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Gut instinct

When your stomach is not happy, it’s likely that you are not happy either. Rude Health magazine looks at how to improve your gut health and deal with unpleasant symptoms

IBS – a modern disease

Ever notice how IBS is more prevalent now than say 50 years ago? Experts link this to the typical Western nutrient-sparse diet, lack of exercise, sleep and sunshine, stressful lifestyles, alcohol consumption and the overuse of antibiotics, all of which affect our gut flora balance and our overall health.

“Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is the most prevalent gastrointestinal issue by far,” according to Ben Brown, Technical Director of Viridian and author of The Digestive Health Solution (Exisle). “Symptoms range from mild discomfort and occasional upset to debilitating symptoms such as diarrhoea, bloating and pain. And people with IBS often have other symptoms as a result of their gut issues including fatigue, muscle pain, headaches, insomnia and anxiety.

“Because the causes of IBS vary so much, it is often poorly managed medically and the symptoms can persist for many years,” says Ben Brown. “Some of the more common reasons include specific changes in gut bacteria, sleep problems, stress, food sensitivities, dietary fat and sugars. Often there are a number of these to blame which calls for a very individual approach to treatment.”

“The precise causes of IBS are still unknown, although research has linked it to stress and/or anxiety,” says Adrienne Benjamin, a nutritionist at ProVen Probiotics. “Digestive problems (including IBS) have also been linked to food intolerances and allergies, gut infections and parasites.”

The health store experience

“A large number of our customers would come in with issues around digestion including, but not limited to IBS,” says Sian Morgan of Healing Harvest in Kinvara, Co Galway. “Attention to diet and digestion can be helpful in many situations, whether or not digestion is the primary area of concern. Also once medication and other underlying illness have been considered, there are several conditions where dietary changes and digestive support can make a huge difference to quality of life.”

Digestive support

“There are a wide range of products which can help with impaired digestion,” says Sian Morgan. “It’s a good idea to look at dietary changes, then consider options for supplements. Changes to diet can be as simple as looking at cooking and preparation methods as these can make a significant difference to the digestibility of foods. Soaking grains and nuts can make them easier to digest and fermented foods such as sauerkraut or kefir help provide good bacteria which are essential for good gut health.

“Supplements can help re-populate the gut with good bacteria, including a particular strain which is recommended in IBS,” says Sian Morgan. “Products such as digestive enzymes can help to break down particular components of food. There are also products on the market to help with acid reflux, indigestion and heartburn as well as those which have traditionally been used to reduce inflammation and line the gut against further damage.”

“Taking probiotics may help by increasing the good bacteria in the gut and helping to reduce the number of bad bacteria, thus balancing the gut and reducing digestive discomfort,” says Adrienne Benjamin. “Research has shown the benefits of probiotics in supporting the symptoms of IBS.”

“There are quite a few natural products that have excellent evidence, but they also tend to work better if you find the right product for the right person,” says Ben Brown. “Delayed release peppermint oil can provide quick relief – there are about 20 clinical studies supporting it – and probiotics work well, but only a few of the many products available work for IBS as the effects are strain-specific.”

Lifestyle changes

“Stress reduction methods such as gentle exercise, yoga, t’ai chi or meditation can be very helpful with certain aspects of digestive health,” says Sian Morgan.

“Because mediation, yoga, exercise, stress management, and healthy living seem a bit ‘low tech’ they are often overlooked as a valid treatment, but the reality is they often work very well and can help resolve symptoms,” says Ben Brown. “Unlike conventional medication they may actually be addressing the reasons you have symptoms in the first place. Lifestyle changes are vital and not to be underestimated.”

“Eating slowly and regularly and drinking enough fluid can help you to alleviate digestive issues,” says Adrienne Benjamin, “and keeping a symptom and food diary can help to identify triggers.”

Other natural supports

Multi-strain probiotic – can help with most digestive symptoms.

Digestive enzyme supplement (try one with herbs such as slippery elm, papaya and chamomile and aloe vera juice) – before meals to prevent gas and bloating.

Aloe vera – soothing and healing to the digestive tract.

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.

Vitamin C – has a healing and cleansing effect in the gut so is good for constipation.

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.

Centaurium tincture or camomile tea after meals – for acid reflux

Take regular moderate exercise – walk for 30 minutes three to four times a week to keep everything moving.

Give up smoking – inhibits the absorption of nutrients from food.

Relax – if stress is the cause of your digestive problems find ways in your life to relax.

If you suspect food intolerance – avoid the suspected food for a month and see if it helps. Or have a food intolerance test with a nutritionist.

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