Do I have a gut problem? And what can I do about it?
Do I have a gut problem? What can I do about it?
April is IBS awareness month, and up to 1 in 3 people believe they may suffer from IBS symptoms. But at what point should you become concerned about digestive and gut related symptoms? And more importantly- what can you do about it?
Do you experience any of the following, even in a mild form? Bloating, burping, indigestion, heartburn, acid reflux, wind, cramping, diarrhoea or constipation? Perhaps the symptoms come and go. Maybe you have the occasional day when symptoms seem quite severe, but then the symptoms wane, so you forget about it – until the next time. You may find that what started with one of these symptoms has increased to 2, 3 or even 4 symptoms. These niggling symptoms have not stopped you working or going out, yet. But should you take notice to what is going on?
Absolutely yes! Each one of these symptoms is a sign that something is out of balance in your body. If the symptom(s) is starting to occur more frequently, then it’s time to take action as more symptoms can start to occur. This can make your life a misery, impacting your social life, hobbies and work.
What can be out of balance?
I like to think of the digestive/gut system as a series of zones: the mouth, stomach, small intestines and large intestine (colon). Digestion occurs in the first three of these zones, requiring the release of specific digestive secretions to break down your food into simple molecules that can be absorbed into the bloodstream. This provides the fuel and vitamins and minerals that the body requires to function.
We take it for granted that digestion occurs just as nature intended, but very often we can lack sufficient secretions, and this is where the problems begin.
Burping, heartburn, bloating in the stomach area (high up under the ribcage) and even acid reflux can all be a sign of a lack of stomach acid. To briefly explain – low levels of acid can push the stomach contents upwards, allowing a small amount to escape into the oesophagus- the tube connecting your mouth to your stomach. This is not designed for acid, so it immediately causes discomfort.
In my clinical experience, acid reflux is more often related to low and not high stomach acidity, but I ask specific questions to ascertain this.
Stomach acidity has a knock on effect throughout the digestive zones. Digestive secretions are released from the gallbladder and pancreas into the small intestines, but the signal to do so is based on the acidity of the contents leaving the stomach. Low stomach acid can therefore result in reduced digestive secretions into the small intestines.
So what happens? If food cannot be fully digested, partially broken down food passes into the large intestine (colon). This is the home of our microbiome- the trillions of bacteria, viruses, archaea and yeast that live in harmony with us- when in balance. But we also play host to unfavourable microbes and these love to feed off our food, creating dysbiosis in our gut microbiome. Dysbiosis is an imbalance towards pathogenic bacteria, parasites, yeasts and viruses. Bloating in the lower abdomen, wind, cramping, diarrhoea, constipation, alternating bowel movements and urgency usually reflect dysbiosis.
What can you do about your symptoms?
Don’t wait for symptoms to get out of hand. Take action at the first sign of an imbalance, as you have the opportunity to more easily correct it. If you wait, you’re more likely to require an expert with the knowledge to know where to start.
The first “zone” for digestion is in your mouth. Actually, it’s before food even enters your mouth. This cephalic phase is activated by the sight and smell of food. It’s why saliva increases in your mouth. Saliva contains an enzyme called amylase, which starts the digestion of carbohydrates into smaller molecules. The sight and smell of food and the release of saliva stimulates the secretion of stomach acid.
We take for granted we can digest food until things start to go wrong. But you must go back to basics! Take time to eat your meal. Your stomach does not have teeth! Sit at a table, take a few deep breaths, and start to think about your food before you start eating. Take smaller mouthfuls and chew your food well. Avoid distractions like your phone and the TV. Remove yourself from your desk and laptop at work. And just focus on your food.
Stress has a negative effect on digestive secretions. It’s no wonder the opposite of “fight or flight” is known as “rest and digest”. Try to implement some stress relieving techniques before eating your meals. Try some deep breathing or take a short walk to calm the nervous system. Try to avoid sitting down to eat when you feel uptight.
Review your Diet
Do you eat processed foods? Is your diet high in grains (especially gluten rich ones) like bread, pasta, pastry, pizza, biscuits, crackers? Is your diet high in dairy (yogurt, cheese, milk, ice-cream)? Keep a food diary for a few days to see if it is high in these foods. These foods can strain the digestive system and whilst I don’t believe it’s necessary to completely eliminate foods (for most people), I often find these foods are far too prominent in the typical diet.
Vegetable abundance – go slow!
Are vegetables abundant in your diet? Whilst the government has promoted “5 a day” (fruit and vegetables) for years, this is in fact far removed from an ideal diet of “10 a day” (mostly vegetables) with 40 different plant foods every week. Our gut is designed for a far higher fibre intake (soluble and insoluble fibre) to keep it healthy, encourage good transit time and keep stools soft but formed. A wide intake of vegetables with a little fruit (especially berries, apples, pears, plums and kiwis) not only provides the fibre but feeds the beneficial bacteria. These foods act as prebiotics (fuel) to the bacteria. One of my favourites is unsweetened stewed apple – eat a little every day, and you may feel the difference. These bacteria operate synergistically, providing fuel to each other and fuel to keep the gut wall healthy.
Very slowly increase your vegetable/fibre intake if your gut is not used to it. Think about adding salad and different vegetables and fruit to every main meal. It really is possible!
These actions are the very foundations for a healthy gut, healthy diet and healthy body. Don’t ignore the signs and symptoms that your digestive system is trying to tell you. Take early action, and you can avoid more serious troublesome symptoms from occurring.
Written for www.embracelifeuk.com
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