The digestive system is an intricate part of the body and gastrointestinal complaints are common. They account for around 50% of all visits to the GP, with many other sufferers not seeking medical intervention, believing discomfort to be an inevitable part of daily life. However, left untreated, unwanted symptoms have the potential to develop into chronic illnesses, so it’s important to take steps now to address the underlying causes. Whilst many factors can contribute to different digestive issues (and significant or persistent symptoms should always be checked out by a medical practitioner), below are some of common causes of discomfort and some simple ways to address them.
Most people have experienced the feeling of being bloated, when the stomach is distended and uncomfortable, at some point. However, for some, bloating is more than an occasional inconvenience. Bloating is generally a sign that the digestive system isn’t working optimally. In particular, bloating can be a sign that there is an imbalance of bacteria in the gut (known as “dysbiosis”). Beneficial species of bacteria such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria are very efficient at fermenting fibre rich foods and produce very little (if any) gas. Pathogenic species on the other hand, can produce lots of gas. One of the simplest ways to promote a healthy microbial balance is to take a daily live bacteria supplement and regularly consume traditionally fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha and live yoghurt.
There are a number of potential causes for constipation, but by far the most common is a lack of fibre in the diet and insufficient fluid intake. Many constipation sufferers respond well to a high fibre diet, plenty of fluids and increased physical activity, so these should be the first steps implemented. High fibre foods include fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, oats, flaxseeds, prunes, beans and pulses. Taking a gentle fibre supplement such as Lepicol, a 3 in 1 combination of gentle psyllium husk fibre, 5 strains of live bacteria to help rebalance gut microflora and inulin acting as a prebiotic (a food source for beneficial bacteria), has also been shown in clinical studies to increase bowel movements, whilst reducing uncomfortable symptoms and laxative use. When increasing fibre through diet or supplements its best to do it gradually, so as not to exacerbate symptoms.
Reflux is a condition where acid from the stomach leaks up into the oesophagus (gullet), causing heartburn. This is often due to a weakening in the lower oesophageal sphincter, which sits at the neck of the stomach. Many people are prescribed medications such as proton-pump inhibitor (PPIs) for the condition, in order to suppress stomach acid production; however, these have a number of negative health effects. What many people don’t realise is that reflux can also be caused by having too little stomach acid, meaning foods sit in the stomach for longer causing issues. If you typically suffer with reflux after protein heavy meals and symptoms don’t occur immediately, but rather 45mins to a few hours after eating, then low stomach acid could be the issue. You may find mixing a spoonful of apple cider vinegar in a small amount of water and drinking through a bamboo straw (to protect the teeth) shortly before eating or taking a betaine hydrochloride supplement useful.
Loosening of stools whilst on holiday is a common occurrence, with approximately 25% of travellers developing travellers’ diarrhoea in the first 2 weeks abroad. This is most likely caused by exposure to foreign micro-organisms and pathogens from water, food and the environment, to which the immune system has not yet developed defences. Research indicates that live bacteria supplements can significantly reduce the risk of travellers’ diarrhoea, with a mixture of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium shown to be particularly effective. Supplementing for at least a week before you travel, whilst you are away and for at least a week after your return is recommended. Many are surprised to hear that gentle fibres such as psyllium husk can also be beneficial for those suffering with diarrhoea. That’s because it is very water retentive, helping to absorb excess liquid in the digestive tract and form stools.
IBS can present in many different ways. Some people suffer with constipation dominant IBS and others diarrhoea type, whilst some fluctuate between the two. Issues with bowel movements are also often accompanied by pain, distension and poor quality of life. IBS is a complex and multi-factorial condition. However, imbalances in gut bacteria is generally observed to be a common factor among sufferers and supplementing with live bacteria supplements has been shown in clinical trials to help alleviate symptoms. Stress also tends to be a trigger for IBS, and research indicates that stress reduction techniques and mind-body approaches, such as hypnotherapy, mindfulness and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) may benefit IBS sufferers.
The incidence of food intolerances is on the rise, with many people reporting that certain foods are a trigger for digestive symptoms. One potential cause of food intolerances is increased intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”), where the cells lining the digestive tract become disrupted and large proteins from foods and endotoxins are able to cross into the blood stream, triggering inflammation. One of the most common causes of this is having low beneficial bacteria levels in the gut, as beneficial species play a crucial role in protecting the health of the gut lining. If you suffer with food intolerances removing aggravating foods for a period of time (typically 1-3 months), whilst you complete a gut healing protocol may be advisable. A registered nutritional therapist can guide you through this process.
Hannah Braye is a Nutritional Therapist at Lepicol