Many people suffer with digestive discomfort these days. Symptoms range in severity from sluggish bowel movements, diarrhoea or loose stools, often alternating with constipation. They may get bloated frequently and pass excess wind, with sometimes foul-smelling stools, or general discomfort after eating. Another symptom is mild acidity, known as acid reflux.
The main symptoms which are ‘red flags’ to get checked out medically initially is blood in the stools or any severe pain in the stomach or abdomen (tummy pains could be a hormonal cause and essential to check this with GP/gynaecologist). Another common symptom is excess acidity or gastric reflux, often the bacteria h.pylori is the underlying cause.
Once these problems have been checked and cleared by your GP, you may still experience digestive symptoms and be given an IBS diagnosis with nothing to help you, apart from over-the-counter remedies such as Rennie, Gaviscon or Colpermin (peppermint oil). You aren’t actually clinically ill, however daily life is uncomfortable for you as you never know when you’ll feel digestive discomfort or need to rush to the loo. Not really something you want or need to live with indefinitely.
Here are some simple ways to improve IBS symptoms
There are many causes of IBS, in some cases they might be quite simple to eliminate. In other cases, you may need to take 2-3 courses of action.
Here are some initial steps you can take:
Improve Your Natural Digestive Ability
Chew food thoroughly – digestion starts in the mouth, triggering the brain to release digestive enzymes, that start to work on breaking down carbohydrate (amylase), so aim for 30 chews a bite – it may seem ridiculous, at least you may hit 20! Then the stomach has less work to do lower down!
Adopt mindful eating – stop what you are doing before you eat, give the eating process your full attention and get away from all distractions like the TV and technology. Eat at the table where possible, sitting upright to allow the digestive organs room to do their work. Breathe deeply and focus on your food!
We produce digestive enzymes and stomach acid (HCL) to help break down food. However, these can be in short supply sometimes, especially with the ageing process or deficiencies of the nutrients needed to make them in the first place (vitamin B6 and zinc). Mild bloating 30 minutes to an hour after eating may indicate a problem with enzyme production especially in the small intestine. When foods are only partially digested, you might experience gas, bloating and constipation.
You could trial a months’ supply of digestive supplements to ‘test’ if you are low (this must be done under the guidance of a Nutritional Therapist).
Constipation means that fecal matter is sitting in your intestines long enough for toxins to be reabsorbed putting stress onto your liver, which already has the task of detoxifying your body. Ease this by including fibre gradually over a few days, consuming up to 7 portions of fruit and vegetables (2 fruits ideally) and opting for wholegrains. Keep hydrated too. The mineral magnesium helps to relieve constipation so choose green leafy vegetables and a handful of nuts and seeds.
Stomach acid or HCL is nature’s way of breaking down protein. Food that isn’t broken down properly can get pushed through our digestive system too quickly. It also helps to protect us from pathogens and, in particular, h.pylori bacteria, which can cause ulcers in the stomach lining. If you have too low HCL you may need to get your thyroid checked as low levels of certain hormones can contribute to this problem. Thinking about food 15 minutes before starting a meal will help your body to produce enough hydrochloric acid. Good digestive fruits are pineapple (bromelain) and papaya (papain), both containing natural digestive enzymes. Chewing on fennel seeds before a meal can help the flow of gastric juices whilst peppermint tea is helpful for bloating.
Feed the bugs! Having a sweet tooth, a white coating on your tongue or alternating bowel movements can indicate the need for some extra friendly bacteria. We all have good and bad bacteria in our guts, which is fine in balance, however sometimes the bad outweigh the good, especially after a course of antibiotics (which can make you susceptible to yeast infections), or with various medications like hormone treatments, or eating a high sugar diet with processed foods, limiting in vegetables. Good bacteria not only helps to boost your immunity but also improves digestion, helping us to absorb nutrients, whilst also keeping the ‘bad guys’ at bay. You can take a course of good bacteria (a supplement with acidophilus or bifido bacteria). Foods to help feed your bacteria are artichokes, onions, garlic, sauerkraut, natural yoghurt and kefir. They also help with elimination of toxins.
You could consider probiotic foods like kefir or natural yoghurt , or a supplement of acidophilus with your evening meal to see if that stimulates a bowel movement the next morning. A probiotic is always a good insurance for a healthy gut and health maintenance.
Pay attention to stress levels - the gut is often called your ‘second brain’ and emotions affect the stomach so take time out of your day to pay attention to your stress levels to allow the digestive system to stay calm.
Fibre – make sure you are getting the required 35g fibre daily, Sources are the fruits and vegetables mentioned above plus flaxseeds, apples, avocado, legumes, quinoa, chia seeds and berries. If you feel you aren’t getting enough, add some fibre to your morning smoothie.
Healing Omega 3s – like the outer skin, the inner gut can be healed with a good supply of essential omega 3 fats from oily fish, chia seeds, ground linseeds and walnuts.
Last meal of the day – be careful not to overeat or eat too late at night. You need to allow 3 hours before going to bed as digestion stops when you lie down. If you must eat late, choose a small snack.
2. Investigate Food Intolerances
Find out which foods are causing your symptoms as, with a food intolerance, the offending food/s irritate the gut and decrease the ability of bacteria to adhere to the gut wall. Irritation in the gut can cause the gut lining to become permeable and lead to tiny food particles entering the blood stream where they can trigger an allergic reaction. Wheat, gluten and dairy are often triggers, however there are many more, and often in combination. Therefore, it is useful to carry out a food intolerance test so you don’t waste time guessing with trial and error. There are many tests out there, some dubious ones too, so speak to a qualified nutritionist to get help with choosing the right one.
Alternatively, if you decide not to carry out testing, you can eliminate foods you suspect cause your problems as well as the main food suspects and, after following an elimination diet for a few weeks, monitor what happens when you slowly re-introduce each food one by one. This is more time-consuming and you are relying on trial and error. Also, you will need to re-introduce the foods again before re-testing with a food intolerance test as you may get a false result otherwise.
With dairy – it is beneficial to test for lactose intolerance, which is a deficiency of the enzyme lactase in the small intestine, which breaks it down. The food intolerance test is looking for a reaction to the protein in milk, which is casein.
3. Comprehensive Digestive Stool Analysis
This is my favourite test of all time and a big investment in your health and recovery! You receive so much information with the results of a gold standard Comprehensive Digestive Stool Test that will help you correct your digestion and this has knock on effects in terms of your overall health and wellbeing. Ideally you would start with this test to eliminate the guess work. You will see at a glance whether enzymes or stomach acid need replenishing, whether the immune system is compromised and if gluten is a problem, as well as bacteria levels (good and bad), absorption and incidence of parasites or yeast infection. It’s a good idea too if you have done all of the above and you still have symptoms.
With the results, we can implement a 4R protocol to Remove the eliminate the problems, Replace enzymes and acid, Reinoculate with good bacteria and Repair the gut lining to boost its integrity. For more information, please see my Gut Transformation Programme
Further Reading: The Digestive Health Solution, Benjamin Brown, ND
Email me on Kathleen@kfnutritioncoaching.com or call me on 07880 353964 if you’d like to know how I can help you improve your digestive health!