Alice Whitehead discovers the food choices that boost digestion
If you’re suffering from trapped wind, cramps and difficulty going to the loo, you’re not alone. Research shows that one in three of us are too embarrassed to talk about bowel problems, with one in five people being reluctant to even mention ‘constipation’ to a GP. Unfortunately, there are more than 66,000 admissions to hospital each year owing to constipation, when lifestyle changes could have alleviated symptoms.
Studies show that the stomach is an ‘abdominal brain’ with a deep-rooted connection to our mental health and wellbeing thanks to the colony of microbes (or gut flora) – which are part of your body’s ‘microbiome’. These 100 trillion bacteria are thought to contribute to a healthy immune system, a happier mood and even balanced hormones. Many health issues which are more prevalent as we get older, such as a weaker immune system and nutritional deficiencies, are strongly linked to a poorly-functioning digestive system. Our microbiome changes drastically in the course of a lifetime, so taking care of our digestive health should be a priority for disease prevention and optimised health.
Diet for digestion
The best way to maintain a healthy gut is by eating a diet low in sugars and processed foods and high in vegetables and fresh produce. A rainbow of fruit and veg, complex carbs and lean protein is the key. Fibre is vital to keep things moving in the right direction, yet many of us don’t have enough; the recommended daily dose is 30g, but the average woman only gets around 17g. “Fibre keeps us regular, lowers ‘bad’ cholesterol, ensures blood sugars are balanced, feeds the beneficial gut bacteria and even keeps muffin tops at bay!” says nutritional therapist Angelique Panagos, author of The Balance Plan (angeliquepanagos.com). “Eat fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, pulses and legumes.” Registered dietitian and British Dietetic Association spokesperson Lilia Malcolm (thefoodphilosophy.net) recommends taking it slowly. “Increasing your fibre intake needs to be done gently over a few days or even weeks as a sudden increase can bring about unpleasant side effects. You could start by adding golden linseeds to your diet, in breakfast cereal, soups or sprinkled onto salads,” she says. “Once introduced, your gut bacteria will adapt to having more fibre.” Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and kefir are also gut boosters, because they act as natural ‘probiotics’, providing beneficial bacteria for your gut. Prebiotic foods are also gut-friendly because they provide food for the gut bacteria. “Bananas, chicory, asparagus, leeks and onions are all packed with a plant-based fibre called inulin, which our bacteria loves,” adds Panagos. Adequate hydration in the form of eight glasses of fluid per day, also allows stools to be softened and everything to be nicely lubricated.
Go with your gut
Many foods can make tummy troubles worse. Caffeine can upset the digestive tract – so limit your cuppas to two to three a day. Beans are another culprit, and pulses can also be highly fermentable in the bowel and cause bloating. “Pulses are high in galactooligosaccharides (GOS), which is a sugar that humans are unable to break down and absorb fully,” adds Malcolm. “People who suffer from IBS or bloating will find it easier to cut consumption of these foods. Canned pulses may be better tolerated because the water-soluble GOS leaches out of the bean.” Avocado, which has had an upsurge in popularity thanks to its good fats, contains high amounts of the sorbitol. “This sugar polyol is naturally occurring in some fruits and vegetables and is also be added to products as artificial sweeteners – but can cause abdominal discomfort,” says Malcolm. “But you don’t have to avoid avocado altogether – even those who are sensitive to it can tolerate just under a quarter of an avocado.” Many women over 50 also suffer from an upper digestive tract disorder called gastrooesophageal reflux disease (GORD), which is caused when acid from the stomach leaks into the gullet (oesophagus). “A study carried out at Long Island University in 2008 found menopausal women were nearly three times more likely to have GORD symptoms, suggesting a hormonal link between menopause and the disease,” says Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director at online supplements supplier Healthspan (healthspan.co.uk). “If you suffer from reflux, identify which foods trigger symptoms. This can include chocolate, mint, tomatoes, onions, garlic, citrus fruits, fizzy drinks, peppers, spicy foods and processed meats. Keep a food diary for at least a week, recording what you eat and what symptoms you have. The trigger may be a combination of foods.”
Chewing well allows you to break down food before it even enters your digestive tract, making it easier to deal with. It also signals the stomach to start sloshing acid around. It can take 10-15 minutes for the brain to sense the stomach has food in it, so continuing to eat in this window can lead to overeating. This combined with a natural loss of elasticity in the stomach as we age means that we cannot accommodate as much food, which in turn can cause digestive discomfort. As extreme stress levels are linked to increased gastric acid, lowering your stress can also pay dividends. Regular exercise can help with relaxation. “Yoga and pilates in particular can also help improve pelvic floor strength, which may help bladder and bowel function,” says Dr Brewer. Exercise also helps weight control. “Acid reflux symptoms, in particular, affect at least 37% of people who are overweight,” she adds. “In a study involving more than 200 men and women who were overweight or obese, 38% initially experienced severe heartburn. After six months of following a weight-loss diet, only 16% still experienced heartburn owing to GORD.”
Lilia Malcolm is a registered dietitian and British Dietetic Association spokesperson. thefoodphilosophy.net
Nutritional therapist Angelique Panagos, is author of The Balance Plan: Six Steps to Optimize Your Hormonal Health. angeliquepanagos.com
Dr Sarah Brewer is medical director at online supplements supplier Healthspan. healthspan.co.uk