Please bear with me on this one. I’m going to get a little more scientific and maybe too graphic in explaining some things. I find it interesting, but I know that most of you probably will not. However, there are so many people that are having problems in this area so I want to make sure that I explain this as well as give some good solutions.
I myself suffered from painful IBS. I’d either be in so much pain that it hurt to stand up straight or I’d be so bloated that I looked like I was about 4 or 5 months pregnant. I still get it very lightly from time to time, but it tends to be more stress related than food related now. Cleaning up my eating habits, drinking more water, and eliminating dairy and gluten have really helped me. If you really don’t want to know why we sometime experience digestive distress, then just skip to the bottom where I offer some solutions.
Digestion is one of those things that everyone does, but no one wants to talk about. Because it just happens, like breathing, we tend to think we can’t do anything about it. But that’s just not the case. So much of what we do and eat today has negatively affected our digestion so that what used to just happen, has now become bogged down and inefficient. As a result, we hear of more and more people suffering from horrible digestive disorders that are debilitating and painful. In fact, according to information found in the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, 60 to 70 million people are affected by some sort of digestive disease. In 2004, digestive diseases cost Americans about $141.8 billion both directly and indirectly.
So, what is happening? Digestion starts in the mouth, with saliva and chewing. The saliva and chewing stimulate gastric acid production in the stomach as well as bile production. Food then moves to the stomach, where the chewed up and broken down food is further digested into smaller bits so that it can be passed to the gut where the nutrients are absorbed and the waste and toxins are expelled.
Sounds simple enough, but the truth is that most of us don’t chew our food properly. Too many of us are gulpers- we take a bite of food, chomp on it a few times and then swallow it down with a drink like it’s a pill or something. Then we hurry on to the next bite. The problem with this is that chewing stops once food leaves the mouth. Stomach acid is supposed to be able to break down the food, but food only spends a certain amount of time there before it is sent on to the gut so if it’s not chewed enough it may not get broken down enough for the gut to absorb the nutrients from it, or worse it can get regurgitated back up into the esophagus (like our stomachs are trying to tell us to chew it some more so the acid can do it’s job). This heart-burn can cause us to think we have too much acid so we take antacids to get rid of the pain. Ideally our stomach acid has a pH of 1.9 in order to break down proteins. Antacids and other things, like drinking too much water with your meal, can cause the pH to increase. Average water has a pH of 7 so it’s easy to see how drinking a lot of it with your meal can interrupt the job of the stomach acid. Food then goes into the gut.
Here are a few factoids about the gut. If you laid out all of the surface area, including the villi, of the digestive system it’d cover an entire tennis court. Hard to imagine, right? There are more nerve endings in the digestive tract than all of the central nervous system– that little factoid can point to the reason why there is so much pain associated with digestive disorders and why stress can compound such disorders. Last interesting fact: 90% of the DNA in our bodies is in the digestive system, not because of the concentration of our DNA, but because of the large amount of bacterial flora there. We’re basically the shells that hold in the good and bad bacteria. Happy thought, huh?
When our food isn’t properly digested, the gut can’t pull out the nutrients. So even if we’re eating an amazing diet, we won’t be receiving the benefits of those nutrients. After absorbing the nutrients, the gut is also supposed to expel the waste. Again, a damaged gut cannot properly expel the waste and toxins allowing a build-up of toxins that can cause further damage. Bad bacteria can take over and because the bad bacteria is fed by sugar and starch, the bacterial overgrowth can cause cravings for these foods so that it can continue to live and grow. The good bacteria does not just enhance the absorption of the nutrients in our food, it also cools inflammation, fights infections, and directs immune function. Keeping the good bacteria healthy and in control of the gut is key to our health in so many ways.
So, how can we help ourselves break the nasty cycle of digestive issues? I can only tell you what has worked for me and what the top holistic health experts recommend. For those of you with serious issues you should definitely consult a holistic or naturopathic health care provider to make sure that all basis are covered and that your symptoms are not due to some more serious underlying issue.
Here are some easy tips that all of us can use to help with minor digestive issues:
- Chew your food- make sure that your food is broken down thoroughly before swallowing it.
- Wake up stomach acid and bile by drinking a big glass of water about 20 mins before your meal, and then stop drinking.
- Drink lots of water throughout the day, just not within 20 mins of eating.
- Drink apple cider vinegar or some lemon water before your meal in order to bring the pH of your stomach acid down and to activate its further production.
- Don’t eat when you’re stressed. The adrenaline and cortisol produced during stressful times stops the digestion process which can add to constipation and more belly fat.
- Eat more veggies; fruit; nuts, seeds, and oils; whole grains; cultured dairy products; fish, farm-fresh eggs and poultry, and grass-fed meat
- Avoid sugar laden foods, refined grains, meat and poultry from commercial animal feeding operations (CAFO), high sodium foods, all foods with toxic ingredients like artificial colorings, flavorings, and sweeteners, partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, GMO’s, and high pesticide produce
Here are tips for those with more complicated digestive issues:
- Keep a food journal to see if you can pinpoint the foods that cause the most intestinal distress.
- Incorporate gut-healing foods like bone broth, healthy fats, and fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchee, and kefir into your diet.
- Be a little bit stricter about avoiding highly processed and refined foods in the above category.
If those don’t help you, you may need to try an elimination diet:
- Remove gluten, dairy, eggs, corn, and soy. Shellfish, peanuts, higher sugar fruits and veggies (like apples, pears, and onions) and sweeteners like agave and honey can also have a damaging affect
- Work with your nutritionist or even a holistic health provider to tailor your plan to reincorporate foods back into your diet to see which ones trigger problems
Digestive issues can ruin your overall health so it’s important to get them under control. In fact, I just heard that IBS is the second leading cause of people missing work, behind the common cold. As a Health Coach, I would love to work with you to get your digestive issues under control.
For more information check out:
Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride.
Breaking the Vicious Cycle by Elaine Gottschall, BA, MS
The Inside Tract and My Foundation Diet by Kathie Swift, MS, RD, LDN. Her websites are Swift Nutrition and My Food My Health
This podcast about the Gut-Brain connection from The Healthy Skeptic is also very informative.
Questions? Comments? Please let me know.