Your digestive system is an ingenious and complicated piece of machinery, which breaks down foods and liquids into their chemical components—carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and the like — which the body absorbs for energy or to build or repair cells.
As with most complicated pieces of machinery, things can go wrong; it’s estimated that around 40% of people have at least one digestive symptom at any one time, typically constipation, diarrhoea, heartburn and bloating. There can be myriad reasons; the problem could genetic, it could be the immune system mistakenly attacking the digestive system, it could be stress, it could be what we ate or drank the night before. The good news is that most digestive problems are usually lifestyle-related, so we can take measures to keep our gut in working order. That includes:
Keeping your weight in the healthy range.
Exercising several times a week, if not every day.
Learning how to manage and reduce stress.
Eating a balanced, healthy diet.
Unsurprisingly, your gut will respond to what you put in it, and it is particularly responsive to fibre or “roughage”. Yet many of us eat less than half of the recommended daily amount of fibre (25g for women and 30g for men). Fibre is best sourced from a variety of foods, such as wholemeal bread, rice (especially brown rice), fruit and veg, legumes such as beans, peas and lentils, and oats.
Fibre acts like a sponge, absorbing water, so make sure you drink plenty of fluids with it; a good rule a glass of water with every meal.
Cut down on processed, high-sugar and greasy foods, as they’re harder to digest and can cause stomach pain and heartburn. So can caffeine.
Foods that are known to cause wind and bloating in some people include beans, onions, broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts and cauliflower. But make sure you still eat five portions vegetables a day.
For some people heartburn can be triggered by acidic foods such as tomatoes, citrus fruits, salad dressings, while wheat and onions can cause irritable bowel syndrome in others. Some people can’t digest lactose (the sugar in milk), and suffer bloating and diarrhoea after drinking or eating dairy products. Keeping a diary can help you identify which foods might trigger symptoms.
Don’t guzzle. Try putting your cutlery down between bites and chew each mouthful properly before forking in another.
Don’t eat too much. Reduce the size of your portions, or try eating four to five small meals instead of three large ones.
Eat regularly and avoid skipping meals.
Eat your last meal at least two to three hours before you go to bed.
Probiotics are so-called “friendly bacteria” that also occur naturally in the gut and including them in your diet has been linked to all sorts of digestive health benefits. You can take probiotics as supplements (available from health food shops) or in live cultured yoghurt and fermented foods. You’ll need to take them every day for at least four weeks to feel any benefit.
Many people find relief from common gastrointestinal complaints by supplementing with digestive enzymes – specialised proteins produced in the body and designed to break apart a specific type of food into nutrients so that they can be easily absorbed.
Greenridge’s Digestion Support delivers a broad spectrum of digestive enzymes. A high potency formula containing peppermint and ginger, can be used to maintain digestive function, may help to relieve queasiness, alleviate flatulence and improve digestive comfort.
Always read the label and use as directed. Supplementary to a balanced diet.
The brain and gut are in constant communication with each other through the enteric nervous system (ENS), two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells that line the gastrointestinal tract. Some scientists refer call the ENS our ‘little brain’.
You know what your stomach does when you’re uneasy or nervous, the butterflies that dance around before you’re due to stand up in front of a crowded room or sit an exam. Similarly, chronic anxiety and worry can interfere with the digestive system for extended periods. In some people stress slows down digestion, causing bloating, pain and constipation, while in others it speeds everything up, meaning frequent trips to the loo. While researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to gut problems, it’s also becoming apparent that it works the other way around – that an unhappy gut can have a detrimental effect on mood.
Recognising the signs and symptoms of stress will help you find ways of coping (learning how to relax, exercising regularly, adopting good time-management techniques etc), and stop you from falling into unhealthy coping habits, like drinking or smoking.
Look after your big brain and little brain can only be grateful.