So, let’s address the elephant in the room: Do you have a much harder time pooping in the summertime? According to Sarah Robbins, MD, MSc, FRCPC, a gastroenterologist, gut health expert, and the Founder of Well Sunday, it’s no coincidence that you might be feeling more backed up than usual as the season comes into full swing.
“Several health behaviors tend to change during the summer months, which can impact digestive health. In addition to changes in health behaviors, a hot climate can influence the gut and its functioning in several ways, though it's important to remember that most of these impacts are indirect and can vary from person to person,” Dr. Robbins says. Ahead, the gut health specialist delves into some of the main contributing factors that can throw your digestion out of sorts in the summer—plus shares tips for staying regular any time of year.
5 leading causes of summertime-related digestion woes
1. Seasonal dietary changes
Much like the leaves on the trees, the meals we eat regularly tend to transition throughout the year. “Our diet tends to vary with the seasons, and diet is a major factor influencing the composition of the gut microbiota. For example, we might eat more fresh fruits and vegetables in the summer and more starchy, high-fat foods in the winter,” Dr. Robbins says.
As such, she notes that these changes can affect digestion as the gut adapts to different types (and quantities) of nutrients in seasonal foods. To keep digestion running smoothly during the summer, the gut health expert recommends being mindful of what you’re eating, especially when it comes to increased intake of hot dogs and Aperol spritzes (and so on—file under some of our favorite things ever) during the summer. Additionally, Dr. Robbins notes that as the days get hotter, many of us naturally shift to eating outside more often. All good! Just be sure to keep basic food safety guidelines in mind—meaning try not to eat any pasta salad that's been sitting out in the sun for hours.
Be sure to keep basic food safety guidelines in mind—meaning try not to eat any pasta salad that's been sitting out in the sun for hours.
“Be aware that there may be an increased intake of cold beverages, ice creams, salads, and raw food at picnics and barbecues, which could introduce food-borne pathogens if not handled or stored correctly, leading to gastrointestinal issues,” Dr. Robbins says. As such, it’s important to prevent perishable foods from falling into the temperature danger zone for extended periods, which the USDA defines as 40°F-140°F.
2. Inadequate hydration levels
One telltale sign summer has arrived? Hot, hot heat, which in turn can lead to digestion-disrupting dehydration and is one of the leading causes of summertime constipation. “Warm climates and seasons often lead to increased perspiration, which can lead to dehydration if fluid intake isn't sufficiently increased. Adequate hydration is crucial for healthy digestion, as water helps break down food, absorb nutrients, and soften stool to prevent constipation,” Dr. Robbins says.
As such, Dr. Robbins encourages folks to replenish lost hydration, especially when sweating, as soon as possible. One way of doing so is by consuming electrolytes to prevent imbalances (such as decreased potassium and sodium levels). “Electrolyte imbalances can disrupt the muscle contractions in the gut, which is needed to move food through the digestive system,” she says.
Dr. Robbins also encourages folks to always ensure they’re drinking from water sources free of contaminants that are more likely to spur in hotter climates (and can lead to infections, diarrhea, or other digestive issues).
3. An increase (or decrease) in physical activity
It’s no secret that changes in physical activity can play a role in digestion. However, in a heat wave, heading outdoors for a midday stroll might be the last thing on your mind. To that end, Dr. Robbins shares that when climate affects our physical activity levels, it impacts our digestion to a similar degree. “Regular exercise can help stimulate the muscles in your digestive tract, improving digestion efficiency and preventing constipation,” she says. Meanwhile, at the other end of the stick, a lack of physical activity can have the opposite effect, aka increased constipation.
4. Changes in our circadian rhythm
Although those extra hours of sunlight in the summertime are blissful, Dr. Robbins says that these changes can disrupt your natural circadian rhythm. “Our bodies follow a natural circadian rhythm or internal clock, which plays a crucial role in digestion. Changes in daylight hours, with changing seasons, can alter digestion by influencing our sleep patterns and other behaviors,” she says.
And sleep duration isn’t the only aspect impacted by changes in our circadian rhythm. According to Dr. Robbins, digestive enzyme secretion, gut motility, the microbiome, and nutrient absorption can also be impacted by these shifts. “This can lead to potential digestive issues and underscores the importance of maintaining regular sleep-wake cycles and eating schedules for optimal digestive health,” Dr. Robbins says.
5. An altered microbiome ecosystem
Dr. Robbins notes that even our gut microbiota—which is comprised of a complex community of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms in our digestive tract—can also exhibit seasonal changes. “These variations can be influenced by several factors, including diet, temperature, and light cycles,” she says. What’s more, the gut microbiota plays a crucial role in digestion and nutrient absorption, helping to break down complex carbohydrates, produce vitamins, and metabolize bile acids and other compounds. The issue? Changes in the gut microbiota can negatively impact the aforementioned processes.
Additionally, summer travel can impact the state of your microbiome ecosystem. “Introducing new cuisines or dietary habits while on vacation can potentially lead to changes in the gut microbiome or cause digestive disturbances, like traveler's diarrhea,” Dr. Robbins says. Not to mention travel-related stress. “While summer can be a time of relaxation for some, for others, it might be a source of stress due to factors like disrupted routines, travel, or childcare during school vacations. Stress can impact gut health by affecting gut motility and increasing gut sensitivity, too,” she says.
So, what’s the best way to prevent summertime digestive woes?
According to Dr. Robbins, maintaining a balanced diet, staying well-hydrated, and exercising regularly are some of the best ways to promote healthy digestion throughout the year. But of the three, the gastroenterologist stresses the importance of staying adequately hydrated, especially when it’s extremely hot outside. She notes that hydration plays a vital role in digestion and overall health and is critical for bodily functions such as digestive secretions (the production of saliva and gastric juices to break down food), stool softening, nutrient absorption, gut motility, and detoxification. To that end, Dr. Robbins encourages folks to not only drink plenty of fluids, such as water, but also to consume sufficient levels of electrolytes and foods high in water content to help maintain hydration.
An RD shares a guide to some of the most hydrating foods:
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