Whether it’s flat or flabby, gut health is an important factor in overall health. Medically speaking the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) is a complex system that involves muscles, nerves, bacteria, hormones and enzymes that work in symphony to support a functioning body. Contrary to what most people think, the gut is not restricted to just the stomach organ. Beyond the belly the GI tract begins in the mouth and ends in the anus. This one-way flow helps process food while directing food material and food waste through the body.  

The main function of the GI tract is to breakdown food into tiny particles which are then absorbed in the blood stream and delivered to cells and organs for energy, growth, tissue repair and health maintenance. However, there are many factors that can impact how food is broken down, digested, absorbed and eliminated. So, if the GI tract doesn’t work smoothly it can impact not just the process of digestion itself but also lead to a variety of health changes. 

The GI tract is structurally similar in men and women but the functioning of this system can slightly differ between the two sexes. In women pregnancy and monthly hormonal fluctuations can impact digestion and bowel movements. Men on the other hand tend to have more regular bowel movements but can experience excess gas, heartburn and ulcers more often.  

Common digestive complaints in men:

Bloating, belching and flatulence: Gas within the GI tract occurs when air is swallowed and/or bacteria in the gut is out of balance. This excess gas eventually needs to exit the body, and does so through belching and/or flatulence. Gas that is trapped within the intestines can cause the belly to expand, giving the appearance of a bloated belly.

The accumulation of gas can be prevented by eating slowly, avoiding carbonated drinks such as soda and beer. Foods that naturally increase intestinal gas production include fiber rich foods such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, beans and legumes. Now, that’s not to say that fiber is bad. Fiber helps support regular bowel movements which helps keep the colon squeaky clean.

Gut bacteria also play a role in gas production. The large intestine harbours trillions of bacteria that help digest food, contribute to a healthy immune system and even play a role in mood. When the quantity and quality of bacteria within the colon are out of balance it can lead to poor digestion and bloating. Consuming a varied diet high in vegetables, legumes and fruit rather than large amounts of meat and processed food can keep colon bacteria healthy and reduce bloating.

Heartburn: Acid reflux is a very common condition whereby stomach acid flows upwards into the esophagus rather than remaining contained within the stomach. The esophagus does not have the same protective lining as the stomach, so those highly acidic juices can irritate the esophagus and cause a burning or sour sensation in the abdomen, chest and throat.  In most cases heart burn is not constantly present. It usually comes on when eating spicy, greasy and acidic foods. Heartburn is a common issue in men because the combination of consuming greasy spicy foods, alcohol and being overweight can contribute to heartburn onset. 

Heartburn can seem more like an annoyance rather than a medical condition but if it’s not addressed and continues to worsen overtime, the risk of ulcers and esophageal cancer increase.

Making better lifestyle choices such as quitting smoking, limiting alcohol intake and improving your diet with more fruits and vegetables can significantly improve the occurrence of heartburn. Additionally, a number of herbal products can ease heartburn and protect the gut lining. According to Harvard Health herbs such as chamomile, ginger, licorice and even papaya have been suggested to benefit individuals who suffer from heartburn.

Constipation: Having between 1-3 bowel movements a day is considered healthy and normal. Constipation may not seem like a common concern in men since most men have up to three bowel movements daily. However, constipation is not just about the number of daily bowel movements. Although the quantity of bowel movements is a qualifying factor, difficulty with passing stool also fits the criteria for constipation. Men who are straining while having a bowel movement or have stool that are small, hard and pebbled-like are constipated. Additionally, men who feel like they have not completely emptied their colon after having a bowel movement may also be considered constipated.

The consistency of the stool is as important as the movement of it. In particular, the shape, size, colour and effort it takes to pass stool are various factors that determine whether someone has constipation. Most doctors agree, stools that are firm, smooth, medium brown, easy to pass and ideally one long piece are considered healthy. If passing stool is uncomfortable, requires a lot of straining or comes out looking dark, sticky or hard and in pebble form it can mean that you are not digesting your food as well as you think you are, even if you’re going a few times a day.

Constipation can signify that the process of digestion is not up to par. Making changes to your diet by adding in more fiber, moving your body, reducing stress and staying hydrated can all help improve the passage and consistency of stool.

So, although men don’t usually have major digestive disorder than their female counterparts, gut complaints that are present for more than 3 weeks and don’t improve with diet and lifestyle changes should be assessed by a doctor. Many men don’t prioritize their digestive health, but if you’ve been suffering from gas, bloating, heartburn or constipation pay attention to that gut feeling.

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