Digestive Health

Digestive problems are on the up. Constipation, IBS, food intolerances… the list goes on and on. Rather than struggle, why not take a look at natural approaches to gut health?

One Step Ahead…

If you’ve been visiting health stores for more than 10 years, you’ll know that these shops have been stocking specialist digestive health products for decades. Just think back to the 1980s -where else could you buy specialist dietary products such as wheat-free products or nondairy foods? Nowadays these foods are more widely available, but it’s still worth taking a look at what your health store offers – you’re bound to find something different from the mainstream – especially when it takes months, if not years – for a proper diagnosis to be made about what digestive problem you might have…

A Note about Coeliac Disease

  • One in every 1000 adults has sensitivity to gluten, causing gut upset, tiredness, lethargy and nutrient deficiencies of calcium, iron and folic acid.
  • It can be managed if gluten is strictly avoided – namely all foods which contain wheat, rye or barley (there is a debate as to whether oats should also be avoided, since many foods containing oats also include other gluten-containing cereals).
  • Using gluten-free options, such as gluten-free flour, bread, biscuits and pasta, a well-managed regime for general gut health is also required; a probiotic formulation, healthy diet following guidelines on fruit and vegetables, low fat, sugar and salt, good intakes of nonirritating “bulk” (fibre) in the diet such as linseeds or psyllium.


In healthcare circles, IBS has come to be known as a “dustbin diagnosis”, a bit like “headache”, which can be caused by many factors and result in many different symptoms. Sufferers of IBS often talk of years of pain before plucking up the courage to go to their GP only to be told to take muscle relaxants, to reduce their stress, to cut down on “rich” foods and increase intakes of dietary fibre. Some people may get to see a specialist, who may (rarely) offer food allergy testing, or work through elimination diets to see whether uncomfortable symptoms such as wind and bloating are caused by a reaction to foods. Most health stores can provide you with details of a nutritionist (or nutritional therapist), who can offer food intolerance/allergy assessment, and will probably advise you about what supplements you could take to manage the symptoms of your suspected IBS. They will look at the effect of your lifestyle; eating patterns and stress – all of which compromise gut function by reducing the secretion of digestive enzymes, slowing gut function and increased susceptibility to developing food intolerances. There are remedies and therapies to manage all of these. For example, you can increase your gut levels of digestive enzymes by taking (logically named!) ‘digestive enzyme’ formulations, which you take whilst you are eating meals, and which help to break down foods. Indigestion can be caused by lack of secretion of stomach acids, so a supplementary form called ‘betaine hydrochloride’ can help to make the stomach more acidic, assisting the breakdown of foods. Friendly bacteria can also help create a favourable gut environment for digestion to occur most efficiently, and ensure healthy bowel function.


The subject of many a joke in comedy films, diarrhoea is often not taken seriously. Diarrhoeal upset can be caused by many factors, and it takes a skilled practitioner to get to the bottom of the problem (no pun intended!). This proper assessment is very important to ensure effective outcome if a diet plan or supplement regime is recommended. Putting someone on a low allergen diet would be great for someone with intolerance to wheat or lactose (resulting in gut upset), but would not tackle a gut infection (caused by improperly managed food poisoning) head on. In nearly every case, probiotic supplements are very useful and eating a simple diet with plenty of water will help. Again, the types of food to eat will vary depending on whether diarrhoea is acute or chronic and a qualified practitioner will be able to recommend a full compliment of foods.


Most people have times when they “don’t go” for a day or two, but someone who is constipated according to the medical definition has less than three bowel actions a week. It’s hardly surprising that symptoms include feeling “bunged up”, piles, varicose veins in the legs or even painful sex.

There are many causes – lack of fibre in the diet, lack of fluid in the body, inactivity, emotional upsets or even shift work (irregular patterns mean that no regular bowel pattern can be followed). Bad bowel habits, such as ignoring the need to go can lead to the colon contents drying out and becoming hard, making the next bowel movement difficult. As well as this, constipation can be caused by an underactive thyroid gland, altered function of the nerves or muscles controlling bowel movement (as with IBS), pregnancy or an underlying illness such as bowel inflammation, scarring or tumours.

Many types of medication can increase the risk of getting constipation; antacids containing calcium, iron sulphate, codeine (found in pain killers and cough medicines), some antidepressants, or muscle medication for abdominal pain, bladder relaxation or Parkinson’s disease.

Diet is a highly effective way to treat constipation, with many GPs recommending wheat bran to bulk up the diet. This is not suitable for all, especially those with wheat sensitivity, who should use psyllium or a herbal stimulant laxative, such as senna and cascara instead. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is a must, as is drinking plenty of water. There are plenty of oils which can be used for abdominal massage, including coriander, black pepper and neroli, while homeopathically, Byronia, Silicea, Sulphur and Nux Vom are often chosen for constipation. Naturopaths may also tackle build up of toxins in the gut, and improper flow of energy around the body caused by the “blockage”.


Indigestion can be caused by lots of different factors; inflammation of the stomach lining, which can occur as a result of over-indulgence in alcohol, the use of aspirin-like drugs, or through infection. Another cause can be inflammation of the oesophagus, usually caused by digestive juices (acid) repeatedly moving upward from the stomach to the gullet. When very bad, it can be distressing, causing discomfort and pain in the upper abdomen or chest, usually after a meal, nausea, retching or even being sick after eating. People with frequent indigestion may benefit from following advice for IBS, as indigestion is also closely linked to stress, when there may be a decrease in proper enzymic breakdown of foods or low stomach acidity. It makes sense to increase levels of digestive enzymes with a supplement that assists breakdown of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Probiotics should also be recommended for overall gut health.

Natural Lifestyle © Natural Lifestyle August 2005 in connection with Natural Health Week

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