Bloated? It's time for a food awakening
It's a subject that most us avoid like the plague, but the reality is that digestive problems affect everyone at some stage of their life.
The reason why we avoid the topic is that it makes for embarrassing conversations about constipation, excess wind and bloating. A survey last year showed that one-in-five people are too embarrassed to discuss their constipation with family, friends or colleagues.
But digestive problems can seriously affect the quality of life of sufferers. It's estimated that around 15pc of the Irish population suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which can cause painful cramping and leave sufferers feeling lethargic.
Then there are the more serious conditions of Crohn's disease and Ulcerative Colitis, which can be extremely painful and limit what activities people can carry out.
Today is World Digestive Health Day, which aims to raise awareness of common digestive problems.
"Digestive discomfort could be the result of a number of reasons -- stress, diet, tiredness, and lack of exercise," says Professor Eamonn Quigley, a Cork-based gastroenterologist and the current president of the World Gastroenterology Organisation.
"It is usually a sign that something in your lifestyle needs to change. In some instances, it could also be a potential precursor to a more serious disease such as colorectal cancer."
For most people, however, digestive problems are triggered by something in their lifestyle.
Nowadays we have busier lives and usually eat on the run, don't have time to exercise and have stress in our lives. It's no wonder that our digestive systems protest at having to put up with so much.
Sonia Harris, from Dublin, suffers from bloating and says she can trace it back to when she started her job in PR three years ago.
"I've always suffered a bit with bloatedness but it has gotten worse over the last couple of years," she says. "I wake up in the morning with a fairly flat stomach. By the middle of the afternoon, I'll notice that it is starting to stick out a little. By the time I get home in the evening, it's very noticeable."
Sonia's condition is a common one, especially among Irish women.
But whatever your digestive complaint, there are steps you can take to get your gut working like clockwork again:
> Eat a better diet
A whopping 80pc of us still aren't eating enough fibre -- eat a high-fibre cereal in the morning and swap your white bread, rice and pasta for wholemeal varieties. You should aim to eat five fruit and vegetable portions a day and should load up on prebiotic foods, which help stimulate the growth of good bacteria in the gut.
> Build up your immune
A good immune system is essential for healthy digestion. Illness and infection can both affect your immune system, as can lack of sleep and excessive stress.
> T ake your time eating
Most people don't spend enough time chewing their food before swallowing it. If you wolf down your grub, your digestive system will have a harder time breaking it down, so the old advice to chew your food several times actually helps.
Regular exercise helps to strengthen the muscles of the abdomen. The intestinal muscles, which push digestive contents through your gut, also benefit when you keep active.
> Drink fluids
When you're dehydrated, you're more likely to develop constipation. You should aim to drink at least a litre of fluid a day. Don't overdo it on the alcohol and coffee side of things as they can dehydrate you. Herbal teas are a good way to take in fluids and both fennel and camomile are known for reducing bloating and helping digestion.
> Try probiotics
Probiotics are live microorganisms that are commonly known as 'friendly' bacteria and help to maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut.
> Check for food intolerance
If your digestive problems just won't go away, you should get checked out by your GP. You can also check to see if food intolerance is causing a bad reaction in your gut.
Unlike a food allergy, a food intolerance doesn't usually present itself right after you eat the food, but common symptoms can include bloating, fatigue and migraines.
Problem foods include wheat, dairy and shellfish.