6 “Healthy” Habits That Mess With Your Gut

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Gut health is a hot topic, but there seems to be conflicting messages on grocery store labels, in research, and even among the medical community on what you should do to take care of your digestive system. If you're experiencing issues in the bathroom — like constipation, diarrhea, or general digestive discomfort — it's probably a sign something in your routine is messing with gastrointestinal tract. As a matter of fact, a lot of habits that may seem healthy may actually mess with your gut.

"Your poop (and its size, shape, color, texture, consistency, and frequency) is one of the most visible biomarkers of your gastrointestinal and overall health — if you know how to read it," Ara Katz, the co-CEO and co-founder of Seed, a start-up that conducts gut health-related research and sells a probiotic supplement, tells Bustle. Of the seven types of bowel movements on the gold-standard scale, called the Bristol Stool Chart, types three and four are "ideal," which are soft, smooth, and easy to pass. One and two are typically hard and signifiers of constipation, while types five through seven become more watery and signify diarrhea. The Bristol Stool Chart also says that pooping one to three times a day, to three times a week, is typical.

Around 10 to 15% of the world's population have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — a health issue that commonly causes chronic diarrhea, constipation, or both — as the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders reported. However, Katz says, "One or two days of abnormal bowel movements is normal; it’s not until the irregularity becomes a pattern that intervention is needed."⁠ However, occasional discomfort in the bathroom could simply be caused by seemingly healthy habits, and you may not even realize it. According to science, here are six surprising things you may be doing that can be impacting your bowel movements for the worse.

1. Eating A Lot Of Protein

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As the University of Michigan Health System (UMHS) reported, dietary protein plays a crucial role in building and healing bodily tissues such as skin and muscle. A 2011 review of studies revealed that eating protein also improves and strengthens bone health. However, Dr. Christine Lee, MD, a gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic, says that high-protein diets can back you up. In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, high protein diets that specifically restrict carb intake — and result in not getting enough fiber — can lead to constipation.

As Lee explains, constipation can cause "abdominal bloating, excessive flatulence, gas pains, and in extreme cases, can cause bowel obstruction or bowel perforation."

2. Waking Up Earlier Than Usual To Exercise

Making a habit of waking up earlier than usual just on certain mornings to attend an A.M. spinning class seems pretty innocuous. But, surprisingly, it can begin to impact your poop for the worse. According to the National Sleep Foundation, your circadian rhythm — aka, your body's internal clock, or sleep-wake cycle — can impact everything from your body temperature to digestion. In fact, a 2014 study discovered that "Disruption of sleep and circadian rhythms may increase vulnerability to digestive disorders, including reflux, ulcers, inflammatory bowel issues, irritable bowel disease, and gastrointestinal cancer."

The bottom line? This doesn't mean you should skip your favorite class. Instead, consider trying to find a sleep and exercise schedule that works for you and stick with it — but, don't make a habit of switching up the class times and throwing your sleep-wake cycle for a loop.

3. Consuming Probiotics

According to Dr. Gregor Reid, PhD, MBA, the Chair of the United Nations World Health Organization Expert Panel on Probiotics, and the chief scientist of Seed, probiotic products aren't always what they are made out to be — and this can make trips to the bathroom highly unpleasant. "It seems every other item advertises probiotic cultures," explains Dr. Reid, adding that just because a strain of bacteria may be present in a food product doesn't necessarily mean it's healthy.

While research conducted in 2015 found ingesting products with probiotics is largely safe — even if there are no health benefits — the same study found certain probiotic strains can trigger diarrhea, along with other gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating and nausea. "Fermented foods are not probiotics," Dr. Reid says. He explains that some foods that advertise themselves as probiotic are working with wild, active cultures (or even bacteria that's been killed through the process of pasteurization), meaning their tangible effect on your gut health isn't knowable.

So, before you pick up every food item or supplement off the shelf of your grocery store that's smacked with a "probiotics" label, be sure to do your research and consider tracking how certain foods impact your bowel movements.

4. Taking Vitamins

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"Certain vitamins and supplements, like iron and magnesium, as well as a host of over the counter medications can also lead to [poop-related] problems," Dr. James Wantuck, the chief medical officer and co-founder of PlushCare, a virtual health platform that allows people to connect with doctors online, says. A 2015 review of research found that iron supplements were a common cause of constipation in numerous studies. Oppositely, the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) reported that excessive magnesium intake through supplements — not food — can cause diarrhea.

5. Long-Distance Running

Running is great for your mental and physical wellbeing. A study conducted at the University of Exeter found that just one minute (yes, just one) of running a day is linked to better bone health in women. What's more, a study published in 2018 discovered that people with mood disorders who were enrolled in a 12-week running program experienced a drastic decrease in their levels of depression and anxiety. But if you ever find yourself in the middle of a lengthy run with the sudden urge to poop, you're not alone.

According to an article written by Dr. Edward Laskowski, MD, the co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center, "Runner's diarrhea [aka, 'runner's trots] is characterized by frequent, loose bowel movements during or immediately after a run. Runner's diarrhea is most common in long-distance runners."

Luckily, a study conducted in 2017 found that staying hydrated and avoiding caffeine and high-fiber foods before a run are just a couple ways to combat this exercise-induced diarrhea; the study also notes more research needs to be conducted on this gastrointestinal health issue, and how to stop its onset.

Everybody and every body is different, so how much you'll be able to run without triggering this bathroom issue most likely will not be the same as someone else. So, try to find your individual boundary as a runner.

6. Consuming Too Much Fiber

Dr. Lee says that fiber intake, along with a number of other factors, can largely influence the consistency of a bowel movement. Dietary fiber consist of foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts. A 2009 study reported that people with high intakes of fiber were at a decreased risk of developing heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal disorders such as diverticulitis, constipation, or hemorrhoids. The same study also suggested that prebiotic dietary fiber can improve your immune system. However, if you find you're often constipated, eating too much dietary fiber could be to blame. Research conducted in 2012 found that people with chronic constipation reduced their symptoms by adopting low-fiber diets. It's all about striking a balance that works for you and your gut.

If you want to identify what's causing weird gut symptoms you might have, "a diary is the best way to do it. Track the foods you eat, your symptoms, and your bowel movements for a few weeks and then look back to see what is causing it," Dr. Wantuck says. Moreover, Dr. Reid explains that consulting your physician may be necessary if you find you continue to experience constipation or diarrhea on the regular. This could mean specifically seeing a gastroenterologist to determine if you have a more chronic health issue like IBS.

Next time you're experiencing diarrhea or constipation, try to take note of your daily habits and how they could be impacting your GI health. "Track the foods you eat, your symptoms, and your bowel movements for a few weeks and then look back to see what is causing it," Dr. Wantuck says. It might not be pleasant to look at your poop, but the Bristol Stool Chart is a handy way to gauge your digestive health. Your GI tract is sensitive, and so many factors — including food, exercise, and circadian rhythm — can impact your poop.

Sources Interviewed:

Ara Katz, the Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Seed, a start-up that conducts gut health-related research and a science-oriented supplement brand, https://seed.com/

Dr. Gregor Reid, PhD, MBA, the Chair of the United Nations World Health Organization Expert Panel on Probiotics, and the chief scientist of Seed, https://seed.com/we/#weboscope-1313

Dr. Christine Lee, MD, a gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/staff/13822

Dr. James Wantuck, the chief medical officer and co-founder of PlushCare, a virtual health platform that allows people to connect with doctors online, https://www.plushcare.com/

Studies referenced:

Anderson, J. W., Baird, P., Davis, R. H., Ferreri, S., Knudtson, M., Koraym, A., … Williams, C. L. (2009). Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutrition Reviews, 67(4), 188–205. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x.

Doron, S., & Snydman, D. R. (2015). Risk and Safety of Probiotics. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 60(2suppl_2), S129–S134. doi: 10.1093/cid/civ085

Ho, K.-S. (2012). Stopping or reducing dietary fiber intake reduces constipation and its associated symptoms. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 18(33), 4593. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v18.i33.4593

Keating, L. E., Becker, S., Mccabe, K., Whattam, J., Garrick, L., Sassi, R. B., … Mckinnon, M. C. (2018). Effects of a 12-week running programme in youth and adults with complex mood disorders. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 4(1). doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2017-000314

Kerstetter, J. E., Kenny, A. M., & Insogna, K. L. (2011). Dietary protein and skeletal health: a review of recent human research. Current Opinion in Lipidology, 22(1), 16–20. doi: 10.1097/mol.0b013e3283419441

Oliveira, E. P. D. (2017). Runnerʼs diarrhea. Current Opinion in Gastroenterology, 33(1), 41–46. doi: 10.1097/mog.0000000000000322

Stiles, V. H., Metcalf, B. S., Knapp, K. M., & Rowlands, A. V. (2017). A small amount of precisely measured high-intensity habitual physical activity predicts bone health in pre- and post-menopausal women in UK Biobank. International Journal of Epidemiology, 46(6), 1847–1856. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyx080

Tolkien, Z., Stecher, L., Mander, A. P., Pereira, D. I. A., & Powell, J. J. (2015). Ferrous Sulfate Supplementation Causes Significant Gastrointestinal Side-Effects in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Plos One, 10(2). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117383

Vaughn, B., Rotolo, S., & Roth, H. (2014). Circadian rhythm and sleep influences on digestive physiology and disorders. ChronoPhysiology and Therapy, 67. doi: 10.2147/cpt.s44806