While good digestion is important to overall health, it can be affected by cancer treatment.
“Digestion is the way your body obtains nutrients from the food you eat and the beverages you drink,” says Corey Tolbert, RD, LD, a licensed and registered dietitian at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. “It’s also the way your body eliminates waste and toxins. If your digestive system isn’t working properly, your body isn’t going to function properly. It’s not going to get the nutrients it needs and eliminate what needs to be eliminated.”
Chemotherapy can have many side effects that affect digestion, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation and bloating. Radiation treatment near the gastrointestinal tract can disrupt digestion.
What is considered normal, healthy digestion?
Having a daily bowel movement is typically a sign of good digestive health, says Tolbert. Some people “go” two to three times a day.
If you have any of the following symptoms on a regular basis, contact your healthcare provider:
Abdominal pain, especially after eating
These are all red flags that your digestive system isn’t working properly.
What to eat and avoid for good digestion
Certain foods can make digestion more difficult.
“If you have a diet high in fat, your gallbladder will have to work in overdrive to digest the food,” says Tolbert. “If you eat a lot of foods that are high in sugar, your pancreas will have to work in overdrive and release more insulin to digest. Eating a lot of unhealthy foods makes the body have to work harder to digest. Also, this can trigger an inflammatory response in the body.”
In contrast, eating nourishing foods that are high in fiber and rich in probiotics will help digestion. Tolbert recommends eating probiotic- and prebiotic-rich foods every day.
Probiotic-rich foods can help build up good bacteria in your gut microbiome. These include:
Fermented vegetables (like sauerkraut)
Prebiotics serve as “food” for good bacteria. They include high-fiber foods like:
Whole grains (like quinoa, oats and farro)
How alcohol and caffeine affect digestion
Tolbert recommends avoiding caffeine and alcohol during active cancer treatment.
“Caffeine is an appetite suppressant and diuretic, so it can cause you to become more dehydrated or have less of an appetite,” she says. “Alcohol messes with your hydration and electrolytes. It’s also higher in sugar, which can trigger blood sugar to become abnormal. Both caffeinated and alcoholic drinks can also trigger reflux.”
Other lifestyle tips to improve digestion
Exercise, stress management and good sleep hygiene can help improve your digestion.
Exercise. “Being physically active can help with digestion,” says Tolbert. “When you’re up and moving around, that increases your gut mobility and helps speed along the digestive process. Exercise will prevent constipation and bloating.”
Get enough sleep and manage stress. “Anytime you’re not getting the sleep you need or have more stress than your body can handle, that’s going to affect every function of your body, including digestion,” she explains. “Stress and lack of sleep can also impact the hormones that regulate appetite. If you’re depressed or stressed, you may find you have less of an appetite or want to binge eat. Your body is like a machine – if one thing isn’t functioning properly, it can throw off the whole process.”
If you have concerns about your digestive health, cancer treatment symptoms or diet, talk to your healthcare provider.
Check out more nutrition tips from Cancer Wellness experts.