If your favorite foods are causing discomfort as you get older, you’re not imagining it. Learn why this happens and how to feel better.

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How Aging Affects Digestion

As we age, our bodies undergo various changes, and digestion is no exception. Many of us notice that the foods we once enjoyed don’t sit as well anymore. Here’s why and how you can improve your digestive health.

“Intestinal issues can arise at any age and become more common as we get older,” said Dr. Sara Attalla, a gastroenterologist at Inspira Health in New Jersey.

According to the National Institutes of Health, around 60 to 70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases. Common symptoms include heartburn, bloating, abdominal pain, and changes in bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhea.

Understanding what causes these digestive issues can be complex since they often result from a mix of aging and lifestyle factors.

How Aging Affects Digestion

As we age, the nerves and muscles in our gastrointestinal (GI) tract may not work as effectively. This can slow down digestion and cause problems with coordination between digestive organs.

For example, the muscles in the esophagus and those involved in swallowing may become less coordinated, leading to higher rates of esophageal reflux (GERD), where stomach contents back up into the esophagus. Slower stomach motility can cause food to linger and lead to indigestion.

“The stomach lining can also become thinner with age, making it more susceptible to injury from inflammation,” Attalla said.

Aging can decrease prostaglandin production, a hormone-like substance that helps protect the stomach lining and supports GI muscle function. This reduction can make you more prone to gastritis and ulcers.

Food then moves to the small intestine, where slower motility can lead to bacterial overgrowth, causing bloating and diarrhea, according to Dr. Sunana Sohi, a gastroenterologist in Louisville, Kentucky.

In the colon, slower motility can result in constipation and diverticulosis, where small sacs form in the colon wall, risking bleeding and inflammation.

Chronic health conditions like arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic diseases, common in older adults, can limit physical activity, further slowing gut motility. “If you don’t move, neither does your gut,” said Dr. Pritesh Mutha from McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.

Medications for these conditions, especially NSAIDs like aspirin and ibuprofen, can also cause gastrointestinal side effects such as nausea, constipation, diarrhea, and even ulcers.

The Best Ways to Improve Digestion as You Age

While aging-related digestive issues can be frustrating, there are ways to minimize their impact:

Chew Thoroughly

Good digestion starts in the mouth. “Salivary enzymes help digest starch and fat, reducing the GI tract’s workload,” Mutha said. Chew food thoroughly to aid digestion and mitigate swallowing issues.

Stimulate Saliva Production

Saliva production decreases with age, affecting chewing and swallowing. Using an over-the-counter saliva substitute or sipping water between bites can help if you experience dry mouth.

Eat More Plant-Based Foods and Less Processed Foods

A diet low in processed foods and high in plant-based diversity is best for digestion. “Processed foods can alter the gut microbiome, leading to an unhealthy balance of gut bacteria,” Sohi said. Plant-based diets increase fiber intake, improving bowel movements.

Stay Hydrated

Hydration is crucial to avoid constipation, especially with increased fiber intake. Aim to drink one-third of your weight in fluid ounces daily.

Move More

“Exercise stimulates GI tract motility, aiding digestion,” Sohi said. Avoid lying down after meals to prevent acid reflux. Walking for 15 minutes after eating can help improve digestion.

Get Enough Sleep

Quality sleep (7-9 hours per night) is essential for gut health and immunity. Lack of sleep can lead to inflammation in the bowel, causing gastrointestinal symptoms.

Manage Your Medications

Take medications exactly as prescribed to minimize GI side effects. For instance, take NSAIDs with food and acid-suppressive medicines 30 minutes before breakfast. Consult your doctor if you experience side effects.

When to See a Doctor About Digestive Issues

Even if you suspect your digestive issues are related to aging, it’s important to consult a doctor. “Don’t assume; share your symptoms with your doctor as there could be a more serious underlying cause,” advised Dr. Neena Mohan, a gastroenterologist at Temple University in Philadelphia.

See a gastroenterologist if you experience persistent changes in bowel habits, trouble swallowing, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, unexplained weight loss, or blood in your stool.

“Depending on the issue, your doctor may start with bloodwork and prescribe medications or conduct further testing, such as an endoscopy or colonoscopy,” Attalla said.

This story originally appeared on Buzzfeed.

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