’t heard before, but we’ll just add that smoking contributes to many gut disorders like heartburn, acid reflux, ulcers, and even some liver diseases. Would you believe smoking also makes you more likely to develop Crohn’s disease and pancreatitis? It’s true. The scientific consensus is that no amount of smoking is safe.

Bottom line: Try your best to give up both. If going cold turkey isn’t for you, then limit yourself to the smallest amount possible until you can kick those habits for good.

TIP: If you’re a GIThrive member, we have courses to help you give up unhealthy vices, and your Care Team can even give you some interesting diet tips to ease withdrawal symptoms during the process.

Why does my poop smell so bad?

Usually, strong smelling poop doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. It’s normal for the bacteria in your colon to produce various gases with unique odors. It can definitely be embarrassing or unpleasant, but it’s normal. If you’re really self-conscious about it, pick up some of that before-the-go toilet spray that’s so popular. People swear by it, keeping it in their bathrooms at home and in their purses, backpacks, cars, or desks so it’s handy when they have to poop in a public restroom.

What specific foods can I eat to improve "the go"?

Here’s a good place to start: Add more of these things to your diet ASAP.

  • Fiber–found in things like raspberries, pears, apples, spaghetti, beans and oats
  • Omega 3, 6 and 9–found in nuts, flaxseed oil, walnuts and fish like salmon or mackerel
  • Probiotics–found in fermented foods, kefir and sourdough bread
  • Fresh juices or smoothies that contain ingredients like carrot, celery, cucumber, ginger, and apple

Should it hurt when I poop?

A normal bowel movement should NOT be a painful, but sometimes it can bewhether you have a chronic GI condition or not. Here are some common reasons for pain during “the go.”

1) Constipation: If you’ve been blocked up for a while, stool becomes hard and dry and can be painful to pass, requiring straining.

2) Hemorrhoids (aka “piles”): When the veins in your rectum or anus become swollen and inflamed, it can cause pain, itching, bleeding and very uncomfortable bowel movements.

3) Anal fissure: A cut or tear in the lining of your anus that can cause severe pain and even bleeding. This is often caused by persistent severe diarrhea, constipation and straining.

There are other reasons you can feel pain when pooping. If you have GIThrive, your Care Team can help you get to the bottom of it. We’re just a tap away.

I’m lactose intolerant. I’ve cut out milk, cheese and dairy but still have symptoms sometimes. Why is that?

The reason could be that despite your best efforts, you’re still unknowingly ingesting milk products. Milk and milk products are very common in processed foods. You’d be surprised at the things that often contain milk-based ingredients—breakfast bars, hot dogs, frozen chicken nuggets, crackers, Nutella… We could go on for days. Bottom line: Be sure to double check food labels, specifically watching out for whey, dry milk solids or dry milk powder.

What the heck is a FODMAP?

Fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, or polyols.

Phew, that’s a lot to say in one breath! To break it down, FODMAPs are basically short-chain sugars that some people have difficulty digesting, especially people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). To gain control of symptoms and get a better understanding of how their bodies respond to FODMAPs, people often choose to work with a dietitian to follow a low-FODMAP diet, eliminating as many of these foods as possible for a trial period. Methodical elimination of FODMAPs, allowing the gut to heal and symptoms to subside, brings amazing relief. After the elimination period, FODMAP foods are systematically reintroduced to determine which specific foods are triggering symptoms. A low-FODMAP diet can be a very effective way to identify and make sense of all trigger foods. Some folks even find out that the foods they always considered healthy are actually not so great for their bodies.

Do probiotics even do anything? Is it scientific, or is this kind of pseudo-science?

They’re legit. Probiotics are basically the good bacteria that help achieve and maintain a healthy gut. They’re live microorganisms you get from certain foods or supplements. Yup…they’re ALIVE! They help digest food so that our bodies can absorb nutrients through the GI tract. They also police our guts to stop the harmful bacteria from growing out of control. Probiotics are also great for replenishing the helpful bacteria that are killed off when we take antibiotics.

Beware, though: there are literally hundreds of different probiotics out there and not all of them work. Different probiotics contain different types of bacteria, so it’s best to find out from your healthcare provider which are the right kind for you.

Psst…if you’re enrolled in GIThrive, your personal pharmacist can answer this question for you.

What’s the deal with gluten? Should I go on a gluten-free diet to help my digestion?

If you have celiac disease, a wheat allergy, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity autoimmune disorder (aka “gluten ataxia”), then yes, definitely ditch the gluten (the protein found in wheat, barley and rye).

Some folks without celiac or gluten allergy have gone gluten free and swear by their newfound health, energy, and even weight loss. Some of this is true, BUT ditching gluten completely typically affects your overall consumption of fiber (important), vitamins (important). and other nutrients (also important).

So, what’s the take-away message? For those with celiac, a gluten-free diet is essential. For those without, it is an option which offers promising benefits BUT working with a dietitian FIRST is key. Otherwise, it may end up doing more harm than good.

Is it true cutting out dairy and gluten together will end most GI symptoms?

Although dairy and gluten are common sources of food intolerance, they’re not necessarily the cause of your symptoms. At the risk of sounding cliché (or like your mom), it’s important to remember that you are an individual. What works for your friend may not work for you.

Getting help from a nutrition expert who can guide you through the process of determining what, if any, food intolerance you have is a great idea. Also, a thorough microbiome analysis can be immensely helpful. When you understand what microbes are inhabiting your GI tract, you’ll learn whether you’re actually lactose or gluten intolerant or if you’ve just been feeding the wrong bacteria in your gut. Either way, diet modifications and the help of a nutrition expert can set you down the right path.

Do all these drugs prescribed by my GI doc actually help, or do they just cause nasty side effects and burn a hole in my wallet?

When you hear the long list of nasty side effects, or worse, experience side effects firsthand after forking out for a pricy drug, you might wonder what the point is and if the drug is even worth it. Well, medicines have a key purpose, which is to interrupt whatever process is occurring that’s making you sick. So, if you’re gut is inflamed, the prescribed medications target tiny molecules inside your gut that cause this inflammation. If you catch a bacterial infection, the meds you take—antibiotics—are designed to kill off the bad bacteria. The annoying part is that a lot of medicines take time to travel to the exact place they need to be in order to do their job, and on the way they may unintentionally take effect somewhere else—side effects. Here’s the interesting thing, though: side effects are actually a good indication that a medication is working!

It’s also important to remember we’re all different, outside and in. While one med may do its job outstandingly for one person, it may be a total dud for someone else. This means it’s often necessary to try many different treatment options before finding the sweet spot.

Here at Vivante, we help you compliment your med therapy with diet and lifestyle improvements to help you get the best possible results from your meds while minimizing the side effects. We can also give you some great advice if cost is an issue.

Can stress really be causing my gut problems? If so, what can I do about it?

Research shows stress can be just as harmful to your gut as a bad diet. The relationship between psychological stress and digestive symptoms is complex but proven, and it actually works both ways. Stress can trigger and worsen GI symptoms, and vice versa. Tackling this problem will take a bit of work on your part, but it will be 100% worth the effort! It involves trying different relaxation techniques and then adopting the one(s) that work for you. Give yoga or tai chi a try. How about activities like walking, exercising daily, or just spending more time doing things you love like hiking, gardening, biking, or swimming? Remember, the goal isn’t just a one-time novelty experience; to get the full relaxation and de-stressing effects, the activity must be done on a regular, or at least semi-regular, basis. Teaching yourself how to relax is an ongoing skill, but it starts with a willingness to change.