Are your digestive symptoms confusing? Maybe you’ve considered avoiding certain foods but are not sure which foods are bothering you. Perhaps you have suffered on and off for quite a while and want to understand how to manage your constipation, diarrhoea, reflux, nausea, and abdominal pain. Maybe you’ve already eliminated foods and think your diet is unbalanced or restricted now.
I know what it is like to live with digestive problems, pain, and tiredness every day because I had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) for several years after an infection. I lost weight, avoided foods I thought upset me, had lots of tests done, had time off work, and worried I’d never be well again. It stopped me enjoying walks, eating out, visiting friends, and exercising. Once I understood my personal triggers, it gave me back control of my health.
I’m a registered nutritional therapist and coach and I specialise in working with people with digestive problems and IBS and use a practical everyday approach to nutrition and lifestyle. Everyone experiences digestive issues differently.
Here are 6 tips to start being your
own digestive detective
If digestive issues are impacting your enjoyment of life, consider these six questions to start being your own digestive detective.
1. What are your symptoms?
The type and location of symptoms can help look for any patterns and build a picture of your digestive health. Food not being broken down properly may result in digestive symptoms. For example, bacteria can feed on undigested food and release gas therefore the symptoms of bloating, wind, abdominal cramps might suggest lower levels of stomach acid and undigested food in the intestines.
Record them daily for a week and note their severity (score 1-10 where 1 is low e.g., reflux, nausea and 10 is high e.g., diarrhoea). Use this link for a symptom tracker.
2. Are you drinking enough water?
Water is needed at every stage of digestion, especially in the small intestine for absorption of nutrients and helps maintain the fluid and salt balance in the body. Low hydration might cause symptoms like constipation, and headaches.
Aim to drink around 6-8 cups of fluid a day (water or herbal tea).
3. Do you eat a wide variety of foods or are your meals repetitive?
You may have heard of “eating the rainbow” which is referring to the science of how dietary diversity feeds diversity of the bacteria that play a key role in the body’s digestive system.
Consider doing the “50 food challenge” using the chart in this link. Keep track of every different food type you eat for a week and aim for at least 50 foods, mostly plant-based and of all colours of the rainbow (see the picture below for ideas). You can only record a food type once. Herbs, spices and oils all count as individual, but bread and pasta count are one type.
See BANT (British Association of Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine) for food guides, tracking tools, recipes, and factsheets.
4. Do you eat food-based prebiotics and probiotics?
They support the growth and maintenance of good bacteria levels for digestive health, immunity, vitamin and energy synthesis, and regulation of inflammation. Probiotics are fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir and kombucha and can be both dairy and non-dairy. Prebiotic foods are garlic, onion, leeks, beans, peas, artichoke, chicory, apples, bananas, and wholegrains. A healthy digestive system benefits from getting some of these foods regularly.
Start small and slow with these foods, e.g., 1-2 tablespoons of yoghurt each day and see how your body responds.
5. Are you active each day?
Activity supports digestive fitness, i.e., the ability of the body to break down food, absorb the nutrients the body needs from food and move food through the digestive tract.
For one day, make a note of your chair time, i.e., time spent sitting. Aim for at least 8,500 steps a day and a minimum of 5,000 steps.
6. Do you allow your body to rest to digest?
As a complex process digestion takes time. Stress and rushing about can cause the body to prioritise the heart, brain, and muscle, not digestion.
Eat every 3-4 hours, eat slowly, chewing food well. Think about what you can do to give your body the time to rest.
Supporting digestion is about hydration, chewing food, sufficient digestive juices time to break foods down, eating a wide range of foods (the more brightly coloured the better), regularly eating prebiotic and probiotic based foods, keeping moving, and allowing the body and digestion to rest.
Working with a registered nutrition practitioner can help you to understand the triggers of your symptoms, guide you to rebalance your food intake and support your digestion so that you can have control of your health and get back on with living. If your symptoms persist or concern you, please contact your GP.
Disclaimer: The information in this blog is explanatory in nature and/or provides general dietary advice. It is not personalised nutritional and lifestyle recommendations.