Do you suffer from bloating, flatulence or discomfort, constipation or diarrhoea? Do you just put up with the symptoms because they are not that bad? Are you aware of the damage that can be occurring in your digestive system by ignoring these symptoms? This article will focus on the more obvious signs of a digestive disturbance such as bloating, flatulence, discomfort and changes in bowel habits, the causes, the impact it can have on your body and what you can do to about it.
“All Disease Begins in the Gut” ~ Hippocrates, Father of Medicine. It was almost 2,500 years ago that Hippocrates spoke of all disease beginning in the gut. Natural forms of medicine like Naturopathy have long acknowledged the truth in this statement and have treated the digestive system simultaneously with other health conditions, but it is only recently that orthodox medicine has finally caught up and discovered how true those words are. There has been a lot of research over recent years on gut health and its impact on our body. This research is continually pointing to the fact that every bodily system is affected to a great degree on the state of our digestive health.
A lot of people feel embarrassed about discussing their bowels or flatulence but it is important to encourage people to understand their digestive symptoms and the implications if nothing is done to address them.
Imbalance of gut bacteria …
Bloating, flatulence and changes in bowel habits are often caused by an imbalance in the gut flora, called dysbiosis. There are trillions of beneficial bacteria in our digestive tract and they need to remain in balance if we are to have a healthy digestive system. If we eat too many processed foods and sugar, drink too much alcohol, suffer from high stress levels or take antibiotics, this can destroy the beneficial bacteria and like weeds in a garden, the bad guys take over.
It is common for people who suffer from digestive disturbances like bloating, flatulence and altered bowel motions to have parasites and other microbial infections – the weeds – in their intestines. These microbes cause inflammation and irritation in the digestive tract which can lead to permeability in the gut lining. This permeability (commonly referred to as leaky gut) allows undigested molecules to enter the blood stream where the immune system attacks them as “foreign invaders” This is one of the causes of food intolerances and allergies.
The good bacteria in the gut is required to break down food properly so our body can absorb the nutrients. If this bacteria has been overtaken by bad pathogens, it can lead to malabsorption of vital nutrients. Certain bacteria also manufacture vitamins, like Vitamin B12, Vitamin K, Folic acid and Thiamine. If these bacteria are not in sufficient numbers, it will lead to deficiency in these vitamins.
Insufficient enzymes …
Bloating, flatulence and other gut symptoms can also be caused by a lack of enzymes that are needed to break down foods. We need the enzyme amylase to break down carbohydrates, pepsin to break down proteins and lipase to break down fats. If we don’t have enough of these enzymes, the food is not properly broken down. This can lead to fermentation of the undigested food and a build up of toxins which can wreak havoc on our body by causing inflammation and damaging body tissues. Common symptoms of a lack of enzymes are bloating, flatulence and either constipation or diarrhoea.
The most commonly known problem due to enzyme deficiency is lactose intolerance. Our body needs the enzyme lactase in order to break down the lactose in dairy products and the activity of this enzyme is often reduced after weaning which is why so many people have digestive disturbances after drinking milk or eating dairy products.
Another major contributor to dysbiosis is poor diet. The good bacteria feed on fibre and the bad guys love the sugar and carbohydrates. So diets low in fibre and high in sugar and refined carbohydrates encourage the bad bacteria to take over.
When people are stressed, the body releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones divert blood from the digestive system to the limbs – to allow us to run from imminent danger. This in effect “shuts down” the digestive processes. We don’t need our digestive system to run away from danger, so it is classed as a non imperative function during stress. We are designed to cope well with short bursts of stress, but prolonged stress means that the digestive system is continually being compromised, leading to malabsorption of nutrients, fermentation of food that is not broken down properly, and the accompanying inflammation, dysbiosis and toxic build up.
Antibiotics can save lives, there is no disputing that. But the continued use of antibiotics for conditions that are not life threatening is wreaking havoc on our digestive system. Antibiotics are not specific about which bacteria they destroy. They kill the good guys and well as the bad ones. When this happens, the bad bacteria get a chance to take over – and take over they do! It is essential after a course of antibiotics to take a course of probiotics to help replenish the good bacteria that has been destroyed by the antibiotics.
Many other not so obvious symptoms …
The most obvious symptoms of digestive problems are bloating, flatulence, reflux, heartburn, constipation or diarrhoea. But there are many other symptoms that can occur if your digestive system is out of balance that are not as obvious. Symptoms such as
- Skin rashes
- Eczema or dermatitis
- Allergies and intolerances
- Autoimmune conditions
- Behavioural problems in children
- Poor immunity
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Brain fog
In fact these other symptoms can occur without any obvious symptoms of bloating, flatulence etc.
What to do …
Treating digestive issues can be very complicated but there are some strategies that you can put into place to give yourself the best chance of improving your digestion.
- Taken antibiotics in the past? Ensure you take a quality, broad range probiotic to give the good bacteria a chance to replenish
- Stressed? Work on reducing your stress by removing yourself from stressful situations whenever possible and by regularly practising good “de-stressing” techniques like yoga, deep breathing, meditation and exercise
- Improve your diet by reducing sugar and refined carbohydrates which feed the bad bacteria and eating whole, fresh food with plenty of fibre to feed the good bacteria. Around 25 – 30 grams of fibre per day is required.
- Avoid foods that cause discomfort. Don’t just put up with the symptoms. These foods are doing damage to your digestive system.
- Start a diet diary to help gauge which foods are causing problems. Write down the food you eat, the time you eat it and any symptoms of bloating, flatulence, constipation, diarrhoea, heart burn or reflux. This can mean a lot of detective work because a variety of foods could contain a certain chemical that you are sensitive to and these chemicals build up in your system to cause a reaction. For example, if you were sensitive to salicylates, you might eat a mango and have no problems, but then later in the day eat some strawberries or an apple and have a reaction. The logical assumption is that the strawberries or apple have caused the problem, but it could be the salicylates which are found in these foods. These chemicals can build up over a period of a few hours or a few days.
- Heal the gut by taking herbs and nutrients that reduce inflammation and heal. Slippery Elm, Glutamine, licorice, chamomile, peppermint and turmeric are all wonderful for reducing inflammation, soothing cramps and healing the gut.
- Test for parasites by getting a CDSA (Complete Digestive Stool Analysis) test done. This will tell you if you have any parasites, virus or fungal infections, if you have adequate amounts of the good bacteria and adequate digestive enzymes.
Start by implementing the first 5 suggestions. If you still have the symptoms then seek professional advice. Healing the gut requires using herbs and nutrients that need to be taken in sufficient quantities to do their job, but not too much as to do any harm and the stool test needs to be interpreted by a professional who is experienced in the field of digestive issues.
By Andrea Southern, Naturopath, Nutritionist, Herbalist Stafford and The Gap in Brisbane. For an appointment phone 0412 791 705