How can our diet specifically affect our digestive health?
Even the smallest change can have a profound effect on your digestion, and it’s not always about what you eat, but when and how you eat too.
Let’s talk about what you eat – sometimes particular foods can cause digestive problems. Most notable in this camp are dairy and gluten. With dairy it’s common to find bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, tummy pain and flatulence.
Gluten can cause the same symptoms, yet in addition can result in anxiety and brain fog, both extremely common alongside digestive issues. Gluten has the capacity to affect you systemically, impacting every body system, not just your digestive system.
Many cases of digestive upset are down to an imbalance of gut bacteria. Here’s a simple explanation. Sugar and refined carbohydrates (such as white bread, rice and pasta) feed bad bacteria causing digestive upset. Conversely, vegetables feed good bacteria which provide energy, support your immune system and keep the bad bacteria in check. The balance of your food intake, which feeds your intestinal bugs may therefore correlate to your digestive happiness.
Many people think that visiting a nutritional therapist means just eliminating foods. However, we spend equal time in our clinics adding in foods that are missing in the diet (most often oily fish, avocados, coconut oil, herbal teas, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds). These are especially valuable for good digestive health due to their essential fats, protein, vitamins and minerals.
Let’s move on to when you eat – for example eating fruit alone is often better tolerated than eating it after a meal when it can ferment causing bloating, flatulence and discomfort. Others find that eating three meals a day without snacking in between helps their digestive symptoms.
Lastly, how you eat involves mindful eating: thinking about your food, preparing it, salivating over it even. This gets your natural digestive enzymes working. These enzymes are required to break down your food so that you benefit from the nutrients rather than your resident bad bacteria. Once they feast upon your undigested food, these opportunistic bacteria can cause more fermentation and therefore discomfort.
The same foods aren’t right for different people. So raw apples may work for client A, but client B gets terrible flatulence. We can go even further and say that how food is prepared makes a difference to whether you can digest it or not. Client B tries her apples stewed with cinnamon and has no problem. Raw food can be difficult to digest for those with compromised digestion.
All of us are biochemically unique. This is why working with a nutritional therapist can help – finding the right diet that works for you.
How can a professional help those living with a condition, such as IBS, Crohn’s etc.
Nutritional therapists are trained to look for the underlying cause, to recognise symptoms as an imbalance and aim to get you back into balance. We can see five clients with IBS; they will all have different causes and require different protocols. The biochemical individuality of people means that we look at the whole person and create a personalised programme just for them. Laboratory stool testing can be extremely useful to identify microbial causes (yeasts, bad bacteria, parasites), inflammation levels, gut immunity and absorption leading to continued digestive upset.
IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and IBD (inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) require different nutrition plans. IBD requires much more anti-inflammatory support and has an autoimmune component which needs additional help. However they are both approached by supporting these five main areas:
- Digestion and absorption
- Intestinal permeability (also known as leaky gut)
- Gut microbiome (balance of good and bacteria)
- Inflammation and immune response
- Enteric nervous system (how the nervous system governs the digestive system)
Working with a nutritional therapist is a journey when it comes to gut health. Nutrition is not a quick fix and may take many months to get the digestive system working optimally. But it can be supremely powerful with a programme tailored just for you.
A nutritional therapist may work in five stages:
Remove what is in excess: certain irritating foods, microbes (found on a stool test).
Replace what is missing: water, fibre, digestive enzymes, stomach acid, bile support.
Repopulate with probiotic and prebiotic foods and supplements to rebalance the microbiome so that the good bacteria dominate and thrive.
Repair and heal the gut lining to optimise absorption and provide immune tolerance. Vitamins A and D are important here plus nutrients such as collagen, colostrum, glutamine and slippery elm to name a few.
Rebalance lifestyle changes to reduce stress, practise mindful eating and other lifestyle changes that may prevent recurrence. Yoga, meditation and exercise is often recommended.
All these stages are of equal importance to identify where the imbalance is. We then support the relevant body systems to regain balance, so that digestive harmony is continued for the long term.