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You certainly know it if your gut is not working properly, with signs such as bloating and discomfort, acid reflux, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Customers come into health store Simple Simon in Donegal town suffering from “bloating, food not digesting easily, IBS and constipation,” says Helena Murphy.

“Digestion is probably one of the areas where we get the most queries from customers,” agrees Rob Whinnett of Blasta Wholefoods in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford. “A misfiring digestive system can lead to malabsorption of nutrients and a compromised immune system as well as making life pretty miserable on a day-to-day basis. Your independent health store has access to a huge range of products and a wealth of advice to deal with all sorts of digestive issues. You can also rest assured that we won’t be embarrassed by whatever you tell us because we’ve heard it all before! The advice we offer will of course be tailored to the individual, but there are a number of natural ways to support your digestive system.”

Food issues

As most of our digestive problems are in some way linked to our diet Helena Murphy advises keeping a food diary. “Writing down everything you eat and how you’re feeling is a great way of finding out if there is a certain food that does not agree with you,” she says, “then you’ll know to avoid it. Chewing your food and not rushing while you eat are a must. Give yourself time to sit and enjoy your food instead of eating on the go or too fast. If you’re not drinking enough water your major organs could be thirsty – so try drinking more water. Adding seeds and more fibre to your diet will help too.”

If you suspect a food intolerance, avoid the suspected food for a month and see if there is a difference. Or consider having a food intolerance test with a nutritionist.

What’s the problem?

Bloating – caused by the body finding it difficult to break down carbohydrates, fats or proteins. Try digestive enzymes designed to help with each of these as well as formulations with multiple enzymes.

Indigestion – try digestive enzymes which combine herbs such as slippery elm, papaya and chamomile with aloe vera juice. Chewing fennel seeds after eating can help to push air out of the intestine.

Acid reflux – avoid antacids, this problem is actually caused by too little acid. Make sure you are getting enough magnesium from dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, wholegrains, fish, advocados and bananas. Take a centaurium tincture and drink camomile tea after meals. “We have had good results with apple cider vinegar for acid reflux,” says Rob Whinnett. “Although it might sound counter-intuitive, sometimes acid reflux is caused not by too much stomach acid, but too little. So 1tbsp of vinegar with 1tbsp water taken in the morning may really help.”

Constipation – use live bacteria (probiotics) to help restore the natural bacteria in the gut. Try eating seeds such as chia to help the bowels move food through the gut. Herbal teas can help – nettle is great for the bowels, ginger before meals can help, fennel is good for reducing gas. “Psyllium husk is my go-to for constipation,” says Rob Whinnett. “Available in powder or capsule form, taken with plenty of water it is a great source of soluble fibre which keeps everything moving.”

The role of stress

“Understanding the link between stress and digestion is vitally important and often overlooked,” says Rob Whinnett. “We often find people who are in a vicious circle where their stress causes digestive discomfort which in turn causes them more stress. Sometimes it is difficult to see what came first, the stress or the digestive problems. Your independent health store can help you to break that cycle by taking a holistic approach to both the anxiety and the digestion.”

Lifestyle and your gut

And it seems most digestive problems are linked with the modern diet and lifestyle, which has seen an increase in processed foods, less fibre in food, people eating too quickly and stress which all contribute to poor digestion. Plus antibiotics which disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut and a lack of exercise.

“Regular exercise is so important – it doesn’t have to be a three hour work-out at the gym,” says Helena Murphy. “Just a half an hour brisk walk daily can work wonders. Daily exercise is the important part whether it’s jogging, walking, swimming, cycling anything that suits just as long as it’s daily to get the body moving.

“Stress can be a huge factor in having digestion problems – learning to deal with stress is very important. A bit of meditation daily can help, or take a yoga class. Sleep plays a big part as your body must rest.”

“A good night’s sleep, regular meal times (little and often rather than a big blow out meal is best), gentle exercise, plenty of fibre, fruit and vegetables, staying hydrated and keeping calm will all help,” says Rob Whinnett.

Natural help

“Our understanding of probiotics is developing all the time, and many probiotics are tailored for use with specific digestive conditions,” says Rob Whinnett. “Probiotics are not just of value following a course of antibiotics; we have found them very useful in managing inflammatory bowel conditions over the long term as well as dealing with short term issues like traveller’s tummy and constipation.”

“Live native bacteria or probiotics are great for everybody with digestion problems as they make sure the gut is always in top shape,” says Helena Murphy. “Digestive enzymes help where certain foods make you feel bloated or there is difficultly digesting food after a meal. L-glutamine is a fantastic amino acid to help the gut. Oils like flax oil can be very helpful for digestion. Tinctures and herbal tea can be very helpful too.”

Probiotic foods include fermented milk, kefir, yoghurt, sauerkraut, raw apple cider vinegar and supplements. Choose a supplement with 22 billion organisms or more.

Other good supplements for digestion include:

  • Aloe vera – soothing and healing to the digestive tract.
  • Centaurium tincture or camomile tea after meals – for acid reflux.
  • Chlorella – great source of protein, can increase the number of good bacteria in the gut.
  • Digestive enzyme – try one with herbs such as slippery elm, papaya and chamomile and aloe vera juice, before meals to prevent gas and bloating.
  • Glutamine powder – healing for the digestive tract.
  • Herbal teas – can relieve unwanted digestive symptoms – chamomile, valerian or peppermint teas have antispasmodic properties. Ginger and fennel teas relieve gas and bloating.
  • Magnesium – from dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, wholegrains, certain fish, advocados and bananas. Can help to relax the muscles in the intestine and prevent acid reflux.
  • Vitamin C – has a healing and cleansing effect in the gut so is good for constipation.

FOODS TO EAT FOR A HEALTHY GUT

Lots of fruit, vegetables and fibre from brown rice, pasta etc

Garlic – has a cleansing and antibacterial action on the gut

Yoghurt – restores natural bacteria

Flax seeds – ground over porridge or cereals

Mediterranean diet – good for the gut. Fruit, veg, nuts, seeds, wholegrains, spices, fish, seafood and extra virgin olive oil

Good quality water is very important


FOODS TO AVOID

Highly processed foods – have little fibre so are hard for the gut to process

Salty foods – dehydrate the body

Coffee – dehydrates the body

Alcohol – dehydrates the body

Sugary and soft drinks – support bacterial growth

Gluten – swap for quinoa, buckwheat, millet and brown rice, oats which are easier to digest

Artificial sweeteners in low sugar foods – can alter gut bacteria

Check with your professional healthcare practitioner before taking any new supplements or starting a new diet.

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