Diet and lifestyle

The digestive system can be upset easily. An unhealthy diet, stress, antibiotics and travel are some of the causes.

An upset digestive system can make you feel bloated and sluggish. Many people suffer from digestive related problems at one time or another. One third of the population regularly suffer from digestive illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhoea, stomach-ache, nausea and sickness and 60% of British adults have experienced digestive problems when in stressful situations.

To help ease symptoms or reduce the risk of having bowel problems, there are some simple things you can do yourself.


It is important to identify a routine of a place and time of day when you are comfortably able to spend time on the toilet. Respond to your bowels natural pattern – when you feel the urge do not delay.

A warm drink with breakfast can help encourage the bowel to work regularly.


We have compiled some useful diet tips below which could help ease and avoid bowel related problems and help you to maintain a healthy digestive system.

  • Choose a wholegrain breakfast cereal or porridge in the morning, you could even add a handful of nuts and seeds or some fruit
  • Eat small regular meals.
  • Swap white bread for wholegrain or granary bread.
  • Eat a balanced diet, with a variety of different foods. Choose foods that are rich in fibre such as fruit, vegetables and starchy carbohydrates. A moderate amount of lean meat, fish, eggs and protein alternatives are also recommended, along with milk and dairy foods. Eating fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals is associated with reduced risk of certain cancers including those of the digestive system. These foods are high in fibre, antioxidants and other protective nutrients. Be careful not to eat excessive amounts of fibre as this can also cause problems with constipation or loose bowel movements that are difficult to control. For information about fibre contents view the fibre contents chart. For further information and advice on food and diet, please visit the NHS Choices website.
  • Limit the amount of sugary and fatty foods you eat. If you feel hungry and need a snack, try to keep hunger at bay with nuts or a piece of fruit. Artificial sweeteners can make bowel leakage worse.
  • Chew well. Break down each mouthful into small pieces. This helps release the enzymes that aid digestion so that food is processed thoroughly and all the goodness extracted.
  • Don’t miss meals. A lack of food in the system can cause excessive gas – and lead to a gurgling, wind filled stomach.
  • Try and avoid eating large or fatty meals before going to sleep.

The bacteria within your intestines are key to good digestive health. It may help some people to maintain a favourable balance by taking a probiotic product each day (try a two week trial to see if they help). This tops up the ‘good’ bacteria you should already have in your large intestine.

Being overweight or obese can affect health in general and is especially the case with regards to our digestive system.

Download our Bowel Diary which will allow you to track what foods are triggering your problems.


The human body needs water to maintain enough blood and other fluids to function properly, therefore it is essential that you

keep yourself hydrated. As soon as the body begins to lose a substantial amount of water more quickly than it is replaced, the body starts to get dehydrated. A common effect of dehydration on your digestive system is constipation.

To maintain a healthy bowel also try to Drink enough fluids. The minimum recommended daily fluid intake for an adult is between 1.5-2 litres (6-8 glasses). Increase your fluid intake in hot weather or when exercising. Your urine should be a pale straw colour; if dark it is likely you are drinking too little.

Limit the amount of alcohol you consume. Alcohol is toxic to every part of the body, including the brain, the pancreas, the muscles and our digestive system. Alcohol is at its most concentrated in the stomach and this is especially the case when no food is present. As a result, when consumed in large amounts, alcohol can cause irritation and inflammation of the stomach lining. This in turn may result in nausea and vomiting. Women should drink no more than 2 – 3 units a day, men 3 – 4 units. A unit is 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. The number of units in a drink depends on what you are drinking – how strong it is and how much is there. Half a pint of 3.5% beer/lager/cider is one unit, one small glass (125ml) of wine at 9% is one unit. For NHS advice on cutting down on alcohol, please visit the NHS Choices website.


Sphincter exercises – these are specific exercises that focus on the anal sphincter muscle. These exercises can help to improve bowel control.

Pelvic floor exercises or pelvic floor muscle rehabilitation can also help alleviate incontinence. These exercises are designed to strengthen the muscles, improve their functional ability and therefore improve both bowel control and bladder control.

General exercise – It is important to try and exercise regularly but don’t overdo it. You should aim for 30 minutes of moderate activity at least five times a week. It helps to vary the type of exercise that you do. Try different activities such as swimming, walking, aerobic activities, Pilates, and Yoga. Please seek advice from your doctor or physiotherapist if you have a medical condition or mobility difficulties.

Drink water whilst exercising to replace any water lost and to remain hydrated. It is essential to do exercise that you enjoy, this will help you to stay motivated and interested. You should also take some time off between activities and relax, allowing the body to recover and the muscles to recuperate.


As well as killing harmful bacteria, many antibiotics can also kill the beneficial bacteria that work to keep our digestive system healthy. When we take antibiotics, up to 60% of the total amount of bacteria in our gut – both good and bad – can be killed. Sometimes this can result in diarrhoea or symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.


The amount of sleep we get can affect our bowel habits. Much like the rest of our body, our digestive system needs time to rest. Going to bed and getting up at regular hours each day can help our digestive system work more effectively and improve the regularity of our bowel habits.

Avoid Stress

Stress is something that is quite difficult to avoid in today’s society. Problems occur when our lives cause a lot of stress, and one of the first parts of the body to react to stress is our digestive system.


Smoking is bad for every aspect of your health which includes your digestive health. Smoking is responsible for many changes in the digestive system. It contributes to common disorders such as heartburn and peptic ulcers.

If you would like help in giving up smoking, please visit the NHS Choices website to find out about the advice and support available.

Getting Older

As we get older, our bowels tend to become more sluggish. This is due to many factors including changes in our diet and less exercise. There is some evidence to suggest the lower bowel itself actually changes in old age. In some cases this can lead to bowel emptying difficulties and leakage. It is important to seek help from your GP or healthcare professional if this occurs. Other bowel problems such as diverticular disease can also become more common as we age. The majority of the immune system is gut-associated; it is estimated that 85% of the body’s lymph nodes are located in the gut. Our gut bacteria help support this; another reason why it is important that as we get older we try and maintain a healthy gut flora.

The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme offers screening every 2 years to all men and women aged 60 – 69. People in this age group will automatically be sent an invitation, then their screening kit so they can do the test at home.

Your GP will provide your contact details, so it is important that he or she has your correct name and address. After your first screening test, you will be sent another invitation and screening kit every 2 years until you reach 69. If you are 70 or over, you can ask for a screening kit. You can contact your programme hub on Freephone 0800 707 60 60.