Digestion is the body’s way of taking food, breaking it down into small molecules that can be absorbed into the body and excreting the waste. The first sign our digestion isn’t working as well as it should is a shift in normal bowel habits and pain. Other symptoms may include reflux, heart burn, bloating, cramping, wind, tender abdomen and constipation or diarrhoea. It is common for people to simply put up with them.
But these symptoms can act as a warning sign that our digestion is not working properly and of future ill health. Poor digestion can cause the wall of the gut to be inflamed and may cause it to become “leaky” so undigested proteins are absorbed into the blood stream. The body doesn’t recognise these large proteins so may try and fight them with the immune system and start an inflammatory reaction. The inflammation is thought to be a factor in conditions such as eczema, asthma, sinus, itchiness, acne and arthritis.
If our digestion is poor, then our ability to absorb nutrients and the goodness from our food will be reduced. Deficiencies may lead to thyroid problems, anaemias, osteoporosis and fatigue. In fact, almost all chronic diseases involve some degree of digestive dysfunction. If any of the above symptoms occur more than just occasionally, please ask for an appropriate treatment.
Having regular bowel motions is part of being healthy. Bowel habits vary widely between individuals but it is when changes occur to your bowel motions and their usual pattern, that you can consider you have constipation. Most cases of constipation in adults are mild and occur infrequently. It can usually be linked to lifestyle factors such as not eating enough fibre in your diet; not drinking enough fluids; lack of physical activity; some medicines and medical conditions; stress and hormone changes. Before treating constipation with medicines, consider first making some simple lifestyle changes. Drink plenty of fluids, slowly increase the amount of fibre you eat and have regular exercise.
Irritable bowel syndrome
Symptoms of IBS range from pain in the gut, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea. This may be related to food, gut function and movement, stress and depression. The cause of IBS is not known but there is inflammation and/or infection in the gut, changes in serotonin levels and a family history in some patients with IBS. While there is no cure, symptoms can be managed and the first thing to do is to look at diet and exercise. Keep a food and symptom diary to identify foods that are causing flare-ups and avoid them.
Even healthy foods can upset some people. The FODMAP diet targets fermentable foods such as apples, pears, asparagus, dairy, beans and chickpeas which are often culprits in IBS (more). Avoiding these foods can improve symptoms in some people, but there is no point avoiding foods unnecessarily so if no improvement in symptoms is noticed, simply re-introduce that food.
4 ways to improve digestion:
- Starting with our diets, swap high for low GI foods, increase your fibre and protein and reduce alcohol consumption. Swap bad fats for good oils high in omega-3 to reduce inflammation. These may sound like big changes but little switches like salmon instead of steak, brown rice instead of white and add avocado to your sandwich can make all the difference.
- Identify food sensitivities by keeping a food and symptom diary to identify any foods that are causing flare-ups and avoid those foods. Alternatively, Holistic Nutritionist Alison Cowell operates from Ahuriri Pharmacy and performs intolerance testing.
- Improve the way we eat. Avoid skipping breakfast; chew your food thoroughly and slowly; eat away from the TV or other stimulants and sit up straight when you eat. Activity has been shown to improve digestion, reduce stress and improve mood.
- Correct imbalances in bacteria in your gut with a probiotic. Ethical Nutrients Inner Health Plus is the gold standard probiotic, or if you prefer a drink, the Kombucha King drinks are a great alternative. Natural anti-inflammatories can also be used, such as omega-3, turmeric and slippery elm bark. You may also need to look at improving the acidity of your gut or replacing digestive enzymes if they are lacking. We’ve seen some amazing results with Lifestream’s Bowel Biotics with Digestive Enzymes. If you are experiencing digestion problems and wish to reduce your need for medication, read our “Wellbeing solution for healthy digestion” and our pharmacists are always available to answer your questions and offer suggestions.