As a nation, we spend $10 billion dollars a year on heartburn/acid reflux medicine such as Nexium and Pepcid AC (NPR, Healthinc, May 2015). Sixty million people have some form of IBS/Irritable Bowel Syndrome, while more than 5 million people suffer from daily constipation, resulting in 2 million doctor visits and $725 million a year for laxatives, anti-spasm meds and fiber supplements such as Metamucil (Gastroenterology Association). These remedies often have a yo-yo effect of days of alternating constipation and diarrhea, in addition to other side effects. And every day, millions of Americans complain of gas, feeling bloated, and/or ongoing stomach upset (Washington School of Medicine). So why all the tummy troubles?
According to many recent studies, research articles, and experience in my own nutrition coaching practice, it is clear that lifestyle, food choices and stress are the most common causes of these unpleasant symptoms. I’ve worked with dozens of clients to help them understand what is causing their tummy trouble and helped then improve their digestion and gut health. This is a major focus of my practice, and it is extremely rewarding because it affects so many of my clients experience these symptoms. Here are some of the areas we cover:
• What’s going on in your gut? The lining of your small intestine is comprised of trillions of bacteria that coexist in a complex balance that keeps you healthy. These trillions of bacteria in our gut are also known as intestinal flora. They help break down our food, protect us from disease, keep us functioning optimally, and even prevent weight gain. But things like antibiotics, certain medications, poor diet, food additives, and stress upset the balance of good bacteria to bad bacteria or yeast, creating what is know as dysbiosis. When your microbiome gets out of balance, your stomach reacts with gas, bloating, constipation, and/or diarrhea.
• Is your gut leaky? Many health coaches and nutritionists are aware of “leaky gut syndrome”, or intestinal permeability – although your doctor may not be. Leaky gut is a result of damage to the intestinal lining caused by several factors including dysbiosis, parasite infection, chronic stress, poor digestion or a bad diet. When the integrity of the intestinal lining is compromised, natural waste that would typically be absorbed or eliminated in your stool can “leak” from your digestive system into your blood stream. Like the lactose-and gluten-intolerances discussed below, a leaky gut causes an inflammatory immune response, and that can cause gas, bloating and pain, food sensitivities, skin rashes, joint pain and fatigue. Note that medications used for joint aches and body pains, as well as antibiotics, can cause chronic inflammation, which many experts believe can lead to leaky gut.
• Chronic stress can lead to gut issues. Chronic stress can lead to a variety of gut problems such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcers, IBD, IBS, and even food allergies. Studies show that stress also contributes to leaky gut syndrome, slows waste elimination and encourages bacterial overgrowth, making stress management a top priority for anyone with GI health concerns. Taking time to practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation and breathing exercises can help reduce stress and anxiety. These exercises may actually alter the brain’s neuro pathways, helping you become more resilient to the affects of stress. There are many actions you can take to help reduce your stress; but the first step is to identify the source and take the necessary steps to reduce it as much as possible.
• Your bowels are irritable. About 20 percent of all women suffer from IBS, which can cause gas, bloating and painful yo-yo-ing between diarrhea and constipation. But your bowels don't just get irritable out of the blue. Diet and stress can both contribute to IBS symptoms and a study by Dr. Mark Hyman found that changing certain foods in your diet can eliminate up to 30 percent of your symptoms. I help my clients identify which foods to eliminate, which foods are not a problem, and guide you through an effective process for maintaining your healthier lifestyle. My first suggestion to clients with IBS is to keep a food journal – you can start doing this now! Write down everything you eat, making sure to mark the time, amount, and ingredients. This is a great investigative tool and helps you become more aware of what you’re eating and how you feel afterwards.
• Is dairy really your friend? About 25 percent of Americans have trouble digesting dairy products. Lactose (the sugar in milk) and casein (milk protein) intolerances get worse as we age and can cause gas, bloating, skin problems and other symptoms. If you want to take a self-assessment, try eliminating all dairy from your diet for one to three weeks, and see if your symptoms improve. This is not always easy to do without an expert’s help, because dairy or whey products are often hiding in foods that we would never consider “milk products.” Contrary to what the FDA and dairy industry would have us believe, we do not need dairy products to get adequate calcium in our diets. Dark, leafy greens, sardines, figs, almonds and sesame seeds are all great sources of calcium. For an excellent gut-healing food rich in calcium and other minerals, try making your own bone broth.
• What does your weight have to do with it? People who are overweight are 50 percent more likely to suffer from GERD and/or heartburn, and are more susceptible to gallstones (causing pain in the upper right-side of your stomach). The poor food choices that lead to obesity are often the original cause of gastrointestinal problems for many Americans. If these symptoms are treated with certain drugs like PPIs, it can make these problems even worse and cause additional long-term problems. Excess weight also puts more pressure on your stomach, which then puts pressure on the valve opening to your esophagus. By switching to a clean, whole foods diet you can slim down and reduce or eliminate your food-related heartburn and GERD.
• Could wheat be the culprit? More people are discovering their stomach distress is related to a gluten intolerance; studies show about 20% of Americans are affected, with celiac disease becoming more and more common. Celiac disease and gluten intolerance create an autoimmune reaction; the body produces antibodies that attack the protective “villi” found in the small intestine. Villi are what help you absorb nutrients, so when they are compromised, you get cramping, bloating and nutrient-deficiency. If your parents or siblings suffer from celiac or gluten-intolerance, there’s a greater chance that you might, too, as there is a strong genetic link. You can get a blood test to determine if you have celiac disease, but there is no definitive test to conclude if you are gluten-intolerant. Becoming gluten-free helps millions of sufferers eliminate symptoms, but eliminating gluten can be tricky and is best done with the help of a nutrition coach who can help you learn more about the foods you can and cannot eat. Foods you’d never think would contain gluten often do – such as soy sauce and ketchup! Plus, to truly reap the benefits, gluten-free is an all-or-nothing diet – simply “reducing” your gluten intake usually will not eliminate your symptoms.
If you have experienced stomach issues for years, or if your distress is recent, I would be happy to help you feel better and healthier! Click here to schedule your complimentary Coffee Talk session.