Four steps to improving your digestion

Next to the common cold, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are the most commonly reported ailment, affecting as many as one in four people at different levels of severity. Symptoms vary but include bloating, gas, tiredness after meals, intermittent diarrhoea or constipation and abdominal pain. April is IBS awareness month so if you suffer from IBS, it’s time to look at tuning up your digestion. My four steps address key aspects of this condition that should lead you back to optimum digestive health.

1. Proper digestion Gas and bloating are indications that you are not digesting your food adequately. The first vital stage of digestion is to chew your food thoroughly. Aim to have reduced your mouthful to liquid mush before you swallow. This allows the digestive enzymes a greater surface area to work and do their job properly. Some people have a lack of, or reduction of digestive enzymes resulting in food not being properly broken down. Inefficient digestion of food in the intestines can result in malabsorption, bacterial imbalance, diarrhoea and indigestion. By taking plant enzyme formulas, the enzymes in the digestive tract can function more efficiently, helping to normalise digestion, often resulting in the relief of IBS symptoms.

2. Restore gut bacteria Quite a significant amount of research has pointed to an overgrowth of ‘bad’ bacteria in the gut as a possible cause of IBS, which is possibly why many have found relief by taking certain antibiotics. However, antibiotics are also implicated as a possible trigger of IBS because they work by killing all bacteria, including the friendly bacteria – which play an integral part in gut health. Probiotics help to maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut. Numerous studies of the efficacy of probiotics on IBS have found that they are significantly effective. Probiotics have a natural antibiotic effect without eradicating species that keep you healthy. To promote the good bacteria in your gut, reduce your intake of sugar and refined foods – these encourage bad bacteria to proliferate. Eat plenty of fibre-rich fruits, vegetables and some live natural yoghurt – these help to encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria. I would also recommend a good quality probiotic supplement to help restore levels.

3. Gut healing and repair The gut is a very sensitive organ and if you’re not digesting adequately, have an imbalance of bacteria or are eating too many irritating foods, the gut lining is prone to becoming inflamed and ‘leaky’. It is essential to restore balance before healing and repair can take place. There are a number of substances that will aggravate a leaky gut by causing irritation to the delicate lining. The most important to avoid are alcohol, caffeine, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen, antacids, food additives and spicy foods. The preferred ‘fuel’ for the cells lining the small intestine is an amino acid called glutamine. A generous supply of glutamine can help repair and maintain a healthy small intestinal lining. Another key to gut healing and repair are omega 3 fats from oily fish, nuts and seeds. These have been shown to help in calming an inflamed gut.

4. Leaky gut and allergies Allergies are the most common cause of digestive problems. Studies have found that IBS sufferers have significantly raised levels of IgG antibodies to specific foods. Researchers at the University of York devised an ingenious study. They tested 150 IBS sufferers using an IgG allergy test and gave their doctors either the real or fake results, along with a supposedly ‘allergy-free’ diet to follow for the next three months. At the end of the three-month trial there was a significant improvement only in those people on their true allergy-free diet. What’s more, those who stuck to it most strictly had the best results.

Level of compliance, on the other hand, didn’t make a difference in those on the sham diets. Interestingly, anti-food IgG antibodies have been associated with low grade systemic inflammation. Now research from the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM), published in Gastroenterology 2010, shows that mini-inflammations in the gut upset the sensitive balance of the bowel. “The irritated mucosa releases increased amounts of neuroactive substances such as serotonin, histamine and protease,” explains lead researcher Prof Schemann. “This cocktail produced by the body could be the real cause of the unpleasant IBS complaints.” What this means is that irritation to the gut generates inflammation which in turn initiates a cascade of biological events resulting in IBS symptoms.

If you think you are reacting to foods, you need to test for and eliminate food allergies. I recommend having a simple IgG Food Intolerance test. If allergies are present, offending foods should be eliminated for three to four months to allow the immune system to settle down. For more on IgG reactions and the benefits of testing read my special report Hidden Food Allergies. The IgG intolerance test has helped thousands of people, including Paula Radcliffe – Olympian and world marathon record holder. This month, Paula has revealed that following her 2004 failed marathon bid in Athens, she took a York test. She discovered that she had problems absorbing her food due to intolerances of certain foods. Once Paula removed her trigger foods she was able to continue her training and she went on to achieve the world record. Z et al, American Journal of Gastroenterology 2005; 100:p1550-1557.

Following the above steps, combined with specific supplementation should help bring relief from IBS symptoms. You can buy specially formulated supplements from Totally Nourish. You can read more on IBS in my book Improve Your Digestion and also my Solutions for Constipation, Bloating and IBS special report.