I see a lot of clients in my practice with digestive issues ranging from bloating, acid reflux, cramps, constipation, and more severe cases such as ulcerative colitis.
One very common digestive diagnosis these days is IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). However, this is simply a name given to a range of symptoms occurring in the bowel.
We need to ask what is ‘irritating’ the bowel.
What is the root cause of these symptoms?
I often see people being treated for just their symptoms. I also see people accepting their symptoms as “normal” because they get so used to experiencing them.
I have found there are four key factors that affect how well our digestive system functions:
1. Health History
As a nutritional therapist, I am trained to examine all angles of why a health challenge presents itself. I go all the way back to my client’s health as a baby, even how their birth was if they know. Were they born naturally or by C-section? Were they breastfed or bottle-fed? When did they take their first antibiotic? Did they have colic as a baby? These all help me build an overall picture of my client’s health as a child and especially any clues about their present digestive problems.
2. The importance of healthy gut bacteria
We now know from years of research that our gut bacteria balance is extremely vital for a healthy digestive tract, as well as for our overall health. We, humans, have an estimated 40 trillion bacteria in and outside our body. A baby born through C-section will have different bacteria exposure compared to having a natural birth.
It is now commonplace in some countries to use a swab from the mother’s vagina and place in the newborn’s mouth if they were born through C-section, so they then get what they missed by not coming through their mother’s birth canal.
Early exposure to helpful bacteria (or lack of it) will have a big influence on a person’s digestive health into adulthood. Chronic use of antibiotics is another reason for poor digestive health, as these disrupt our gut flora/bacteria. This disrupted gut flora negatively affects how we break down food and the health of our delicate gut lining.
3. Reduced food quality
Unfortunately, our food quality has declined over the past 50 years. For example, modern wheat has been modified to become a grain that is resistant to various bacteria and viruses. It is sprayed far too many times while it’s growing and after harvesting, more sprays are used to preserve it.
Wheat is a cheap, convenient food and is, therefore, a staple for many people. This high exposure to gluten and other components of this ‘modern wheat’ can have a very negative effect on our digestive tract.
4. How we eat is as important as what we eat
Another reason for the high amount of digestive issues is the way we eat. After I ask a client whether they are fast or slow eaters, I often hear a response to the effect of ‘I wolf down my food’. I’m not sure if it’s just an Irish habit, but it’s very common to devour our food here. Maybe we are afraid we won’t get seconds if we eat too slow!!
Stress directs blood away from our digestive system
When we eat quickly, our body goes into a stress response. It interprets eating fast as if we are in danger. In this stress response, our body directs blood away from our digestive tract so the blood can bring oxygen and nutrients to our outer muscles in preparation for action (fight or flight).
This response to fast eating means our vital enzymes and other important digestive substances are not being released by our body, causing food to sit in our digestive tract in an undigested state. Our bacteria feed on this and create excess gas, which causes discomfort and bloating.
The pressure from this gas can also cause the sphincter at the top of our stomach to be pushed open, releasing gas designed for the stomach, up into our oesophagus. This process is known as acid reflux with the uncomfortable burning feeling experienced as a result referred to as heartburn.
Multitasking while eating
It is also very common for people to multitask and be stressed while eating. We may be eating and driving, texting, or on the phone, generally not focusing on what we are taking in. Eating has become another ‘thing’ on our to-do list. We look forward to eating, but rarely do we give ourselves the time and headspace for this pleasurable and nourishing experience. We have lost the art of eating, and it is damaging to our digestive system and overall health.
In my next post, I will write about the positive things you can do for yourself to have a healthy digestive system.