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Digestive dilemmas

How to improve your digestion the natural way

“An army marches on its stomach’ is a saying attributed to Napoleon, however it is truer today than we realise. If our digestive system isn’t healthy and happy, then neither is the rest of us,” says Lorin Taylor of Licorice healthstore in Portumna, Co Galway. “When a lady asks for help in treating hot flushes the first question I ask her is if she suffers from constipation, more often than not the answer is yes. Treating her gut health has the knock-on effect of minimising menopause symptoms – this is just one of the many ways our digestive health affects our overall health. The most common complaints that I see include bloating, nausea, constipation, diarrhoea and indigestion. Often they come to me after seeing their GP and being diagnosed with gastritis, a general term for inflammation in the digestive system. Leaky gut and IBS are usually the main culprits, both difficult to diagnose definitively as they both cause a wide range of symptoms.”

“Some common symptoms of an unhealthy gut include bloating, wind or gas, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), acid reflux, constipation and/or diarrhoea, eczema, food allergies or sensitivity, weight loss or weight gain,” says Chanine Mitchell from Optibac Probiotics. “If you are struggling with IBS, seek advice and assistance from your healthcare practitioner.”

The modern diet is often to blame for many digestive conditions – we may eat too quickly and consume more processed foods and less vegetables when we are time poor. Plus the use of antibiotics plays a role in affecting our gut flora or healthy bacteria balance. Dietary advice is to cut down on wheat and go for grains such as oats, rice, millet and spelt which are easier to digest, up our vegetable and fruit intake and eat proteins and healthy fats with every meal. Garlic has an antibacterial and cleansing action on the gut and natural live yogurt restores natural bacteria. Drinking lots of water can also help.

“There is no doubt our stressful and busy lives play a part in how often we suffer from leaky gut and IBS, so it is very important to practice some kind of mindfulness,” says Lorin Taylor. “It doesn’t have to be too intense, just get out for a walk, go sit by a lake, read a book, anything that brings your stress levels down.”

Leaky gut

“Leaky gut is a condition which can negatively impact digestion and may be a factor in the development of some autoimmune conditions,” says Chanine Mitchell. “It occurs when the lining of the digestive system is damaged. It is thought that stress, alcohol consumption and the overuse of certain pharmaceuticals are factors which may contribute to this condition. Leaky gut symptoms have been associated with numerous autoimmune conditions, inflammatory states, skin conditions and many (often unexplained) abdominal symptoms. This is a complex condition to diagnose and support.”

“Some of the symptoms pointing in the direction of leaky gut would be multiple food sensitivities – this occurs because partially-digested fats and proteins seep through the intestinal wall into the blood stream,” says Lorin Taylor. “These allergic responses show up as headaches, tiredness, bloating and skin issues to name a few. Treating leaky gut involves supplementing and dietery changes. L-glutamine is essential in any leaky gut regime, this amino acid acts as an anti-inflammatory, repairing the intestinal wall and protecting it from irritants.

“Probiotics replenish the good bacteria in the gut and crowd out the bad. Digestive enzymes should be taken with every meal to ensure food is fully digested. There are many more supplements that can help such as licorice, yacon and marshmallow root. It’s also important to change your diet, replacing gut-damaging foods such as wheat, dairy and sugar with gut-healing foods such as sprouted seeds, fermented vegetables and healthy fats.”

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

“If your symptoms are predominantly cramping, diarrhoea, constipation or bouts of both, bloating and nausea then you are more likely to be suffering from IBS,” says Lorin Taylor. “It is recommended that IBS sufferers take a holistic approach to treatment, both supplementing to treat symptoms and putting lifestyle and dietary changes in place.

“Both digestive enzymes and probiotics are helpful, peppermint oil sipped in warm water or as a capsule helps with cramps and gut motility. Slippery elm has been shown to be helpful in treating both constipation and diarrhoea. It also helps with heartburn and reflux. Aloe vera juice’s anti-inflammatory properties help reduce the hypersensitivity that IBS sufferers experience – taking 25ml a day can be of real benefit. Cutting out the foods most likely to trigger an attack is advised, such as wheat, dairy and sugar. What it really comes down to is paying attention to what each food does to you.”

“There are different categories of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), these include IBS-D (diarrhoea dominant); IBS-C (constipation dominant); IBS-A or IBS-M (alternating or mixed) and IBS-U (unspecified),” says Chanine Mitchell. “Common symptoms of IBS include bloating, constipation and/or diarrhoea and abdominal discomfort. Lifestyle factors such as diet, stress, exercise, medications and ageing are factors which can influence the health of your gut.

“A combination of probiotics and prebiotics are considered very beneficial for IBS – ask your local health store to help you identify which. It is perfectly safe to combine the probiotics that you take. You may also want to consider including foods such as pickles, yoghurt, bananas, kefir, plantains and garlic as these foods contain natural prebiotics.”

Other digestive conditions

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

Indigestion – Indigestion can be eased by digestive aids that combine aloe vera juice with herbs such as chamomile, slippery elm and papaya. After a meal chew ½tsp of fennel seeds - this may help to push air out of the intestinal tract.

Acid reflux –Acid reflux can be caused by the stomach not producing enough acid, rather than too much, so antacids won’t actually solve your problem. If you suffer from acid reflux try taking a bitter herb called centaurium available in tincture form, or a drinking a cup of camomile tea after a meal. Magnesium is really important for the relaxation of intestinal muscles, so make sure you are getting enough dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, wholegrains, certain fish, avocados and bananas.

Constipation – Constipation can be helped by probiotics to help restore the natural bacteria in the gut. Vitamin C also has a healing and cleansing effect. Herbal teas specific to the digestive system can help – nettle is great for the bowels, ginger before meals can help, fennel is good for reducing gas.

Check with your professional healthcare practitioner before you take any new supplements or start a new diet.

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