My stomach used to hurt so much I had to walk around with my hands resting on it, to ease the pressure...
There was a time when it seemed like I reacted to every food I ate, I just couldn't pinpoint my triggers and intolerances...
I lost tons of weight because I was scared of eating and subsequently developed hormone imbalances and nutrient deficiencies because of my limited diet...
Last week, in my post 'Could Poor Gut Health Be The Reason Behind PCOS Symptoms', I shared the intimate connection between digestive health and hormonal balance.
The gut has a massive influence on the health of our entire body, especially our hormone production, function and excretion (how we make, use and eliminate hormones).
When a client is dealing with digestive issues such as bloating, constipation, cramps, diarrhoea or acid reflux they often ask me which supplements they should take to help their symptoms. They are usually surprised when I tell them we aren't going to use supplements until they have addressed the fundamental nutrition and lifestyle changes.
As a society, we are used to taking a pill in order to alleviate our symptoms. Sure, probiotics, L-glutamine, marshmallow root and collagen peptides CAN be helpful in some cases, however until the foundational steps have been taken, symptoms won't fully resolve.
These include HOW, WHEN, WHAT, WHERE and WHY you are eating.
So before you head out and spend £80 on superfoods, powders, cleanses and potions for your unhappy gut, please make sure you give these simple recommendations a go first! I still practice all of these techniques on a daily basis in order to keep my gut healthy.
1. Avoid drinking whilst eating your meals
Downing water (or any other fluid for that matter) whilst eating, dilutes our digestive enzymes thus affecting the breakdown and absorption of our food. We want a strong 'digestive fire' in our stomach, so that we can efficiently break down proteins into amino acids, which help to create hormones, neurotransmitters and healthy skin. It can also give us a false sense of fullness during mealtimes, which may then cause us to seek more food a couple of hours later. The maximum amount of fluid I recommend is around 250ml/9oz (which is a small glass) as any more than this can interfere with the digestive process. If you are just having a few sips here and there to take supplements or medication, then that's absolutely fine!
2. Don't eat when you are stressed, angry or upset
Our nervous system can only be in one of two states at any given time. These are the sympathetic (fight, flight, flee) and parasympathetic nervous system (rest, digest, heal). If we are under stress, digestion turns off, as the blood is shunted to our extremities (arms & legs) so that we have the power to run and escape if needed. If you eat on the run, at the wheel of your car, during an argument with your partner or whilst watching the stress-inducing 6 o'clock news than it is highly unlikely that you are optimally digesting and absorbing your food. Before sitting down to eat, take a few minutes to re-balance your nervous system and allow your body to get into that 'rest and digest' state. You can do this through deep breathing and also by giving thanks for the food that is in front of you (a practice that has been traditionally for hundreds of years.)
3. Try not to snack between your meals
Constantly grazing throughout the day can be stressful for the digestive system. When we don't have adequate times of fasting between meals, a 'back log' of food can start to build up. Imagine if you were trying to clean up a messy apartment after a party, but every 2 hours a new set of people come in and start partying again and making more mess! Eventually, things are going to get on top of you and you will probably give up trying. Not to mention this is also a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and other pathogens! This is exactly what happens in the body when it isn't given the time to process the last meal you ate and you are now eating a mid-day snack 2 hours later! The concept of eating little and often isn't advised for this reason, amongst many others. If you have tried the '3 square meals a day' schedule and you find that you are constantly hungry or feeling hypoglycemic that indicates that you may need to work on your blood sugar control but also look closely at what you are eating! You may need more fat/carbs/protein/fibre/calories to sustain you until the next meal.
4. Enjoy the cooking process
Digestion begins in the brain. When we think about food, smell it, see it and cook it, the digestive process has already begun. It is actually believed that half our digestive enzymes have already been released by the time we sit down and consume the first fork full of food. Relying on ready meals, processed foods, drive-throughs and take-aways robs us of this 'cephalic' phase. The body has no time to prepare for this large amount of food, therefore this can lead to over-eating, bloating, gas, burping, acid reflux and the feeling of food sitting in the stomach for hours. Preparing your own meals at home not only improves digestion but also saves you money and allows you to control the ingredients that you add. Restaurants and fast food places often use a lot of sodium, MSG, damaged oils and sugar, all of which can also cause digestive issues!
5. Manage your stress levels!
As I mentioned previously, our nervous system is either in the rest and digest or fight and flight system. Chronic stress, whether that is from constantly worrying about finances, hating your job or the voice inside your head spewing negative thoughts about you all day, majorly impacts gut health. Not only does stress shut down the digestive process but it also destroys beneficial bacteria, promotes the growth of pathogenic bacteria and increases the permeability of the gut lining (hello leaky gut syndrome!) Along with mindful eating, there are many other ways to reduce cortisol levels and put your body (and belly) at ease. These include meditation, yoga, walking in nature, playing with a pet, spending time with loved ones, listening to music and journaling.
For more ideas check out this helpful blog post.
There you have it! Five simple, easy to implement recommendations to improve gut health that don't involve eliminating food or taking supplements!
"Sometimes the simplest things are the most effective."
If you are still dealing with funky poops, smelly gas or a belly that looks like your 6 months pregnant even after trying these recommendations for a few weeks then that is a big indicator there is more going on in your gut. This requires some investigation...
Food sensitivities, poor digestive enzyme production, bacterial overgrowth's and parasites could all be possible drivers of your symptoms.
Turns out that I had all of these issues. No wonder my gut was a mess!
I highly recommend you work with a qualified practitioner if you have a more complex condition or relentless symptoms as self treating can create more damage, stress and almost always costs more in the long run. (Trust me, I've been there! )