Top tips to get your digestive system back on track

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Contemporary foodie culture’s lascivious quest for the new, exotic and tantalising ignores a whole other side of food – what happens to it once you’ve chewed 20 times, made some groany noises and promised to never again go back for seconds?

“Eating is the most pleasurable, gross, necessary, unspeakable biological process we humans undertake,” says Mary Roach, author of Gulp – Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. “But very few of us realise what strange wet miracles of science operate inside us after every meal.”

Heartburn, cramps, nausea, diarrhoea and constipation are just a few of the ways your stomach and intestines let you know when they’re out of sorts, says gastroenterologist and co-author of the Mayo Clinic on Digestive Health, Dr John King.

You may have come to accept digestive symptoms as byproducts of being a modern gastronome, but digestive discomfort isn’t inevitable. 

TELLTALE SIGN: Bloating

THE CULPRIT: Fats and oils

Unlike protein and carbs, fat is incompatible with the aqueous environs of the gastrointestinal tract. The fats rise to the top and float on the contents of your stomach, waiting to be digested. They’re last in line. The worst effect comes from eating fat without fibre. “Fibre helps food pass smoothly through your digestive tract, fat does the opposite,” says Dr King. “It slows digestion.” The result, in varying degrees, is bloating, Dr King says. On the plus side, dietary fat can increase and prolong satiety due to delayed stomach emptying. 

TELLTALE SIGN: Heartburn

THE CULPRIT: Mega portions

What now looks like a normal portion is often more than our bodies need. Dinner plates and restaurant serving sizes have got bigger, which places undue stress on your digestive system. “Eating too much is a major cause of digestive problems,” says Dr Norton Greenberger, author of 4 Weeks to Healthy Digestion. Extra pounds increase pressure within the abdomen and in turn push on the stomach, Dr King says. “Increased pressure on your stomach forces stomach acid back into your oesophagus, causing a burning sensation in your oesophagus (heartburn) and inflammation of tissues that line the oesophagus (oesophagitis).” If this continues over time the damage caused to the barrier between the stomach and oesophagus can result in a chronic condition of GERD – gastroesophageal reflux disease.

TELLTALE SIGN: Gas

THE CULPRIT: Soft drink

You may have switched from full strength fizz to the sugar-free stuff, but even low kilojoule soft drinks can have digestive fallouts – like dyspepsia – aka indigestion. Next time ask for tap. Sipping water with your meals is a good idea. Water reduces the caloric density of your food and dilutes material entering your bowel, for easier digestion. Caffeine-loaded fizzy drinks also act as diuretics, sucking water out of your body. Without enough water the contents of your digestive tract become as stodgy as cold porridge, making it much harder to move along. Interestingly, the caution doesn’t apply to carbonated water. In an Italian study, researchers compared the effects of carbonated water and tap water in 21 people suffering dyspepsia and constipation and found that after two weeks, symptoms of dyspepsia and constipation, had dropped in the sparkling group but not in the tap group. The carbonated H20 appeared to ease indigestion and feelings of fullness after eating a small amount of food. 

TELLTALE SIGN: Bathroom urgency 

THE CULPRIT: Caffeine

Racing to the bathroom every half hour? Caffeine could be the culprit. “In your kidneys, it increases the flow of urine. It also acts as a laxative,” says Jennifer Ackerman, author of Sex, Sleep, Eat, Drink, Dream – A Day in the Life of Your Body. The latter effect is due to caffeine and other phytochemicals relaxing and stimulating muscles in the rectosigmoid colon.Researchers also think there may be a gastrocolonic response on stomach or small intestine receptors, which in turn triggers the colon. Try to keep coffee to less than five per day and watch caffeine from other sources; in high quantities, coffee may also irritate the digestive tract and bind with the minerals you consume, hindering the natural absorption of nutrients.

TELLTALE SIGN: Grumbling

THE CULPRIT: Sniffing food 

That grumbling sound doesn’t necessarily mean you’re starving. “The smell of food releases the secretion of salivary, gastric and pancreatic enzymes, and prepares our bodies for eating,” says dietitian Pip Golley. Eighty to 90 per cent of the sensory experience of eating is olfaction, she says. “In most cases, experience tells us that freshly baked muffins taste good, stimulating psychological and emotional triggers for eating.” In action, the brain’s hypothalamus detects the smell of muffins and decides that yes, you’re hungry. It sends an urgent message to the stomach and intestines, which respond with stomach contractions, acids and digestive fluids, which cause that familiar growl. If grumbling is accompanied by bloating, diarrhoea or extreme gas, it may hint at a gastrointestinal disorder such as irritable bowel syndrome. 

TELLTALE SIGN: Burping

THE CULPRIT: Swallowing air 

If you swallow air while eating or drinking, it has to go somewhere. Burping is your body’s way of getting it out, says Dr King. Aside from fizzy drinks, common causes are eating too quickly or talking while you’re eating.  Drinking through a straw and chewing gum also invite more 02 into your GI tract. If you suffer reflux, you may inadvertently swallow more air as you attempt to clear the jam.

TELLTALE SIGN: General discomfort

THE CULPRIT: Bad bacteria 

An imbalance between good and bad bacteria can throw your digestive system off course, as well as compromising the body’s ability to make its own vitamins, fight infections, reduce inflammation and allergic reactions and steel your immune system. “There’s evidence that probiotics can reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and the duration of diarrhoea in acute infectious diarrhoea,” says Golley. Food sources of probiotics are some yoghurts and fermented milk drinks. If you’ve been on antibiotics for any sort of infection, your digestion may suffer as your gut’s healthy bacteria will have been wiped out. “If you have had a major infection or have been treated with antibiotics you may benefit from a more direct way of ‘re-inoculating’ your digestive tract by taking a probiotic supplement,” says Patrick Holford, nutritionist and author of Improve Your Figestion – a Drug Free Guide to Achieving a Healthy Digestive System. 

Tension barrier 

Stress has been shown to contribute significantly to digestive symptoms, especially those deemed symptomatic of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). 

“Sufferers often report the return of their rotten symptoms when they are under increased stress at work or at home,” says author of Doctor In The House, GP Dr Malcolm Clark. “Depressed or anxious people seem to suffer from this problem more often than the rest, suggesting these may also be causes.”

It’s thought that confusion of nerve messages to muscles may be to blame. “The muscles are stimulated, but in a disorganised way and the bowel doesn’t work properly. Sometimes the nerves send very strong impulses causing the cramping spasms typical of irritable bowel.”

The stress caused by symptoms can perpetuate the irritation cycle. If you’ve noticed a link between deadlines and dodgy guts, try increasing your intake of fibre and reduce fatty foods and alcohol, which can exacerbate the problem by slowing the passage of food from the stomach.

“Fibre seems to aid the passage of food through the gut, as well as bulking up and softening the stools,” says Dr Clark.