So you’ve noticed in the last few months that your tummy is reacting badly to things that you eat. You find that your stomach gurgles quite a lot. You eat some things and you immediately feel drowsy, you find that you get constipation or a bad case of the trots or both. A trip to the loo is, well, suffocating for the next person. Welcome to the unfortunate world of the malfunctioning digestive system – the stomach and bowl.
What is most likely happening here is that your gut flora (the good bacteria in your stomach) gut acid balance and/or digestive system ‘nerves’ are seriously out of whack.
While this article doesn’t cover every possibility (and you are best to see your GP as some serious conditions can cause these symptoms as well), it may present some useful information and insight. It is drawn from personal experience and memory and thus is intended to be a brief overview rather than detailed advice, Use it as a starting point.
COMMON CONTRIBUTING FACTORS
Gut flora imbalance
When you were born you generally had a good balance of bacteria in your stomach and bowel that would happily ‘do its thing’ and keep things in order. If later on in life you have a bad tummy bug and/or you take medicine for a bad tummy bug, or a go through a long term stressful state etc, you may destroy or upset the balance of good bacteria in your system.
So in a way, instead of having a crystal clear brook you end up with a somewhat stagnant pond. If the good bacteria aren’t there or in sufficient numbers, they can’t keep the balance, then the ‘weeds and algae’ of the bad bacteria, yeasts and other things that thrive on a poor acid balance etc in your digestive system take over, causing a major biological imbalance and associated problems.
Its the good bacteria that, amongst other things, properly break down foods and also allow you to eat a variety of foods without issue. Their absence can lead to many of the issues you may currently suffer.
Nerves and signals
Your digestive system starts in the upper part of your stomach, extends through the upper and lower intestines then goes through to the bowel and well, out the end. Its like a very long tube with pockets here and there to slow stuff down to process, ‘ferment’ and compress. The movement of food through the digestive system is controlled by nerve signals from your brain and within your gut. Most of the time this happens automatically and without your knowledge. You generally only know about it when things go wrong. Think ‘nervous stomach’ and its unfortunate consequences for example. Or South Park’s Brown Note episode!
Now imagine your digestive system were a slow conveyor belt that weaves its way through a number of processing and fermentation rooms in its journey. Each room has a different function depending on where it is in the digestive system chain.
For your digestive system to function properly, there needs to be careful monitoring of the procession of food as it moves along the conveyor belt from room to room. It needs perfect timing. Too early, underdone. Too late, overcooked.
If the timing works perfectly, the digested food moves sequentially between each room (stage of your stomach and bowel) and you have no ill effects.
If on the other hand something interferes with the timing (ie faulty ‘move along’ signals from your brain or nervous system), then digested food moves too quickly or too slowly between each stage. If it’s too quick then the liquidised food is sent to the bowel prematurely, skipping the slow compaction stage, and comes out as diarrhoea. If it is too slow, it backs up and you end up with constipation.
So you can see that pacing, guided by nerve signals, between the different stages of your digestive tract is very important.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Generally, whatever the symptoms, you may have a combination of the above issues. An upset digestive system can manifest as a combination of diarrhea, constipation, poor gut flora and/or acid balance. Depending on your diagnosis, some of it may be permanent or some manageable over the long term, such as via a stable and controlled diet, adequate exercise and relaxation techniques.
Changing your diet
The first thing you can do is stabilise your diet. Remove from it all the things that have the potential to cause problems or exacerbate the situation. The main suspects in your diet tend to be some or all of the following:
Primary – common intolerances
- Dairy products
- Wheat and gluten containing products
Secondary – common exacerbators
- Caffeine-coffee/soft drinks/alcohol
- High sugar containing foods
- Fried, fatty or spicy foods
- Too much red meat
A word about yeast
There is a theory that when a digestive system gets out of balance, then yeasts can form and become an ‘overgrowth’. Yeasts thrive on sugars. That is why sugar elimination is so important.
Firstly, go on a strict ‘no-issues food’ diet, then reintroduce the ‘suspect’ foods one at a time and monitor how you feel afterwards. If you feel dizzy or sleepy immediately after eating a particular food you may have an intolerance to that food, such as wheat and gluten products. If you get a lot of gurgling in your stomach soon after eating a particular food, try to work out what the main ingredient of the food was that caused your stomach to gurgle. For example sugar, soft drinks, caffeinated or fatty foods may cause the stomach to gurgle. Gurgling can be a sign of poor acid balance or gut flora. Dairy foods may cause diarrhoea; red meats constipation.
If you’ve been ingesting a food irritant such as gluten over a long period it can affect the stomach lining, so your stomach then reacts to all irritant foods such as fats, sugars, spices, alcohol and caffeine. In many cases this may repair itself over time once you remove what is aggravating it and allow your stomach lining to heal.
Avoid all of the suspect foods above and go on a whole-food and (mostly) vegetable diet. Try to avoid sugary fruits at the outset. Because your stomach may be hypersensitive, go on a low allergy (hypoallergenic) foods diet. See that table below for hypoallergenic foods.
Here are some good starting points:
Brown Rice – rice is generally a low allergy grain and brown rice has a low glycaemic index. Although many people find brown rice unappetising, mixing it with vegetables and a bit of gluten-free soy sauce makes it tangy and more palatable. You are strongly advised to buy a rice cooker as it will make cooking brown rice much easier. Brown rice takes longer to cook than white rice, so if white rice takes 15-20 minutes to cook, then brown rice may take 30-40 minutes to cook.
Rice milk – this is a milk to put on cereals instead of dairy milk or soy milk. There is some contention over soymilk as some say that you should not ingest any unfermented soy products. Rice milk is not as bad as it sounds, so give it a try as an alternative to soymilk.
Bok choy – this is a great low allergy green vegetable. If you include some of the white stalk it can be quite juicy. Throw in a little bit of gluten-free soy sauce for taste.
Pumpkin and sweet potato – Either of these vegetables is low allergy. If pumpkin causes flatulence, then use sweet potato.
Green beans and carrot – these add a bit of colour and crunch. Cut carrots into matchsticks for easy digestion.
Optional – organic chicken – it might be a good idea to go without meat altogether for a period, as meat fibres are difficult to digest for a troubled stomach. But if you find you can’t go without meat, then use organic chicken, sparingly and in small bite sized pieces.
Lemon juice – even though lemon juice tastes bitter and acidic, in the stomach it can be quite alkaline and assists in rebalancing an acid stomach. Squeeze lemon juice liberally over your meals.
The idea of this low allergy diet is to have most of the bowl rice, with lots of bok choy and some sweet potato/beans/carrot and, optionally, organic chicken ‘cubes’ as garnish. Eat this exclusively over a period of a few weeks. It should stabilise your stomach and reduce irritation as it contains very low sugar, no flour and has a good GI. Breakfast can be a combo of gluten free puffed rice, corn flakes (from the wholefood section at your supermarket) and rice milk. Or better still, make a quinoa flake porridge.
You should also take plenty of water during the day to help flush your system.
GO GLUTEN FREE
Gluten is a well known allergy agent and stomach irritant.
Products that contain gluten. This is not a definitive list but is a good start point.
Bread, pasta, oats, barley, rye, bran, couscous, pastries, pies, pizza, chips, batter, beer, chocolates and confectionery, especially with fillings, cakes and biscuits, soups, ice cream, condiments, sauces or any other products containing powders or thickening agents. In short, check the ingredient label of everything you purchase.
Foods that don’t contain gluten
Rice, corn, buckwheat – which is not actually a wheat (ie buckwheat pancakes, noodles), gluten-free bread, wine and cider, quinoa, psyllium husks, rice crackers and rice cakes. Look in the wholefood sections of supermarkets for other GF products.
AVOIDANCES – during your elimination diet
Avoid all processed foods and drinks – eg cakes, biscuits, pies, pizzas, chocolates, confectionery, fried foods, potato crisps, bread, ice cream, sauces etc as they are often high in flours, sugars salts and sometimes a dizzying array of additives that can irritate your stomach. Also avoid soft drink, alcohol and ciders, caffeinated drinks and beverages.
Avoid reactive foods – apart from the suspect foods above, avoid constipation and flatulence inducing foods such as legumes, tomatoes, eggs, cabbage, cauliflower, sprouts etc. It may also be good to avoid high GI/refined foods such as white potato, bread, pasta and other flour based foods.
Hypoallergenic foods are those least likely to cause an allergic reaction or significant stomach irritation. However, some may cause discomfort such as wind or odourous farts (o). Use this table as a starting point for your new diet.
|LOW ALLERGY FOODS|
|Asparagus (o)||Lentils (o)|
|Beetroot (o)||Black beans|
|Broccoli (o)||Kidney beans|
|Cabbage (o)||Navy beans|
|Cauliflower (o)||Pinto beans|
|Fennel||Grains and cereal:|
|Sweet potatoes||Chicken (organic)|
|Zucchini||Organic red meat|
|Fruits and berries:|
|Apricots (o)||Maple syrup|
|Bananas (o)||Brown rice syrup|
|may cause wind||(o) may cause odour|
Don’t forget to take supplements if you go on a diet, such as multivits, iron etc. You should ideally discuss diet changes with your GP and, if long term, a nutritionist.
Ask your GP or healthcare professional about probiotic supplements. These can assist in re-establishing some gut flora for mild cases. Probiotics are only taken for a period, they are not a permanent solution. Some primary gut flora cannot be re-established via oral supplements as they are passed from mother to child through the placenta in the early stages of life.
Managing your nerves
Nervousness and anxiety can exacerbate an existing condition or create it in the first place. Calming your nerves also calms the nerve signals to your stomach. Try meditation or other relaxation techniques. Also, get plenty of exercise. Sitting in a chair, in front of a computer or TV, compresses your stomach and restricts the movement of food through your digestive tract. Also, exercise ‘oils the gears’ that makes your nervous, circulatory and digestive systems function optimally. That’s what we humans are made for – moving around and walking upright!
This article is a starting point. For more in-depth information, search the web for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), leaky gut, gluten free foods, coeliacs disease, food intolerance, hypo allergenic foods, yeast infections etc.
Always discuss changes in bowel function with your GP as soon as you are aware of it to eliminate the possibility that a more serious issue is causing your problems.