Grumblings, rumblings, farts and poo. Gut health is not something we usually discuss in polite conversation, so how do you know what is normal, and what is not?
IBS is one of the most common health diagnosis, thought to affect about one in five of us. Symptoms can vary from pain and discomfort, constipation and diarrhoea, to bloating and wind.
Slow it down
Nutritional therapy for digestive support starts even before we put food in our mouths. The anticipation of food starts our mouths watering and stimulates our digestive juices and prepares the body for eating and digesting food. If we rush our meals, eat on the run and chuck whatever crappy food takes our fancy down our gullet, then our gut is likely to give out a cry for help. Slow things down. If you tend to wolf your food and eat too quickly, then try setting your knife and fork down between each mouthful. Although this will feel like a bit of a palaver to start with, you will soon get used to eating slower and you may find that you actually enjoy savouring the tastes and textures for the food you are eating.
Feed your microbes
Our digestive tract is home to between 1kg-1.5kg of bacteria. The number of bugs in our gut outnumber the number of cells in our entire body! Dysbiosis, or an imbalance between healthy and unhealthy bacteria, can play havoc with digestive health, immune function and the assimilation of nutrients. We can help the good bacteria (probiotic bacteria) thrive by introducing some fermented or cultured foods into our diets. Although sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and kombucha have hit the headlines as the hot new thing in nutrition, here in Ireland our native fermented food was buttermilk. Now of course this is pasteurised, so we don’t tend to get the probiotic element from it, but back in the day our grandparents and great-grandparents would have drunk a glass of buttermilk most days to help keep their bugs healthy. If you don’t fancy trying these foods, then take a look in your local health food store for a good quality probiotic supplement. I’m not talking about the sugar-laden drink types, but the ones in capsule form – Optibac or Udo’s Super 8 are common brands. Getting enough fibre in your diet is also important to help keep your good bugs happy, although this can pose a problem for lots of people with IBS. I find that getting clients to switch to cooked foods instead of raw can be helpful, so soups instead of salads and stews instead of stir-fries for example.
When we think of fibre, we tend to think of roughage and foods like bran or wholegrains. This is insoluble fibre that works a bit like a yard brush to help clear things out. The other type of fibre, found in fruit, vegetables, brown rice, flaxseed and oats is soluble fibre. This is the stuff that can help soften the stool and tends to be a little more gentle on our digestive tract. That’s why your granny feed you prunes when you are constipated! Getting more vegetables into your diet is never a bad idea, but root veg like carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes and beetroot might be a little more gentle than greens if your IBS is playing up.
Keep well hydrated and drink enough water to help keep things moving. Some people like herbal teas like peppermint or fennel, both of which have potential benefits for digestion.
IBS can be successfully managed through dietary changes, but there are other things that can help too. For lots of people, there is a big link with a worsening of symptoms when they feel stressed out, so effective stress management techniques like mindfulness can be effective. Regular exercise is also important to help keep things regular in our bowel too.
This article first appeared in The Irish News on 24 March 2018.