The majority of the time we never give our digestive systems a second thought. It’s only when they play up, and we suffer indigestion or uncomfortable bloating that we sit up and take notice. Yet our digestion is a remarkable part of the body. Take, for example, your digestive tract. It’s about 9 metres long – that’s the length of a double decker bus! The gut also has the highest rate of cell turnover in the body which means it renews itself faster than any other tissue.
But don’t be fooled – this doesn’t mean you can abuse your digestive system because it also plays a huge part in your wellbeing. It has been dubbed our ‘second brain’, as there’s more to it than simply breaking down and absorbing the food we eat.
Scientists have discovered the cells that line the gut are similar to those that form our central nervous system which is why you might feel ‘butterflies’ when you’re nervous, and why the state of your gut can influence the illnesses you get, and even the mood you’re in. So if you treat your gut with respect, you can expect to feel better from top to toe – and that’s exactly what a client of mine found…
Kerry’s case study
A businessman in his early 40s, my client had begun to suffer from indigestion and heartburn. These conditions typically result from the acid in your stomach, which helps break down your food, upsetting the upper part of your gut.
As well as the burning sensations combined with pain in the upper abdomen, my client also recounted symptoms of bloating, wind and nausea. In addition to these gut problems he had become more prone to colds and infections, which had started to affect his ability to meet his work commitments.
A family man who ran his own business, my client was subject to a high degree of stress. With time in short supply he would often skip lunch and to prevent this, his wife started to pack up leftovers from the family’s evening meal to ensure he ate something during the day. A social smoker, who took little exercise, my client considered regular nights out with his friends as his main form of relaxation. After a few drinks the group would typically wind up in a local Indian restaurant.
- Be mindful about meals. Focus on your food, sit down, take your time and chew thoroughly giving yourself at least 20 minutes before you carry on with your day. Try to avoid bending or lying down too soon after eating – even loading the dishwasher can trigger a reflux.
- Consider what you eat. Make sound choices, thinking about how the food makes you feel and what it gives you nutritionally. Plan your meals and snacks.
- Keep a food diary to work out what food and drinks are triggers for you. When possible limit these triggers – common ones include caffeine, chocolate and spicy food. If you find this difficult, select the food triggers you know you can eliminate and manage the others – for example swap your typical jalfrezi for a milder korma.
- Eat regularly, little and often. Breaking down your daily food intake into five smaller meals makes lighter work for your digestive system.
- De-stress before you eat, so you can fully savour your food. When you can, take a walk after main meals – this helps to beat bloating and ease indigestion, and can even help stabilise blood sugar levels.
- Keep to a healthy weight. Acid reflux tends to be aggravated when you carry a few extra pounds. Light, regular exercise combined with a healthy balanced diet is key. Think about the activities you’ve enjoyed in the past – cycling, golf or sessions in the gym – then commit to making them part of your weekly routine.
- Rush meals or eat when you’re busy. Even sending emails, chatting on the phone or watching TV while eating sends mixed messages to the brain and can compromise your digestion.
- Grab whatever’s available, or eat ‘on the hoof’.
- Allow food to disturb your sleep – try having your main meal at lunchtime to allow your body time to digest it properly. Consider sleeping with your head slightly raised – add an extra pillow or raise the head off the bed to avoid reflux symptoms during the night.
- Eat when you’re stressed. Your gut reacts to all forms of stress and will be less effective in breaking down your food under these conditions.
- Smoke. As well as the many other health risks it presents, smoking encourages the production of stomach acid which aggravates acid reflux.
Cut down or cut out…
These are a common cause of bloating, so instead opt for a glass of still water naturally flavoured with a slice of lemon, lime or orange, or a cup of herbal tea. Aim for at least eight cups of liquids a day.
Fats slow your digestion and can leave you feeling uncomfortably full and lethargic. Moderate your intake and balance your meals with lean sources of protein like poultry and fish.
Although fibre eases constipation, it may worsen wind, bloating and abdominal cramps. If cabbage, sprouts, beans and pulses are a problem for you, swap them for less fibrous choices such as courgettes and asparagus. Top up fibre levels gradually by adding some ground flaxseed to breakfast cereals or yogurt; flaxseed is a good source of gentle soluble fibre (the type that dissolves in water), as well as some of the insoluble variety (the type that doesn’t).
It’s great to use up your leftovers, but some cooked and cooled foods contain greater amounts of resistant starch which our digestive systems don’t break down, instead our gut bacteria process it through fermentation. For many of us this is not a problem, and is actually beneficial, but if you have a sensitive digestive system or you’re not used to resistant starch in your diet, it may cause symptoms such as excess gas and bloating. If this sounds familiar, limit your intake of leftover cooked potato, rice and pasta, and reheated breads like garlic bread and pizza bases. It’s important not to skip meals so be sure to eat at lunchtime but choose freshly cooked meals, where possible, such as a bowl of chunky soup.
Building up your defences
There are hundreds of different bacteria in your gut, which help you digest food, manufacture certain vitamins and generally support your defences against illness. You can top up these bacteria by taking a probiotic supplement, or by adding live yogurt to your daily diet. Studies suggest probiotics help to support the normal function of the immune system and may reduce bloating. Check that the product contains a high dose of lactobacilli and bifido-bacteria, that it is “enteric” coated (which helps the bacteria pass through your stomach and arrive where they are needed) and is within its use-by date.
Prebiotics are different to probiotics. They are specific, non-digestible carbohydrates which act as food for your beneficial bacteria. Prebiotics are available as supplements and may be combined with probiotics. Alternatively, you can eat foods rich in natural prebiotics, including onions, garlic, leeks, chicory, bananas and artichokes.
Nutritional advice is never a substitute for professional medical attention if you experience chronic bloating and/or other persistent gut problems consult your GP.
This page was last reviewed on 27 June 2019 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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