Our digestive system contains millions of bacteria that form our microbiota, or gut flora. The good bacteria in our microbiota play an important role in promoting a strong immune system, absorbing nutrients from food, and regulating our metabolism.
Incredibly, gut flora are also believed to influence our brain functions and our mood. Anyone who has ever experienced being ‘hangry’ can surely see a connection!
In fact, scientists have fairly recently begun to understand just how important our microbiota is for our overall health. And new connections between gut health and our total wellbeing are being discovered regularly.
In a healthy gut, the balance between good and bad microbes is in equilibrium. But when our gut flora is unbalanced, it can lead to digestive problems such as constipation, diarrhea, or irritable bowel syndrome.
What can cause digestive problems?
Digestive problems often occur as a result of an inadequate diet, not drinking enough water, and not eating enough fibre. Lack of probiotics and prebiotics, essential nutrients and overindulgence in processed, fatty foods and sugar-laden soft drinks can all tip the balance negatively too.
Many medications can also cause constipation. Common culprits include painkillers containing codeine, iron or calcium supplements, antihistamines, diuretics, antidepressants and blood-pressure medications (antihypertensives).
Also, lack of exercise can affect the bowel’s ability to keep things moving. Exercise stimulates a number of important functions necessary for proper digestion.
In short: moving helps your movements!
Symptoms of an unhealthy gut balance
- Hard stools that may be difficult or painful to pass
- Infrequent bowel movements, less than 1 per day
- Experiencing abdominal cramping and bloating
- Feeling like your bowel isn’t quite ‘empty’
- Acute and / or chronic diarrhoea
- Developing haemorrhoids from straining
Common digestive problems
Constipation is when you haven’t had a bowel movement in more than 2 days, or difficulty and straining when having a bowel movement, or the passing of dry, hard stools when you do finally go. If you’re suffering from constipation, you probably feel quite bloated and uncomfortable.
The most common causes of constipation include a change in routine (such as international travel), not enough fibre in your diet, not enough fluids, and lack of exercise.
Left untreated, constipation can lead to faecal impaction or bowel obstruction, meaning the stool has blocked a part of the intestine and unable to be expelled. This is an emergency medical condition and should be treated right away.
Constipation can also lead to haemorrhoids, which are the result of straining too hard to pass faeces. Haemorrhoids are basically damaged and enlarged blood vessels that can cause pain, itching and discomfort.
Giving constipation the heave-ho
The most effective way to deal with constipation is by changing your diet. Dieticians recommend you eat around 30g of fibre every day. Good sources of fibre include wholegrains, fruits and vegetables, and legumes.
Laxatives may also help in the short-term relief of constipation. Bowel stimulants such as Nu-Lax increase bowel contractions, making the stool move faster through the colon while increasing the liquid in the stool. Senna, an ingredient in Nu-Lax laxative blocks, laxative bars and laxative tablets is a naturally occurring plant that has been used for hundreds of years for effective relief from symptoms of mild to moderate constipation.
When your bowel movements are loose or watery, and happen more than 3 times a day, you have diarrhoea. Diarrhoea occurs when the lining of the intestine becomes irritated and inflamed, which hinders its ability to absorb fluid from food waste.
Diarrhoea can be caused by a number of factors, including a virus such as gastroenteritis, or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Generally, diarrhoea resolves after a day or two. Chronic diarrhoea lasting 4 weeks or more can be caused by a range of underlying conditions that should be assessed by a medical professional.
Irritable bowel syndrome
If you have stomach pain or discomfort at least 3 times a month, every month, you may have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Other symptoms include abdominal pain, mucus in your stools, and alternating diarrhoea and constipation.
The exact cause of IBS isn’t known, but a number of factors are believed to play their part, such as diet, lack of fibre, change of routine, medications, and stress can all play a role.
Treatment options include gradually changing diet, laxatives or antidiarrhoeals, and antispasmodics.
Also, a group of carbohydrates called FODMAP is now believed to contribute to symptoms of IBS. Some people have opted to try a low-FODMAP diet to help manage their IBS symptoms. This diet should be used with the supervision of a dietician experienced in the management of IBS.
Maintaining a healthy gut
After your food has been digested and passed through the small intestine, the remaining waste moves into the large intestine. This is where the body extracts mainly water, and any remaining nutrients, as it moves through the digestive tract.
It’s a long process, taking between 24-72 hours to pass through our 1.5 metres of large intestine (colon). But the longer fecal matter stays in the colon, the drier it gets. And if fecal matter dries out during its long journey, the result is often constipation, gas and bloating.
To keep things moving, try:
- Eating more high-fibre foods
- Drinking around 2 litres (6-8 glasses) of water a day
- Avoiding diuretics such as coffee, alcohol, and soft drinks
- Going to the toilet when you feel the urge
- Supplementing your diet with products that support gut health
Most of all, pay attention to your body. The more you notice which foods help your digestion (and which wreak havoc), the more able you’ll be to avoid constipation and other gastrointestinal issues.