Your digestive system includes your gastrointestinal tract — your mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus — along with your liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. This intricate organ system is responsible for helping your body adequately absorb nutrients from the food you eat, break food down into energy-available molecules and get rid of waste.
A bunch of things need to go right for your digestive system to operate optimally: You need healthy colonies of gut bacteria, proper amounts of digestive enzymes, and timely secretions of digestive hormones, among other things.
If one tiny component goes wonky, you may experience a range of symptoms, including gas, bloating, cramping, constipation, diarrhea, or acid reflux. If things are really off, you might experience nondigestive issues, such as brain fog, fatigue, mood swings, poor sleep, or skin breakouts.
Most of the time, no one thing triggers gastrointestinal problems, and often, GI symptoms aren’t spontaneous. Many people develop digestive issues slowly when a combination of factors worsens over time. Any of these seven elements could be affecting your digestion:
Diet: Obviously, what you eat impacts your entire GI tract. If you’re allergic to or sensitive to certain foods, your body may revolt in the form of upset digestion.
Hydration: Nothing works well when you’re dehydrated. Water acts as a lubricant for all organ systems and helps your body maintain homeostasis.
Sleep: Lack of sleep affects every part of your body, including your digestive system — and all the hormones that dictate its functions. Studies show that short sleep duration alters the levels of important digestive hormones and that poor sleep harms the healthy bacteria in your microbiome.
Stress: You may not intuitively equate stress with an upset stomach, but research tells us that millions of neurons in your gut communicate with the billions of neurons in your brain along something called the gut-brain axis. When you’re stressed, you also produce excess cortisol, which can trigger a handful of digestive reactions.
Microbiome dysfunction: Your gut contains two kinds of bacteria: friendly and unfriendly. If the bad bugs outweigh the good ones, your risk for all kinds of digestive issues increases.
Inflammation: Inflammation is a leading cause of disease worldwide, and that also applies to digestive diseases. If your GI tract is chronically inflamed, it may lead to inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticular disease, or other conditions.