March 20, 2017
We’re often embarrassed to talk about issues with our bowels but being open about symptoms can make our lives more comfortable day to day, and potentially protect us from serious diseases – bowel cancer, for instance, affects thousands of people yet is completely curable if caught early and treated quickly.
Stress, changes in hormone levels (during menstruation or the menopause), medication and our diet all can alter our bowel habits, as can conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and diverticular disease. Many bowel problems, such as constipation, can be sorted by tweaking our diet, and the symptoms of more serious conditions alleviated by taking care about what we eat.
IBS is an umbrella term for a number of symptoms: bloating, gripe, constipation, diarrhoea, wind, nausea, or a bad taste in the mouth, to name the most common. Although any serious symptom should be checked with a doctor, more often than not these sorts of digestive symptoms are signs that something in your lifestyle needs to be tweaked. This may not just be what you do or don’t eat.
Anxiety and stress can increase acid secretion in the stomach, which can change the way that food is dealt with. For example, anxiety can make us swallow more air, which can exacerbate gut bloating. It can make us more tense and less able to go to the toilet, so we can get into a cycle of constipation or the opposite, having to rush to the toilet when we’re worried. Emotional upset can make us skip meals, eat things on the run and crave foods that aren’t the best to eat, causing IBS. Menstruation can also trigger IBS-type symptoms.
Tackling IBS symptoms
- Cut down on alcohol and nicotine
- Make sure you are drinking enough water or calming herbal infusions
- Eat small, well-balanced, nourishing meals three times a day
- Don’t eat on the run
- Increase your level of prebiotics and probiotics (healthy gut bacteria) in your diet.
- Good sources include live natural or Greek-style yoghurt.
A lack of water or fibre in our diet can cause constipation. And as we get older our gut typically more sluggish, even when our diet apparently stays the same. We have some ideas as to why this happens – it may be that we are generally less active (exercise can have quite a big impact on how regular our gut is), but constipation can also be caused by medication, such as codeine, or by our gut ‘holding’ upset and tension inside.
Sometimes the less we’re able to go to the toilet the more uptight we get and the more tense our gut becomes, so that the harder it is to go. Reducing anxiety around our bowel habits by eating good-for-the-gut foods, drinking plenty of water, exercising and even stress-reducing activities such as meditation, can all help.
Constipation can increase the risk of developing diverticular disease, which affects around half of people aged 65 and above. Diverticular disease happens when the muscular walls of the intestine weaken, forming pockets or sacs (diverticula). Many people remain without symptoms, but around 25 per cent may experience severe abdominal pain, intermittent diarrhoea and constipation.
Diverticula often develop because our diet is relatively deficient in fibre-rich foods, which help to prevent constipation – it’s the straining involved in passing a stool that weakens the intestinal walls, causing diverticula to form.
Sometimes diverticula can become infected and cause rectal bleeding, pain and fever; if untreated this can prove to be serious. If you’re diagnosed with an infection, the advice completely changes – the last thing you need is roughage, as it’s too much for a sore, infected intestine to deal with. You need a low-fibre diet. Once the infection has been treated successfully, take steps to improve your gut bacteria by taking a combined prebiotic and probiotic supplement. Then start gently building up your fibre intake, so that your gut returns to a non-constipated state.