How to look after your digestive health
You don't have to put up with bloating and indigestion. a few diet and lifestyle changes will soon have you back on track, writes Anna Burns
Does my digestion affect my health?
Many of us have come to live with an unpredictable gut. We put up with bloating, indigestion, reflux, constipation and many other unpleasant symptoms, as a matter of course, coming, in fact, to accept them as part of normal life.
This is not necessary, nor advised. We should all, instead, expect a clockwork digestion, which produces regular, predictable bowel movements, a comfortable stomach and a reliable indicator of hunger and fullness. How can we best achieve this?
What foods do we need to avoid for optimal digestive health?
Stimulants, such as caffeine (in many energy drinks as well as in coffee) and carbonated drinks, can cause reflux for many of us, if over-consumed. High fat and fried foods, in particular, often cause digestive problems. They can overwhelm the stomach and cause acid reflux and heartburn.
Too much fat in the diet can lead to steatorrhea (fat in the faeces) and causes particular problems to anyone with irritable bowel symptoms. Instead of having an entire deep fried chicken and chips meal, for instance, try accompanying the fried chicken with a salad and bread roll. Dose is all important here. Fatty foods are enjoyable, occasionally, but try not to overdo it in one sitting.
Cream-laced foods, similarly, can cause problems for the digestion when eaten to excess. A creamy dessert following a steak and salad (dressed lightly in olive oil and vinegar) makes plenty of digestive sense, in comparison to a huge bowl of creamy carbonara, with garlic bread, dessert and a side of ice cream.
Dairy products are often put under the spotlight when it comes to digestive unease. We may be lactose intolerant when experiencing consistent diarrhoea, gas, abdominal bloating and cramps, but quite often we get no diagnosis and drop the dairy with little cause. If you suspect you may not tolerate too much dairy, try consuming mainly fermented products (yoghurt and cheese) and stay away from too much plain milk (think cappuccino, latte, as well as milk in cereal).
You may be pleasantly surprised that the fermented product suits your digestion better, as the lactose (milk sugar) has been fermented and no longer poses a digestive challenge. Chocolate can be quite constipating for a sensitive gut. It not only contains dairy, but also caffeine. If chronically constipated, cut back.
You might earn your bar of chocolate by ensuring you get adequate fibre into your day, every day for a week, thereby achieving comfortable regularity; the chocolate dessert should not then pose as much of a problem.
What foods should we focus on for maximum digestive health?
Fibre is where it's at when it comes to the health of our digestive tract. We were designed to eat fibrous foods. Fruit is sweet as a means of attracting us to its fibre content. Bananas are particularly useful after a bout of diarrhoea, for instance, as they restore balance to the bowel quickly, by virtue of their soluble fibre, as well as their potassium content.
Vegetables are of paramount importance when it comes to digestion and should take up one half of your lunch as well as dinner plate. Cereals should be whole grain (brown) where possible (porridge is king).
Make fibre your focus for good digestion.
Live (bio) yoghurts are especially good for restoring balance in your system when it goes awry. Why? They can help to replenish the normal flora in your intestines.
A territorial battle erupts after a bout of infection or course of antibiotics, between 'good' bacteria that reside in your gut (also found in bio yoghurts) and 'bad' bacteria (pathogens). By feeding your system with the bio component of such yoghurts, you improve your chances of recolonising with the 'good' bacteria and thereby increasing bowel health; possibly, even immunity.
Eastern medicine tells us that ginger is superbly good for digestion. It is used to address such digestive upsets as vomiting, nausea, motion sickness and gas. Ginger, grated into a curry or stir-fry, lifts the freshness factor of a dish enormously and is great for a number of reasons (including antioxidants). Eat often.
Does eating the same food every day help or hinder digestive health? Will unfamiliar foods cause problems?
We benefit most, from a nutritional standpoint, when we eat a varied diet. That is the best way of ensuring we get all the nutrients our body needs to thrive on. If we eat the same food every day we can get bored; leading us down the path towards a packet of crisps or the chocolate biscuit.
Eating at the same time every day, though, does produce predictable digestion. We should aim to vary the colours of the foods we eat to get the best possible array of nutrients, but we do not need to eat anything we do not like, or change our habits enormously.
When embarking on a new way of eating; classically going from poor eating habits to high fibre, low-fat eating; we benefit best if we make the change slowly, over a few days.
If you change overnight you might find yourself suffering extreme bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhoea. It takes a few days for our body to adjust (and grow the required bacteria) to deal with new intakes of fibre, for one.
Will I suffer because of erratic eating habits?
Many of us think that some people are blessed with a gut of steel, while others are prone to sensitive stomachs. Quite often, you might see that the person with a great gut is the person who eats regularly, never skips breakfast, for instance, and includes adequate fibre in their day.
The body tends to respond well to a predictable intake and grows to rely on fibre for bulk and ease of passage of waste.
Staying hydrated also plays a part in regularity.
Fibre only bulks up when there is adequate hydration. Exercise is also, often, part of the plan for the person with good digestion. Our digestive system benefits greatly from regular exercise. After a good session of yoga it is unlikely you will feel bloated and gassy.
What are the long-term effects of a poor digestion?
Why should we have to pay particular attention to our digestive health? The hydrochloric acid in your stomach would melt the bonnet of your car, so it is easy to assume it can get through anything you throw at it.
However, if you allow your digestive health to slip to the point of dealing daily with acid reflux or peptic ulcers, then you run the risk of damaging your system with resultant inflammation of the stomach lining and poor absorption of nutrients. If left untreated, peptic ulcers can cause internal bleeding. Aim for an able digestive system.