How Can Women Achieve Optimal Digestive Health?

It may not be dinner-table conversation, but sometimes what we eat at the dinner table can affect us in negative ways. If you've ever left a meal feeling bloated, or suffered from heartburn or pain, your digestive system may not be operating at top capacity. The culprit? There could be several reasons why you're uncomfortable-from what you're eating (or not eating) to how you're eating, or even what your stress levels are.

First, it's important to understand how your digestive tract works. Ideally, it contains millions of healthy bacteria at all times, known as probiotics. These bacteria exist to reduce the growth of unwanted "bad" bacteria, which can show up in tainted food or as a result of illness. In fact, antibiotics, which are popularly prescribed for infections, are notorious healthy-bacteria killers. And if you don't have enough healthy bacteria in your system to counteract the bad bacteria, the result is digestive upset

Fortunately, you don't have to suffer in silence. One of the best ways to restore the balance of bacteria in your system is to take probiotic supplements or eat foods containing probiotics. Yogurt with live active cultures is a terrific way to get your probiotics. Eating enough fiber-something few of us do-also helps digestive health by slowing down your digestion and helping probiotics do their job. Try Yo-Plus® yogurt from Yoplait®, which combines a healthy three grams of fiber with probiotics. And since the American Gastrological Association says we need at least 25 grams of fiber a day for optimum digestive health, look to add more to your diet with vegetables, fruits, whole-grain breads, and legumes. Try to avoid processed, refined foods such as white bread and white pasta, which have very little fiber or nutrients.

Strange as it sounds, it's not just your diet that can affect your digestion. Your sleep habits also play a big role. Do you eat a large dinner late at night and then fall into bed? This can wreak havoc on your digestive health. Our bodies are designed to digest best when we're upright so that gravity can do its part. If you routinely lie down with a full stomach, your digestion may be delayed. The result? A stomachache or even acid reflux-and definitely not a good night's sleep. Try finishing your food two to three hours before going to bed so you'll be well rested and comfortable.

Stress, too, does a number on our digestion. We're all familiar with that churning feeling in our stomach when we're upset. If you're experiencing emotional turmoil, do your best to stay calm and in control. Moderate exercise can work. Take a walk, do some strength training, or swim laps to restore your inner peace. Yoga or other deep-breathing exercises will help keep you centered, too. If things are really bad, talk it out with someone-and don't forget to keep a healthy diet with plenty of probiotics and fiber. Follow this plan, and soon you'll be leaving the dinner table comfortable, satisfied, and pain-free.