Dietitian Laura Tilt gives us the lowdown on common digestive problems and shares her strategies to help support them.
Not only are digestive issues uncomfortable, but they can also really impact how we go about day to day life. Left unmanaged, they can start to affect our mental and physical wellbeing too, especially if they lead to us avoiding social occasions or hobbies.
What are digestive issues anyway?
Digestive issues describe problems that affect the digestive system - or gut. They can include:
- Abdominal discomfort (bloating, pain or cramps)
- Indigestion (general discomfort or pain in the upper stomach)
- Changes to your poo such as diarrhoea or constipation
What causes digestive issues?
Some digestive problems are due to underlying conditions. For example, gas and bloating can be a symptom of undiagnosed coeliac disease, a type of condition where the immune system overreacts to gluten, a protein food in cereal grains.
Heartburn can be a sign of a condition known as GORD (or gastroesophageal reflux disease), where acid from the stomach leaks into the food pipe causing a burning sensation in the chest.
Other digestive issues don’t have a clear cause. An estimated 1 in 7 people in the UK suffer with IBS or irritable bowel syndrome, a common gut condition which increases the gut’s sensitivity to normal stimuli like food, fluid and gas moving through the intestines. Symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain and a change in your poo type - typically either constipation, diarrhoea or a mix of both.
Constipation is a common problem too, estimated to affect around 1 in 7 people. Symptoms include infrequent poos (less than 3 a week), hard or small poos, or needing to strain when you have a poo.
Experiencing digestive symptoms from time to time is normal, and in many cases they can be linked to a temporary change in lifestyle - we’ve taken a long flight, had a few late nights with more alcohol than normal, or eaten a lot of rich meals. In these instances symptoms resolve within a few days. In the case of a tummy bug, symptoms will usually get better within a week.
However, if you’re experiencing digestive symptoms that persist for longer than a couple of weeks, it’s important to book an appointment with your doctor, so that they check there’s no underlying cause.
Bowel movements are a personal thing, and it’s normal to feel a bit embarrassed about talking to your G.P. about poo, bloating or farts, but the more information you can give, the more help they can be. They’re used to chatting about digestive problems and won’t be put off by anything you have to say.
Taking a symptom diary along to your appointment is really helpful, as it’ll help your doctor determine what’s going on and will help you to explain what you’re experiencing.
Remember that symptoms like unintentional weight loss, trouble swallowing or blood in your poo should never be ignored. Speak to your G.P. if you notice any of these.
Strategies to deal with persistent digestive problems
Once you’ve been to your G.P. and they’ve checked that there's nothing underlying your digestive symptoms, what next?
Here are a few simple strategies you can try.
Keep a diary
Keeping a diary of what you eat and drink and your symptoms can help you to spot patterns. You might notice that symptoms are worse after eating a particular food or drink, in which case you can try removing it for 2-3 weeks to see if symptoms improve. If they do, try to reintroduce the food and see if symptoms return. It’s best to do this with one food at a time, to avoid over-restricting your diet.
If you feel there are a lot of foods causing discomfort, ask your GP for a referral to a dietitian for help.
Check your eating habits
Certain eating habits can aggravate digestive discomfort. Try to have regular meals, take time to eat (swap dining al desko for a proper break away from your screen) and chew your food well. Another tip is to avoid eating late at night, to give your stomach time to empty before bed.
Try adjusting common triggers
Certain foods and drinks are common triggers for gut symptoms. Alcohol, caffeine, spicy foods and meals containing lots of fat can aggravate digestive discomfort for some people, so try adjusting your intake of these.
If you’re struggling with constipation, it’s worth gradually increasing your fibre intake from fruits, vegetables, wholegrains (like oats and wholemeal bread) and seeds, as fibre can help waste move through the gut. Make sure you drink plenty of fluid too.
You might also find it helpful to pop your feet onto a small stool (or have a toilet roll under each foot) when you poo, as this can make going to the loo easier.
Be Mindful of Stress
Your gut and brain are closely connected, and what goes on in one affects the other. If you struggle with stress or anxiety, you’ll probably feel it in your gut too. Try to include some activities or practices to manage your stress levels on a daily basis - deep breathing exercises, yoga and mindfulness practices can help. We love this 10 minute mindfulness and breathing practice from Ritchie Norton.
Taking time to move your body each day is a good habit for your gut as it helps to stimulate motility and keep the bacteria in your gut happy. Moderate exercise like walking, cycling, jogging seems the most helpful. At the other end of the scale, intense exercise can be pretty tough on the gut, so if you’re training hard on a regular basis, make sure you build in rest days and try stepping back the intensity to see if there’s any correlation.
Core (GUTS) Charity. (2016). DIGESTING THE FACTS. https://gutscharity.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/DigestingTheFactsReport.pdf