Motility, by definition, is the ability of something to move independently. So when you hear the term "gut motility," it's referring to the concept that your GI tract is moving food, nutrients, and waste along for it to be absorbed, metabolized, or excreted for waste. It involves the coordination of muscles and nerves to stimulate motion that ideally pushes particles in a one-way direction. While many of us associate the word "motility" with episodes of diarrhea and constipation, having optimal gastric motility has significant physiological benefits.

For starters, being "regular" in the bathroom matters. Food that sits in your GI tract can cause inflammation, bacterial overgrowth, fermentation, and unwanted symptoms like gas or bloating, and can be severely uncomfortable. Not to mention, unused food particles eventually turns into waste, so any food sitting in your warm body is just like waste sitting in the trash can on a hot day – it's an unpleasant situation all around.

On the other hand, food that runs through you too fast can cause problems too. Have you ever eaten something and almost immediately had to run to the bathroom? Diarrhea can lead to dehydration, nutrient deficiencies, fatigue, inflammation, and more. And experiencing this makes it hard to eat, exercise, or travel without worry.

Whether you suffer from constipation or diarrhea or just have an irregular or unpredictable bowel movement schedule, it may be because of simple things you're doing (or not doing!) every day.

1. Your exercise routine, or lack of one

Regular exercise, which is easier said than done, is the best way to keep your body on a regular schedule. What exactly is a regular exercise routine? One hundred and fifty minutes a week is just a starting point. Ideally, aim to get 30-60 minutes a day of movement ranging from low-intensity endurance like hiking, biking, or swimming. Shorter workouts with higher intensity strength training, like HIIT workouts or sprints, can help keep your GI muscles and nerves working in coordination. Exercise can also optimize the good bacteria in your gut and may even be linked to exercise improvements.

Take note that overly intense or extended exercise can cause diarrhea or other GI issues, like leaky gut. And oppositely, too little activity or sedentary behavior for even a few days can result in constipation. So the key is sticking to a regular, consistent schedule of exercises you enjoy.

2. Your daily medications

Prescription and over the counter medications are perhaps one of the biggest culprits to an irregular bowel movement schedule. While the lists below aren't comprehensive, many Americans take meds regularly for various health conditions. 

These eight common medications are known to result in constipation as a side effect:

  1. NSAIDs like ibuprofen or naproxen used for pain and inflammation
  2. Antihistamines for allergies
  3. Tricyclic antidepressants 
  4. Anticholinergics for urinary incontinence 
  5. Opioids for pain
  6. Calcium channel blockers for blood pressure 
  7. Selective serotonin 5-HT3 antagonists for nausea
  8. Ferrous sulfate iron supplements

There are a few specific medications that are known to induce diarrhea:

  1. Laxatives for constipation
  2. Antibiotics 
  3. Metformin for blood sugar control
  4. Chemotherapy for cancer treatments

A medication prescribed by a doctor is one you should take, but the trick is to optimize your gut with the right foods, fluids, and bacterial composition so you can minimize the irregular side effects.

3. Your sugar intake

A diet with excessive sugar or carbohydrate intake is likely to cause issues. Sugar has an osmotic effect in the gut and pulls water with it, often resulting in diarrhea and dehydration. Excessive sugar intake can also damage nerves, resulting in both constipation and diarrhea. Therefore, individuals with diabetes should pay extra attention to their sugar intake, not only for blood sugar regulation but to support good bowel habits.

Some individuals who cannot digest fructose (the sugar in fruits) can experience bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. The overgrowth can then result in many additional problems, like changes in gut pH and gut muscle motility, which can also result in diarrhea. So not only the amount of sugar but also the type of sugar can impact gut motility.

4. Your 24-hour sleep-wake schedule

Do you follow a daily routine every single day? The time of day you eat, sleep, workout, and relax is often affected by travel, work, kids, vacations, or time-zone changes. Shift workers are sometimes affected the worst. Your daily sleep-wake schedule, exercise routine, and meal timing helps to regulate your motility patterns. 

Some need a morning coffee to get the gut moving. What if you stayed up late and slept in? Or traveled around the world, and your morning is now night? It's especially hard the more time zones or more off your regular schedule you are. If you can do nothing else, do your best to properly hydrate, eat fibrous vegetables, move your body, and get at least eight hours of high-quality sleep with the 24-hour clock.

5. Your nightcap drink

If you drink alcohol, you should pay attention to the amount and type you are consuming. Excessive alcohol intake changes your gut microbial composition. But did you know the alcohol content in it can either positively or negatively affect motility? 

Starting in the esophagus (upper part of the GI tract), those with excessive chronic alcohol consumption are much more likely to experience GERD1 or gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Additionally, beverages with alcohol at 15 percent concentration or more (some wines, but mostly hard liquors) inhibit motility. In contrast, alcohol with lower percentages like other wines and beer can accelerate GI motility. Acute (like every once in a while) or chronic consumption (every night) plays a significant role. Small or infrequent amounts may not do too much, but voluminous and frequent alcohol amounts will accelerate GI motility.2

6. Your stress level

Stressors of all kinds can play a significant role in gut motility, affecting both the human GI tract and bacterial composition. Your gastrointestinal system uses an incredible amount of energy to maintain cellular integrity. In high-stress times, you're burning extra energy and specific nutrients, like amino acids (especially glutamine), but also uses vitamins and minerals, which impacts how the body heals itself.

Stress directly changes the type and amount of bacteria you have housed in your gut microbiome.3 This response is mediated through the gut-brain axis. When you are overstressed, your gut bacteria negatively change in ways that worsen irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms, inflammatory bowel disease, and ulcers, increasing diarrhea instances.

Luckily, techniques to combat stress have been shown to impact beneficial bacteria positively and can potentially decrease undesirable symptoms and reduce the severity of IBS conditions. Meditation, for example, can support an effective change in your gut microbiome.4 When combined with the right diet and nutritional supplements for your current microbiome environment, you can notice whole-body effects.

What should you do to optimize your gut motility?

These daily habits impact the microbes in our GI tract that regulate motility. Certain bacteria promote or hinder the normal motility process by directly acting on the gut lining, altering messages being sent between nerves and the brain, or directly impacting other microbes.

Thorne's Gut Health microbiome test has the capability of identifying and measuring all the microbes in your GI tract associated with diarrhea, constipation, and other undesirable GI symptoms. Powered with Onegevity's Health Intelligence, your in-depth analysis provides an easy-to-read report and precise, personalized recommendations for you to optimize those bacteria and resolve the issues you're experiencing, and optimize your gut health and motility. Optimal gut health may be achieved with as little as adding a prebiotic to your morning drink!

References

  1. Pan J, Cen L, Chen W, et al. Alcohol consumption and the risk of gastroesophageal reflux disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Alcohol Alcohol. 2019;54(1):62-69.
  2. Grad S, Abenavoli L, Dumitrascu DL. The effect of alcohol on gastrointestinal motility. Rev Recent Clin Trials. 2016;11(3):191-195.
  3. Liew W-P-P, Ong J-S, Gan C-Y, et al. Gut Microbiome and stress. In: Liong M-T, ed. Beneficial Microorganisms in Medical and Health Applications. Cham: Springer International Publishing; 2015:223-255.
  4. Househam AM, Peterson CT, Mills PJ, Chopra D. The effects of stress and meditation on the immune system, human microbiota, and epigenetics. Adv Mind Body Med. 2017;31(4):10-25.