A healthy digestive system is key to good health. Esther Mills-Roberts reveals how to improve your gut health…
It’s the subject of many a witty comment, an embarrassing wind-slip, but when your digestive health is at less than it’s best, it can be no laughing matter. With research showing that digestive health is the seat of systemic wellness, it’s hardly surprising that many people are making gut health a major focus.
Friendly bacteria have been used for decades for the treatment of diarrhoeal upset, and studies on Lactobacillus acidophilus paved the way for the concept of digestive ‘balance’. Simply explained, you put enough ‘helpful’ or ‘friendly’ bacteria into your gut to offset the bad bacteria causing an imbalance (and unwanted symptoms).
Technically speaking, this is called ‘competitive exclusion’… let the good compete for food, space and attachment sites until they outnumber the bad and health problems begin to resolve. And most recently, research is showing that these gut bacteria can directly influence immune function, helping to modulate the immune response, helping it to work more efficiently and effectively.
These days, specific formulations of different friendly bacteria are available. There are some more suited to upper digestive health complaints such as indigestion and food repeating on you, and some for lower bowel symptoms such as wind and bloating. Very broadly speaking, you will be recommended formulations based on two bacterial families: Lactobacillus, and Bifido bacteria.
Friendly bacterial strains are great additions for daily living, but to target specific gut conditions, supplements are most often recommended. These will quickly increase gut levels, helping the digestive system to function by helping in the final breakdown of foods – most notably, carbohydrate sugars (polysaccharides). When incompletely digested, these sugars can result in wind (which is what happens with intolerance to the milk sugar, lactose). In fact, some formulas actually include oligosaccharides for bacteria to become well-established in the digestive system as they thrive off them as a food source, breaking them down.
Bacterial culture supplements also help in the formation of various biochemical acids (short-chain fatty acids), which provide an energy source for cells, help the absorption of minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron, as well as vitamin K. For those with tendency to gut damage through food intolerances, or physical damage caused by illness or surgery, these fatty acids help to increase growth of cells lining the gut. These fatty acids also increase the acidity of the colon, making it a hostile place for many unwanted bacteria. As well as this, friendly bacteria work with the gut’s immune responses, acting as another tactic in the war against unwanted bacteria. This is really important in cases where there are food allergies or inflammatory bowel conditions.
Various situations are known to cause a change in the balance of bacteria in the gut: weight loss, pregnancy, taking antibiotics and change in foods eaten being just a few of them. Ask your practitioner about the value of friendly bacteria supplements to your digestive health.
As well as supplements, research has also shown that certain foods encourage growth of different gut bacterial strains, increasing the variety and numbers of bacteria that help to keep the gut healthy. This explains the upsurge in use of foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha. As a rule, if it’s fermented or vinegary, it has potential to do your digestion a lot of good, so ask a practitioner about whether these foods should be increased in your diet.
A fine kind of fibre
We used to call it ‘roughage’, and it conjured up images of wading through cardboard-like plant matter, but research has shown that perception is now misplaced. Not only have high fibre products become more palatable, there is a shift in thinking towards soluble fibres too – which is why products like softened oats, cereal bars and fruits have gained value. This is why you can not only use cereal husk bran-rich products to help displace constipation, but also gels, seeds, softer cereals and fruit bars.
Psyllium husks, flax seeds and chia seeds can be added to most meals. Fruit juices, cubes and sticks are still popular choices. Once broken down (you might want to soak them overnight), they release oils and mucilage (slippery substances) that encourage movement of food along the gut.
Indigestion, wind and bloating are common digestive complaints and there is an array of pharmaceuticals out there to try and neutralise acids and disperse flatulence. Maybe it’s time for you to try a well-established natural remedy such as digestive enzymes. These formulations include enzymes which assist in the breakdown of foods (they work effectively in conjunction with friendly bacteria products). Taken with food, they assist the body in the digestive process. Though research on them is less than the well-financed friendly bacteria formulas, they are no less useful. In fact, practitioners report that those with long-standing issues with bloating find that, when taken routinely, they really help.
Betaine hydrochloride was popular as far back as 20 years ago and is used most often by those experiencing indigestion and/or acid reflux. Practitioners recognise that people presenting with acid indigestion are responding to an inability to effectively break down protein in the stomach – many times due to lack of stomach acid. These practitioners highlight that the conventional treatment of giving antacids, especially when used long-term, only serve to make the situation worse. Instead, by gently increasing the acidity of the stomach using betaine HCl, protein is more efficiently digested. Some formulas also include pepsin, which is specifically needed for the breakdown of protein.
When thinking about digestive health, herbal formulations can be incredibly useful, especially those with established strong effects, such as senna or aloe vera. Senna has been used for centuries for constipations, and in high amounts, the active components, sennosides, have a direct effect on gut activity and motions, helping the gut wall to contact and force faecal matter through.
Aloe vera is a plant that is rich in mucilage, which helps faecal matter pass more quickly through the digestive tract. Taken over a period of time, it can help to gently establish gut regularity, and can be used under supervision for a laxative effect.
As well as specific supplements, you can also consider herbal teas (these can also be taken as supplements, usually in the form of capsules as oils). Peppermint is a known remedy for sickness and nausea, as well as calming the digestive system, whilst ginger is an antiemetic (meaning that it helps quell nausea).
Good news for allergies, intolerances and coeliac disease
One main area of digestive health is provision of suitable foods for those with food sensitivities, allergies, or those with coeliac disease or dairy intolerance.
Eating the correct foods is not only important for management of the condition’s symptoms, but it’s vital for making eating enjoyable. Thankfully, innovative companies are working to provide high quality staples such as breads, cakes and biscuits, but also more convenience foods such as high quality pizzas and specialist deli breads. If you suspect that you are intolerant to wheat and gluten, or possibly have digestive symptoms that are upset by milk or other foods, it’s well worth speaking with a nutritional practitioner to establish which foods might be causing the problem, and how you can create a varied and enjoyable diet to resolve things.
About Esther Mills-Roberts
Esther Mills-Roberts is a degree-trained nutritional biochemist and registered nutritionist. She has a private practice in Stratford Upon Avon.
Esther studied nutrition and biochemistry at Nottingham University and worked for a number of nutritional supplement companies before eventually setting up as a consultant on nutritional marketing, PR, quality standard, labelling and new product development.
She has also lectured and educated many about the science of nutrition, written for a number of health titles, written her own books and has featured on both TV and radio. Esther is a member of the Guild of Health Writers, London.