Not many of us can say we’ve never had tummy troubles. Whether it’s a gluten intolerance, indigestion or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), an unhappy gut can make anyone miserable.
Our guide has everything you need to keep your digestion in good working order.
Your gut is your ‘second brain’
Our ‘gut brain’ contains million of nerve cells and helps control digestion, sensing the food we’ve eaten and responding to it, adjusting digestive secretions, absorbing nutrients and telling our brain what’s going on.
Our brain and our gut are closely connected in order to allow digestion to happen under the right circumstances. This is why eating a meal when we’re stressed can cause symptoms like bloating, as our body is focused on fight or flight, rather than digesting our food.
Experiencing an emotional upset while eating can also trigger digestive problems. Your ‘gut brain’ remembers the upset and can develop symptoms around the contents of that meal – after receiving bad news in a fish restaurant, you might then react to fish, for example.
Is it IBS?
IBS is a common digestive condition, with symptoms including abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, and either constipation or diarrhoea, or both. Symptoms vary between sufferers, and your own may vary day-to-day.
It’s not exactly known what causes IBS, but experts say a genetic predisposition coupled with a trigger such as gastroenteritis can set it off. Stress may also be a trigger, as can hormones; women are more likely than men to suffer from IBS.
Your GP can prescribe antispasmodics, laxatives or anti-diarrhoeals to help manage your symptoms, but many sufferers find their GP can be unsympathetic as IBS is not yet widely recognised as a serious disorder.
How to manage your IBS
- Follow a gut-friendly FODMAP-free diet. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. These are groups of carbohydrates that are not absorbed by the gut, so they ferment and bacteria feed on them, causing IBS symptoms. Foods high in FODMAPs include apples, pears, milk and cabbage.
- Try taking friendly bacteria supplements. These have been shown to be beneficial in some people with IBS and there is some evidence they may also help alleviate depression associated with the condition.
- Reduce your fibre intake. Too much fibre can overstimulate the gut, making symptoms even worse. Ask a dietician for advice before cutting out any food groups.
- Practise gut-focused hypnotherapy. Research shows this can reduce symptoms by at least half in 70 per cent of patients. It’s thought it may make the gut less sensitive, decrease the strength of contractions and help relieve the stress and anxiety of IBS.
Could it be a gluten intolerance?
Around 1 in 100 Brits suffer from coeliac disease, with 500,000 still undiagnosed. Coleiac disease is not just an allergy or intolerance to gluten – found in wheat, rye and barley – it is an autoimmune disease where the body ‘attacks’ the gluten and damages the small intestine in the process.
Symptoms include diarrhoea, bloating, weight loss, fatigue, anaemia, and abdominal pain. Because they’re so similar to the symptoms of IBS, anyone being checked for IBS should also have a blood test for coeliac disease. It does have a genetic cause but, like IBS, a trigger such as pregnancy or a stomach bug may be what sets it off.
There’s no cure for coeliac disease, but following a gluten-free diet – cutting out breads, pastas, cakes and other foods that contain ‘hidden’ gluten such as sausages – can help reduce symptoms. Avoiding gluten allows the gut to recover, so you start to absorb nutrients from your food more efficiently.
Found that helpful? We’ve got lots more advice and articles on how to look after your gut.
This article has been adapted from longer features appearing in Healthy, the Holland & Barrett magazine. Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies