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25 Unhealthiest Habits for Your Digestion

You may not be aware of what's causing your digestive upset.

You probably have a gut feeling that your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is highly complex. "Our GI system contains trillions of bacteria that not only help us process food, but also help our bodies maintain our immune system and overall health," says Katherine Brooking, MS, RD, co-founder of the nutrition marketing and communications firm AFH Consulting.

The stomach and intestines contain bacteria, fungi, and microorganisms that form our microbiome, she continues. "And research indicates that our behaviors—from diet to physical activity—can influence our microbiome, which in turn can impact our well-being."

If you're looking to avoid or alleviate digestive troubles (bloating, burping, or being backed up, to name a few), changing a few of your tummy-unfriendly practices can turn your gut health—and your life—around.

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Your diet lacks fiber

high fiber diet

If your plate usually consists of white foods (such as white pasta, white bread, white rice, traditional pizza dough), chances are you're consuming too many refined carbohydrates. Also referred to as simple carbs, these foods contain white processed flour and sugar, along with minimal amounts of fiber. Numerous studies over the years have linked higher intake of dietary fiber—complex carbohydrates, like whole grains, pulses, whole fruits, and vegetables, which take the body longer to digest and can be stored and used as energy—with improved digestion and better overall health. In fact, a study published in The Journal of Nutrition suggests that eating whole grain oats can increase the abundance of the "good" gut bacteria (including those in the Lactobacillus genus). Try these 20 Easy Ways to Add Fiber to Your Diet.

Your lifestyle is sedentary

sitting on couch

Exercising can make everything in your body move. During a 12-week period, professors from University of Illinois examined the gut microbiomes of 18 lean and 14 obese sedentary adults who were directed to workout three times a week. Tests revealed that their levels of butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that encourages a healthy gut, had increased—and then decreased once the volunteers returned to their nonactive way of life. Try walking regularly, with these 30 Tips When You're Walking for Weight Loss.

You're stressed out

stressed woman

Feeling as if you have a knot in your stomach is more than just a saying. Between COVID-19 and the endless political debates on social media, none of us are exactly Zen these days. Yet stress, whether short-term or long-term, can lead to various gastrointestinal problems, such as indigestion, constipation, or diarrhea. And chronic worrying can do a number on your digestive system—researchers from Brigham Young University discovered that ongoing anxiety may actually alter gut microbiota to point where it mimics the gut health of someone following a high-fat diet. Try these 22 Proven Tricks That Melt Stress and these 17 Therapeutic Foods to Help Cope With Stress and Improve Your Mood.

You're drinking soda

man and woman drinking soda in a restaurant

While we're well-aware this carbonated sweet drink is not ideal for the body, you may not realize how much damage it can cause to your gut health. A 16-year European study comprised of more than 451,000 adults found that those who drank a sugary beverage each day, including soda, lemonade, and fruit drinks, showed a 59% increased risk for digestive diseases. Plus, this research, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded that two or more servings of soda per day was linked to 17% increased risk of death compared to the individuals who consumed less than one soda each month. Check out our list of 108 Most Popular Sodas Ranked by How Toxic They Are.

You're drinking too much alcohol

alcoholic drinks

Sorry, but downing large quantities of wine, beer, or spirits can wreak havoc within the digestive system, according to a medical review published in the journal Alcohol Research. The professors from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago stated that alcohol and its metabolites can overwhelm the gastrointestinal tract since it promotes gut inflammation and can lead to digestive disorders, including leaky gut and bacterial overgrowth. However, a study conducted at Kings College London and published in the journal Gastroenterology found an association between moderate consumptions of red wine and increased gut microbiota diversity (which indicates good gut health) compared to non-red wine drinkers. Here's What Happens To Your Body If You Drink Alcohol Every Day.

You're dehydrated

dehydrated woman

When in doubt, grab some H2O. "Water is the most important nutrient for your overall health and a large percentage of adults and children are dehydrated, yet they're unaware of it," says Julie Upton, MS, RD, the other co-founder of AFH Consulting. "Dehydration slows your metabolism and impacts all functions of the body, from strength and agility to batting an eyelid." Water aids in digestion by helping the GI tract break down food in order for your body to absorb nutrients, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can also help soften stool and prevent constipation. Here are 15 Ways to Tell If You're Dehydrated.

The water you're drinking isn't clean

tap water

If you're drinking tap water that's been treated with chloramines—which more than one in five Americans do, according to the Environmental Protection Agency—there's a chance that this common disinfectant could be affecting your gut. A study published in the journal PLoS ONE found that chlorinated H2O can alter the environment in the intestines and may even contribute to the development of colorectal cancer.

You're a carnivore

man cutting into steak with fork and knife

It's no secret that red meat can raise cholesterol levels and increase your risk for cardiovascular-related diseases, such as heart attack or stroke. Yet research funded by the National Institutes of Health uncovered that consuming steaks and burgers can move the digestive system to produce more compounds that can metabolize to form trimethylamine-N-oxide or TMAO, an organic compound that's associated with hardening of the arteries. The scientists even noticed differences among the types of microbes in the digestive systems of meat eaters and non-meat eaters. Pay attention to these 6 Subtle Signs You're Eating Too Much Red Meat.

You frequently eat dessert

eating dessert

Cakes, cookies, pastries, and pies may taste delicious, but your digestive system says otherwise. In a study published in the journal Frontier in Behavioral Neuroscience, foods with added sugar (a combination of simple sugars, which contain one or two sugar molecules)—which are prevalent in the standard Western Diet—can change the proportions of gut bacteria and increase the production of endotoxin, a toxic substance. The end result: Inflammation of the GI tract and impaired cognitive function via the gut-brain axis. Keep in mind that sugar goes by multiple names on food labels, such as sucrose, glucose, corn syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup. Here's What Happens to Your Body When You Eat Dessert Every Day.

You use artificial sweeteners

artificial sweetener

And yes, sugar substitutes can be just as disruptive to your gut flora. Researchers from Israel and Singapore examined the effects of six artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, saccharine, neotame, advantame, and acesulfame potassium-k) and they discovered that when the digestive system was exposed to one milligram per milliliter of this extra-sweet sugar, the bacteria in the digestive system became toxic. "This is further evidence that consumption of artificial sweeteners adversely affects gut microbial activity which can cause a wide range of health issues," Ariel Kushmaro, professor at Ben Gurion University and study's author, stated in a press release. Find out why Artificial Sweeteners Are Making You Fat.

You're consuming super-sweet fruits

apples and pears

"If you're somebody who's prone to gas and bloating, you may need to reduce your consumption of fructose, or fruit sugar," says Linda Ann Lee, MD, a gastroenterologist and Chief of Staff for Johns Hopkins Aramco Healthcare in an article published by Johns Hopkins Medicine. Avoid eating fruits high in sugar, such as apples, pears, and mangoes, and replace them with low-fructose fruits, including bananas, berries, and citrus fruits. tktkt

Your plate contains fatty foods

fatty foods

A diet that is high in saturated and trans fats may affect intestinal flora composition and decrease intestinal flora diversity, leading to gastrointestinal diseases, according to research published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology. The study authors concluded that following a low-fat diet—a diet high in fruits and veggies, dietary fiber, and fermented foods—can encourage healthy gut microbiota and alleviate GI symptoms, as well as prevent gastrointestinal disorders.

You're ignoring fermented foods

Examples of fermented foods kimchi beets apple cider vinegar yogurt pickles sauerkraut

Pass the pickles, along with the sauerkraut, miso, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, sourdough bread, and yogurt—these foods and beverages are made by fermentation, where their sugars and carbohydrates are converted into organic acids that contain live bacteria (a.k.a. probiotics). "Fermented foods are a great way to feed the healthy bacteria in your body that helps maintain your entire immune system," Upton says. Here are our top 14 Fermented Foods to Fit Into Your Diet.

You're not eating enough prebiotic foods

Prebiotic foods for gut health - asparagus leeks onion garlic strawberries bananas

A type of plant fiber that promotes the growth of different "friendly" bacteria than probiotics, prebiotic foods have been shown to enhance the "probiotic effect" in the small intestine and the colon, states research published in the journal Nutrients. A number of these readily-available indigestible fibers include tomatoes, artichokes, bananas, asparagus, berries, garlic, onions, chicory, green vegetables, legumes, oats, linseed, barley, and wheat. Here are 15 Prebiotic Foods for Your Probiotic Efforts.

You're overusing antibiotics


Not only can frequent use of antibiotics lead to antibiotic resistance, but it can also destroy the "good" gut bacteria while eliminating bacteria that causes infections. A study led by an international team of researchers University of Copenhagen and published in Nature Microbiology discovered that even though the composition of microbiota can recover in healthy adults, patients who were exposed to broad-spectrum antibiotics (three different antibiotics over a four-day period—a mixture designed after common treatments in intensive care units) were still missing nine beneficial bacteria six months later.

Your meals aren't very green

leafy greens

Vitamin- and mineral-rich leafy green vegetables—spinach, kale, bok choy—are vital for nourishing the good bacteria in the gut, along with limiting the number of unhealthy bacteria that reside in your digestive system, state medical experts from Australia and the United Kingdom. In 2016, they came upon an enzyme (named YihQ) used by bacteria and other organisms to absorb a type of sugar found in plants (named sugar sulfoquinovose) that contains sulfur. These findings, published in Nature Chemical Biology, have opened the door to possible new antibiotic treatments that will not harm good gut bacteria. Choose from these Healthiest Types of Lettuce and Leafy Greens—Ranked by Nutrition.

You're still smoking


"Smoking is one of the worst things you can do to your health," Brooking states, adding that this nasty habit contributes to multiple common disorders of the digestive system, such as heartburn, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcers, and some liver diseases. "Also, smoking has been found to increase the risk of Crohn's disease, colon polyps, pancreatitis, and gallstones." A mini-review published in the Archives of Microbiology reiterated that smoking has the ability to change the composition of intestinal microbiome. Check out these 101 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet.

You chew gum regularly


A popular food additive E171 (titanium dioxide nanoparticles), used as a whitening agent in hundreds of products including gum, may cause inflammation within the gut, according to research published in Frontiers in Nutrition. "There is increasing evidence that continuous exposure to nanoparticles has an impact on gut microbiota composition, and since gut microbiota is a gate keeper of our health, any changes to its function have an influence on overall health," said Wojciech Chrzanowski, co-lead author study author from the University of Sydney's School of Pharmacy and Sydney Nano Institute, in a press release.

You have low zinc levels


An essential mineral and trace element that plays a role in immune function and wound healing, being severely deficient in zinc is uncommon. However, those who suffer from digestive disorders, such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, and short bowel syndrome, are likely dealing with decreased zinc absorption, according to the National Institutes of Health. Zinc can be derived from numerous foods—oysters, crab, lobster, beans, nuts, whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, and dairy products—as well as from dietary supplements. Boost your zinc levels with these 20 Foods High In Zinc.

You're eating too late at night

eating late

Night owls, beware! A study published in the Canadian Journal of Diabetes which consisted of more than 800 adults living with type 2 diabetes concluded that eating dinner approximately two hours prior to bedtime at least three times a week was associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. Also referred to as severe and frequent heartburn, more than 15 million Americans suffer from acid reflux symptoms on a daily basis, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. The foods you eat can also be contributing to your acid reflux, check out the 28 Best and Worst Foods for Acid Reflux.

You're always slouching


Sure, poor posture can cause joints in the body to become misaligned resulting in soreness or tightness in the neck and back, but it can also have a negative effect on your digestive system. "The more hunched forward you are, the more compressed your internal organs, including the GI tract," says Joseph Gjolaj, MD, orthopedic surgeon and spine expert with the University of Miami Health System, in an article published on the university's site. "This constriction of the abdomen can lead to symptoms of GI upset and even acid reflux."

You're not resting after eating


Now here's a good excuse to put off cleaning the kitchen. The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders suggests avoiding any type of physical activity after eating a meal, especially movements that requires bending (like using a dustbuster on the floor). The Foundation states that exertion can interfere with the digestive process by "contracting the abdominal muscles and forcing food through a weakened sphincter."

You're not catching enough zzz's

not sleeping well

Lack of shut-eye can leave you with more than just daytime drowsiness. Study authors from Nova Southeastern University in Florida instructed volunteers to wear an "Apple Watch on steroids" as they slept in order to record sleep patterns. They then analyzed their gut microbiome—and discovered that the participants who had better sleep quality also had a more diverse bacteria in the gut. These findings were published in the journal PLoS ONE. "The preliminary results are promising, but there's still more to learn," said Robert Smith, PhD, a research scientist involved in the study, in a press release. "But eventually people may be able to take steps to manipulate their gut microbiome in order to help them get a good night's sleep." Check out these tips for better sleep from a Sleep Doctor that Will Change Your Life.

You're sleeping in the wrong position

sleeping on back

Whether you deal with occasional heartburn or GERD, the National Sleep Foundation advises to doze off each night either on your back or on your side. When you lie flat on your back, your entire body is aligned in a neutral position, so the acids from your stomach are unlikely to regurgitate. (Using a pillow that slightly raises your head will further prevent acid reflux.) Snoozing on your side in a lateral position can also keep heartburn symptoms at bay.

You're overweight

stepping onto a scale
i yunmai/Unsplash

Having excess body fat can boost your risk for digestive diseases and disorders. A medical review published in the journal Gut and Liver found a connection between overweight and obesity and various gut-related issues (such as GERD, gallstones, and pancreatitis) while NYU Langone Medical Center in New York states that an unhealthy body weight can lead to metabolic syndrome and fatty liver disease.

Amy Capetta
Amy Capetta has been writing articles on healthy living for more than two decades. Read more about Amy