Raise your hand if you find the “all hot girls have tummy problems” TikTok memes a bit too relatable.
About a quarter of Americans (and more women than men) deal with irritating and even painful stomach issues from time to time, with diet and stress being contributing factors to unhealthy digestion—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Tummy problems also tend to worsen in the summer for a number of reasons, so if you struggle with your gut health, it’s time to pay attention. We had questions, and lucky for us, Noelle Patno, PhD, and chief science officer at Bened Life, was willing to provide some answers. Keep reading for her expert insights on your “hot girl tummy problems,” and how to prevent them from worsening this summer.
Sweety High: We’ve all seen the “all the hot girls have tummy problems” memes and TikTok posts. How common are digestive conditions, really? Are there any demographics that are more affected than others?
Noelle Patno: Digestive conditions could include a number of different “tummy problems.” Just looking at the diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome, which may include constipation, diarrhea or a mix, the global prevalence varies 10 to 25% by country, yet there are different diagnostic criteria used in different countries. A more recent estimate globally is overall prevalence of 9%.
Women appear to be more affected than men by 1.5 to three times, and it is possible that these symptoms overlap with menstrual symptoms.
Less IBS seems to be reported in those over 50. IBS has often been linked to stress and emotional responses. There also seems to be a genetic component or a result of learned behavior, since relatives of people with IBS are more likely to have it as well.
If we include liver problems, inflammatory bowel disease, gastroesophageal reflux and other gastrointestinal disorders, we may find about a quarter (24% of people) in the U.S. experiencing digestive diseases at one point in time. Certain lifestyle choices like diet, medications or drugs (opioids) and alcohol use can be significant contributing factors to abdominal pain.
SH: What kinds of stomach issues might we face during the hot days of summer due to heat stress?
NP: Heat stress itself can cause abdominal issues by damaging internal organs, including the intestine, which compromises its function.
Specifically, extreme conditions can injure the gut barrier and its mucosa, with a decreased ability to digest and absorb nutrients, which has been observed in fish and other animals. Thus, symptoms of poor digestion, such as pain, altered motility and stool consistency and even symptoms beyond intestinal function can result.
Besides the impact of heat stress, it’s important to be aware of our food choices and environmental influences (and happy hours), which can also be contributing factors since summer and vacation lifestyle choices may differ from our other routines. Eating undercooked food from a grill or food that has been sitting out all day at the beach waiting for the guests to arrive could introduce undesirable microbes, for example.
SH: What is the gut-brain axis? How might changes in the gut microbiome due to heat stress affect our bodies and minds beyond digestion, and why?
NP: The gut-brain axis is communication from the brain to the gut and from the gut to the brain.
The gut microbiome can also communicate along this axis through the vagus nerve, circulatory system or immunological pathway. When the gut microbiome may be altered by heat stress, opportunistic pathogens may start to bloom under heat stress, infections might occur and bacteria associated with health may decrease in the intestine. These disruptions could alter the typical gut microbiome-to-brain signaling and disrupt the communication between the gut and the brain. Chronic heat stress or infection in a preclinical model both induce stress that activates the hypothalamus.
From the brain to gut direction, the hypothalamus is well-known for being the part of the brain involved in regulating body temperature, helping us to sweat to cool our skin under heat. The hypothalamus can also activate inflammatory markers in the blood and the stress hormone, influencing the immune response and intestinal microbiome. Taken to the extreme, the disrupted immune, microbial signaling and overheated brain and intestine may lead to systemic infections, systemic dysfunction and even systemic shut-down—when people pass out, for example.
SH: What are the major signs we might be impacted by heat stress?
NP: Feeling hot and sweaty, maybe having a higher pulse, is to be expected in higher temperatures, but extreme heat can result in more severe symptoms. Body temperature, sweat loss and heart rate elevation can be measured for heat stress. Early signs of distress include headaches and generally feeling hot and sweaty.
As heat stress continues, more severe symptoms may begin to manifest.
A key sign of severe heat stress is a lack of sweating and feeling cold when you are in a warm climate or should be warm in that moment (ie. running, cycling, hiking). There are specific signs of heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke to look out for, along with different ways to treat each.
Gut-brain effects like nausea, vomiting, confusion and slurred speech can be a result of heat stroke or heat exhaustion and require medical attention.
SH: What are some effective ways to both prevent and deal with heat stress’s impacts on our gut?
NP: To prevent dehydration, drinking plenty of water before feeling thirsty is one recommendation that always stands out in my mind. The CDC specifically recommends 1 cup of water every 15 to 20 minutes when working in moderately hot conditions. If you’re thirsty, it’s too late!
Even mild dehydration can cause cognitive impairment. Staying in the shade or other cool places, using ice, cool cloths or the water (if you’re near a pool or the ocean for your summer activities) are obvious choices for outdoor activities.
Fans and air-conditioning help when possible, but sometimes the hot environment is the place where work must be done or the party is happening. Pay attention to and avoid heat waves/alerts. If someone has already shown signs of heat stress, cooling the person with water, wet cloths and ice is recommended by the CDC.
From a nutrition perspective for gut health under heat stress, it’s important to maintain intake of not only water but also vitamins such as A, C and E which are protective and have been investigated for supplementary strategies.
Some antibiotics, probiotics and postbiotics have also been evaluated to support the gut microbiome during heat stress in animal studies. Additionally, amino acids, including glutamine, have the potential to promote intestinal tissue rebuilding after heat-induced injury. On the other hand, alcohol, high-fat and high-sugar diets can kill good gut bacteria and increase intestinal permeability. In general, high-water content fruits and vegetables during heat support hydration and provide valuable vitamins and minerals and even support the gut bacteria and immune response.
Is your gut health also affecting your neurological health? Click HERE to read an expert interview to see why this might be the case.