The Hows and Whys of digestive wellbeing
In naturopathic medicine there is an old adage “it all comes back to the gut”. And though it could be considered a bit of a “yeah yeah yeah…” cliche- It reeeeeallllly does. The impact the health of our gut has on the rest of our body, from physical disease to mental health can’t be over stated. Whether you’ve been diagnosed with one of the myriad of digestive disorders (IBS, Chron’s disease, ulcerative colitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD), Small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), diverticulosis, fructose malabsorption, gluten sensitivity etc…) or a seemingly unconnected illness (autoimmune, inflammatory,depression/anxiety, hormonal imbalance) – the state of affairs in your GIT (gastrointestinal system) could be playing a major role. Even for those of us who may be in general good health, who maybe experience a few seasonal allergies, occasional bloating/fluctuating bowel motions, recurring colds and flus, fatigue/ sluggishness, acne or skin conditions- yup- digestive wellbeing could be at play.
Listen to the symptoms
When we become accustomed to tuning our attention to our bodies, we get direct messages about how the things we eat or drink effect us. There is either a neutral experience, one of particular balance or nourishment, or immediate imbalance or upset. Of course, while we don’t want to be neurotic or overly sensitive to the play-by-play, listening to our body can tell us what is going on and is crucially important. I don’t believe major illness just happens over night. In fact, a person was probably ignoring and not addressing symptoms- for sometimes years- before the more serious pathology presented itself. If you’re in the fortunate position of being in good health, with no major diagnosis against your name, you are in the perfect position to prevent disease (which we know is worth a pound, right?) through listening to your digestive system, and taking measures to support it’s health and function. If you are the type of person who is experiencing some unpleasant digestive symptoms, whatever they be- it’s time to look a bit closer.
“I eat a healthy diet”. I hear this a lot. But what does it MEEEAAAANNNN??? If you’re presenting with persistent digestive symptoms, minor to major, chances are your diet isn’t as healthy as it could be, at least FOR YOU.
Another thing people say, is that they can’t work out what it is they are eating that upsets them. “I don’t seem to react to any one particular thing. I can eat pasta or a salad, the symptoms are the same” This is because, when you have inflammation going on in your gut, it’s the same as if you had a wound on your skin. Say you’ve grazed yourself on the arm, the skin is broken, it’s red and sore. ANYTHING you do is going to cause it to hurt, right? Even just having a shower and getting water on it could irritate it. This is exactly the same in your gut. If you have inflammation internally, everything you eat will irritate it. By eliminating the CAUSE of the inflammation and healing the gut, you will then be able to see a more clear reaction when you consume the offending food.
Is it allergy? Or intolerance? NEVER in our evolution have we been able to access the same foods day in and day out year after year. There has ALWAYS been seasonal variability and periods of time when a particular food wasn’t around at all, giving our body breaks and time to heal. The modern world which has refrigeration and international movement of out of season foods around the globe has created a situation where we never get a break. And industrial agriculture has also reduced the variety of species we grow. Many people are living on a max of 20-30 foods if they are lucky! And let’s not even START on how highly processed and full of chemicals and preservatives, OR GMO’s sneaking in ever so many more places- it’s no surprise our digestive systems are more and more inflammed and irritable.
So what if you feel like mostly you avoid processed foods and additives and still have symptoms? Most digestive symptoms aren’t caused by a true allergy, but an intolerance. Probably because of a combination diet/lifestyle factors and some of the circumstances listed above. So aside from recommending a reduction in obvious culprits like alcohol, sugar, refined grains, processed food and excessive caffeine- I usually start by looking at what I call- the big 5. The most irritating foods, and ones that are likely to cause intolerance if consumed regularly. That means daily. Wheat, dairy, soy, corn, yeast. By looking over what a person eats in a 3-5 day period, you’ll often find one of these foods is over consumed. Sometimes (often) the offending food is also the person’s absolute favourite, which they don’t think they could ever possibly live without (pasta, cheese, milk, beer, bread are some common examples). It’s mean, but true: the thing you love the most could be the worst thing for you 😦 sorry bout that. This is because if our gut is inflamed and absorbing the larger, undigested molecules of foods we are sensitive to, those larger molecules can trigger the morphine receptors in our brains, and give us a particularly good feeling when we eat those foods (this is especially true of grains and dairy). We become addicted to the feeling and those foods, the very ones that started the process and that may be causing health issues. Totally sucks- I know, but it’s time to say adios amigos if we want to stop the cycle.
Notice that gluten isn’t in there. Gluten is very often a sensitivity for people, but not always. I find that wheat is more often the culprit and by going off wheat and replacing with other grains or low grain diet (often times gluten free, but not always) many people’s symptoms improve. If they do not improve, well, then we can move on to stage 2, eliminating gluten, looking at carbohydrates/starches which could be feeding bad bugs in the gut, and other potential food allergens. This is where the help of an experienced naturopath or nutritionist comes in handy- when things get confusing and not so straight forward.
Staying regular having regular (daily) bowel motions is vitally important to digestive health. That means not to many or too little. Every day is ideal. Every second day for some is normal, but any longer than this, and you’ve got old food putrefying in there, feeding harmful bacteria and creating a toxic burden for the liver. Some people go 2-3 times per day, but any more than that and you run the risk of malabsorption. For most people the things required to stay regular are, LOTS of fresh plain water (2 L is ideal), exercise, high fibre diet (fruit and veggies or fibre supplements), and bitter digestive herbs. Many cultures value bitter greens and herbs for their ability to stimulate digestion and they are a feature of aperitifs and many tonics. Bitter is a flavour westerners have shied away from during our love affair with sugar. Time to embrace the dark side… try bitter teas like Dandelion root if you find your bowels are a bit sluggish. It gets bile moving and your bowels will follow.
So what are the every day things that we can do to give our digestive systems a little extra lovin’, heal and soothe inflammation and maybe prevent some chronic conditions? Things that EVERYONE can and should do to nourish our GITs.
Demulcents- This is the technical term for mucilaginous substances which heal and sooth the digestive tract with their gooey sliminess. Sounds yum, right? Some demulcents are yummier than others, and most you wouldn’t even know were doing such a good job of it- especially if you get crafty at hiding them in food and drinks. Here are some of my favs.
Chia seeds and flaxseeds– These are easy to use every day, and offer so much more than just their gooey goodness. Both are high in omega 3 essential fatty acids, and in the case of chia- a particularly good source of protein and the minerals calcium, magnesium and manganese. The soluble fibres found in both are excellent for keeping the bowels regular and helping to eliminate toxins.
Slippery elm-The inner bark of the elm tree, Slippery elm is a demulcent par excellance. Another soluble gentle source of fibre it’s an all around excellent food for the gut. It is used for both constipation and diarrhoea- as it absorbs water, so please please remember, if you don’t have loose stools or diarrhoea- drink a big glass of water after. Hot tip: stir up a teaspoon of it in water and get that stuff down the hatch toute suite. It’s mucilaginous nature will soon become apparent if left in the glass and you may find it reminiscent of the glue you used in preschool. (don’t let me turn you off it- it’s really amazing stuff and a must if you have inflammation or pain in the gut).
Aloe vera- We use the inner gel of the Aloe plant- either in juice or if you have some growing- cut a leaf through the middle and scrape the gel in to you blender when you’re blending your smoothie. Aloe has been used forever as an important internal and external healer of skin and tissues. (The outer leaf has a laxative effect- so again, it’s the just the gel you are after)
Kudzu- This is one many people aren’t as familiar with- Kudzu or Kuzu is also known as Japanese arrowroot. It is often used as thickener similar to cornstarch, in macrobiotic cooking. It comes in rough little white rocks which dissolve in warm water. It’s an excellent and nourishing demulcent for the entire gut- and something about it makes you feel relaxed and balanced. I drink it dissolved in bancha twig or green tea. Take ½ – 1 tsp and put it in the bottom of your cup- pour a little bit of boiling water over it, and stir it to a paste with your spoon (similar method to how some people make hot chocolate). Then fill the rest of the cup with water or hot tea. Especially yummy on a cold winters morning. You can find it in most health food stores which carry macrobiotic foods or japanese foods stores.
Gelatine/bone broth- I have written a whole blog piece on the virtues and wonders of bone broth here. Short story- bone broth is probably one of the most valuable healing tools for the gut- and something severely lacking in our western diets. The healing capacity for gelatine the minerals in bone broth is like no other and should be consumed regularly and with abandon. Always use the bones of pasture raised, free range animals that haven’t been fed antibiotics or growth promoting hormones.
Probiotics The inside of our guts is kind of like a garden. The various bacteria and other organisms that usually live there need to be in the right kind of balance for the environment to stay healthy and for functions of the system to run smoothly. If the garden becomes overrun by weeds (bad bugs)- it makes it hard for the beneficial organisms to thrive. The bad bugs also produce toxins and waste products that are damaging to the gut, and add toxic burden to the liver. They make us bloated and feel yucky, they make us crave things (sugar usually) that feeds them so that the cycle continues. A garden full of weeds is not what we are after.
As a supplement- Whether you have major pathology or some niggling symptoms, a probiotic supplement is a great way to maintain the balance of our digestive system and improve immunity, detoxifying and mental clarity. I actually believe that if you had to chose between a multivitamin and a probiotic, I’d go the probiotic. A healthy gut is better at absorbing nutrients and there fore you’ll be getting more out of your food with a probiotic. It inadvertently does the job of both.
There a many kinds of probiotics on the market, and some strains have been found to be particularly useful in certain conditions (Irritable bowel syndrome, allergy, candida and eczema for example). There are also lots of good all rounders which help stabalize the environment by adding in the biggest players (Acidophilus and bifidus strains), making it easier for the little guys to proliferate. If you’re in general good health, those may be the ones for you.
As foods- Fermented foods are the new black. Everyone wants to eat sauerkraut and drink kombuscha. This is a wonderful hands on way to get a hit of probiotics in you daily life. But let’s also remember other fantastic things about fermented foods. They are pre-digested. You’ve got the bugs to do part of the work for you before you’ve even eaten the food! You’ll have little work to do digesting it now and nutrients are easy to absorb. There are about a million books on the subject- with heaps of recipes and ideas. Some of my favs include:
The Body Ecology diet-by Donna Gates
Nourishing Traditions-by Sally Falon
My recommendation is to find 1 or 2 that you enjoy doing and do them regularly… I personnaly love water/milk kefir and sauerkraut- and of course I ferment my dosas.
Our nervous system has only two states. Parasympathetic and sympathetic. That’s rest and digest OR fight or flight. They are mutually exclusive and you can only be switch on in one state at a time. The fight or flight state is certainly not one we are meant to be living in long term, though we do find that more and more people in the modern world are living in a state of adrenal stress that can shut down digestion, reducing the enzymes needed to properly break down foods, therefore leading to malabsorption, irritation and toxic overload. Stress management is vitally important to good digestion. Things like exercise, meditation, counselling, and taking time out to recoup and nurture ourselves are things we can do. If you know you are under a lot of stress, short or long term, there are many things your naturopath can do to support you, help balance your nervous system and digestion at the same time. Both the nervous and digestive system depend on the other to be in balance so that they themselves can function properly.
There are so many approaches to improving digestive health, it’s almost impossible to cover in one short article. Often it’s as much about what you don’t put in as what you put in. And definitely there is no “one size fits all” approach to dealing with it- which can be frustrating if you’re navigating it on your own. So whether you are suffering a niggling upset or one of a more chronic nature- I hope this short list of practical digestive supports has proved helpful, or at least offered some food for thought– cuz after all, without a healthy functioning healthy digestive system, we really are, in the shit!!!!! (puns are also good for your health) 😉