According to experts, around 4 in 10 of us will experience at least one gut symptom at any one time. So what can you do when your gut is telling you something is up?
1. Keep a Symptom Diary
The first step is to get a handle on the ways in which your gut is telling you it’s unhappy. The best way to do this is to keep a symptom diary for a week or two.
Each day, keep track of how often you have a poo, what your poop looks like (yes really, the Bristol Stool Chart is a handy way to keep track, numbering different types of poop from 1-7) and any gut symptoms you’re experiencing, such as bloating, heartburn or tummy pain.
If possible, keep a track of your food intake too, as this can help reveal foods or eating habits that can be triggering symptoms.
2. Check in With Your G.P.
If you’ve been experiencing symptoms or a change in your poo for more than a couple of weeks, the next step is to book an appointment with your G.P., so they can check there’s no underlying condition.
Conditions like coeliac disease and IBS can cause gut symptoms like bloating and pain, so it’s important to get these ruled out first. Take your symptom diary with you, as this will help your doctor assess what you’re experiencing. In most cases, they’ll ask some questions and run a few simple blood tests.
I realise talking about poop, farts and bloating with someone you don’t know can feel awkward and embarrassing, but try to remember that your doctor is very used to talking about this type of thing. If you’re worried, note down any questions or anxieties you have before you go along to the appointment and take them with you to discuss. No question is silly, and you’ll feel more at ease for having asked.
3. Become a Detective
Once you’ve had things checked out with your G.P. and you know there’s no condition underlying your symptoms, it’s time to turn detective. Return to your food and symptom diary and have a good look at what your main symptoms are, and if there’s any obvious links with your diet or lifestyle.
For example, do you notice that you need to rush to the loo after a morning latte? Do you always feel discomfort after eating a certain type of food? If you notice any suspected trigger foods, it can be worth taking them out of your diet for a week or two to see if things improve before reintroducing to check that they are indeed a trigger. If they are, you’ll then need to think about suitable replacements.
Other things to look at include how much caffeine and alcohol you’re drinking, and your intake of fatty and spicy foods, as these can be common contributors to gut symptoms.
Some general good ‘housekeeping’ tips for your gut include
- Eating regular meals and taking your time to eat (this means not rushing through a sarnie as you scroll through your emails!)
- Trying to eat your last meal a few hours before bedtime to give your gut time to digest it so you’re not sleeping on a full stomach
- Drinking plenty of caffeine free fluids - Including plenty of fibre rich foods (you’ll find lots more tips on fibre here, but be aware that if you do have a gut condition like IBS, eating more fibre can be irritative so you might want to check in with a dietitian for support).
- Aiming to include plenty of different plant based foods in your diet each week
- Not drinking too much alcohol
- Including 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week - (moderate meaning you can hold a conversation)
- Getting plenty of good quality sleep
4. Consider Your Stress Levels
It’s normal (and easy) to suspect that gut symptoms are related to something you’ve eaten, but it’s just as possible that stress or anxiety worry could be to blame. Your brain and gut are connected via a number of pathways and in near constant communication with each other. The upshot of this is that when you feel stressed, your gut feels it too. Stress and anxiety can cause changes in how your gut functions and moves, which can lead to changes in your poo habit and symptoms like bloating and pain.
A good indicator of this is if your symptoms disappear when you’re on holiday or away from work or a situation you find stressful. If this sounds familiar, it’s worth taking some time to work on managing your stress levels. This can involve two approaches - working to reduce the amount of stress in your life, or learning how to relate to it differently - this is known as developing emotional resilience.
Reducing stress might start with some simple boundaries, such as not checking or answering emails after work, or making sure you turn your phone off before bed. Lifestyle changes such as making more time to relax, or practicing yoga or mindfulness can help with emotional resilience. The charity MIND has lots of good advice on dealing with stress. Find out more here.
5. Get Advice From an Expert
If after all this you’re still struggling to figure out what the problem is, it’s worth seeing support from an expert. This can be especially helpful if you are finding that lots of foods appear to trigger symptoms, or if you’ve worked out that there are problem foods, but you want to make sure your diet stays well balanced without them.
Try a dietitian who specialises in gut health, or ask if your G.P. can make a referral to a local service. You can also discuss options for support (such as cognitive behavioural therapy, which looks at thought patterns) with your G.P. if you’re struggling to cope with stress or anxiety