by Mays Al- Ali
Gut issues are one of the most common things I see in my clinic and they are one of my specialities to heal. Most doctors are known to label any non-descript gut issues as “Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)” when in actual fact they don’t know the exact causes or really how to heal it. There is no drug to take as IBS is very much linked to your lifestyle and has been linked to stress, food intolerances/sensitivities or food passing through your gut too quickly or too slowly. IBS is also known to cause symptoms such as stomach cramps, diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, flatulence that resolve and then return with some individuals having continuous symptoms. When I work with clients to heal IBS symptoms, it is usually a combination of dietary and lifestyle adjustments, removing trigger foods and stress. But symptoms vary with individuals which is why working 1-1 with a nutritionist is always recommended for long-term healing. Here are my top 6 ways to naturally help relieve IBS symptoms.
Eliminating Dairy and Gluten.
Dairy is becoming increasingly more triggering for digestive health. Often individuals cannot digest the proteins (such as casein or whey) or the sugars (lactose) found in milk causing intestinal discomfort. Over time, if continually consumed, this may cause damage to gut health. If you think about it in the old days drinking dairy milk from the udder of a cow was very different to the highly processed, pasteurised cow milk bought in supermarkets which has been shown to be full of hormones and antibiotics – no wonder it causes such problems for many people’s gut health. Gluten is another trigger. Often individuals may not be coeliac but may have a condition known as Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity, which means that they are sensitive to gluten and resulting in similar IBS symptoms. And there is a chance that if you do have this intolerance to gluten and don’t remove it, things may worsen, and you could actually go on to develop Coeliac disease - an autoimmune condition. So, if both of these triggering gluten and dairy factors are not removed from the diet, over time this creates inflammation in the digestive system causing what is known as a ‘leaky gut’ and raised intestinal permeability which can even cause systemic symptoms such as headaches, brain fog, fatigue as well as IBS gut symptoms. Doing an elimination diet and removing one at a time is a great way to tell if these are a problem for you. But, of course, always listen to your body - if you feel bloated and crampy after dairy or gluten then you will know that they could be an issue so try eliminating one by one and notice if symptoms improve.
Eliminating FODMAP foods
FODMAPS stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. These are a group of sugars (known as short chain carbohydrates) that are not completely digested or absorbed by our intestines, and in some individuals can cause digestive discomfort. When FODMAPs reach the small intestine they attract water, moving slowly and when they then pass into the large intestine, they are fermented by gut bacteria which produces gas. The extra water and gas create stretching and expansion of the intestinal wall and in IBS sufferers with sensitive guts this stretching of the intestinal wall causes exaggerated sensations of discomfort, bloating or pain. FODMAPs are found naturally in many foods such as asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, apples, onion, garlic peas, legumes/pulses, dairy products, wheat/barley/rye-based products and many others. However, some of these foods are very beneficial so I would always work with a nutritionist before eliminating lots of them and it should always be a short term elimination until the gut is repaired and then slowly reintroducing them.
Increasing Fibre (slowly)
The NHS recommends 30g of fibre to be eaten a day as part of a healthy diet, but unfortunately most of the population don’t get anywhere near this amount. Fibre comes in 2 forms. The insoluble form is a primary component of plant cell walls being found in many veggies such as cabbage, broccoli and kale as well as legumes, nuts and seeds. Cellulose binds to other foods when eaten, passing through the digestive system mostly intact and helping to move things along like a giant toothbrush. It also helps to grow beneficial gut bacteria keeping the digestive system healthy. Soluble fibre is the other type e.g. inulin which slows down digestion and helps you feel full for longer. It also helps prevent blood sugar spikes, keeping your blood sugars balanced and because it isn’t digested or absorbed in the stomach, it helps increase the growth of beneficial gut bacteria in the colon improving gut health. Inulin can be found in bananas, asparagus, garlic and onions. But watch out, inulins are also fructans which are prone to excess fermentation in our gut so whilst optimising fibre is essential for a healthy digestive system, sometimes in an unhealthy low fibre diet, suddenly introducing 30g daily could trigger gut distress eg constipation and bloating. The best way is to introduce fibre rich foods slowly and gradually over several weeks, not in large amounts daily and start off with fruits, veggies and beans slowly to avoid discomfort.
On the other side of the coin, there are other natural things you can do to help IBS including general lifestyle stress reduction techniques – the gut and brain are linked directly via the vagus nerve, what we eat can affect our mood and conversely our mood totally affects our gut health. Here are my top 3 tips to improve mental health and in turn keep your tummy happy.
Any form of exercise alleviates stress by releasing endorphins and making you feel wonderful afterwards – even if you don’t feel like doing it initially, I guarantee afterwards you never regret it. Yoga goes one step further and help to reduce tension in the mind as well as the body. I am a huge ashtanga yoga fan as it is a dynamic practise that helps increase strength and flexibility as well as being spiritual and mind relaxing. And anything that relaxes the mind can help relieve stress and therefore can then help reduce bowel discomfort by stimulating regular intestinal contractions.
Incorporating daily relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation are essential ways to reduce stress and in turn improve symptoms of IBS. Focusing on the breath alongside visualisation and progressive muscle work relaxation techniques that utilise positive imagery are great ways to leave you blissfully relaxed. Yoga nidra is another form of deep guided meditation that has been proven in research to reduce depression, anxiety and insomnia symptoms and is so easy to do, you just lie down and listen to a relaxing voice guide you through the meditation. Apps such as Calm and Headspace are both great tools to help you with guided 10 minutes meditations – all you need is 10minutes a day to make a difference. If I miss my meditation, I really notice it, it’s an essential part of my self-care routine.
Deep diaphragmatic/abdominal breathing as well as ancient Indian pranayama breathing techniques work very quickly to relax the mind leaving you blissfully at peace. Breathwork has been known to really help release past traumas which can be linked energetically to discomfort in the digestive system and the liver too. The more relaxed and the more we can let go of past emotional disturbances using these techniques the better our overall health and especially our gut health.