Nausea, vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea, cramping, bloating, flatulence. We’ve all endured intestinal upset—sometimes at supremely inopportune moments. Digestive problems can manifest on airplanes, during business meetings, on bus trips in foreign lands, during a first date, while running a marathon and even on stage.
While some of us have more sensitive systems than others, we all have control over a number of factors that influence our digestive health. Try the following tips to keep your system running smoothly and toss intestinal complaints out the window.
To find more cures for digestive problems, read Herbs for Digestion.
Eat Mainly Plants
Plant chemicals and nutrients promote overall health and protect against cancer, inflammation and free radical damage. On the other hand, processed meat and red meat, especially meat cooked at high temperatures, is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
Plant-based diets also provide fiber, which, combined with plenty of fluids, prevents constipation. There are two types of fiber: insoluble and soluble. Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water and passes through the intestinal tract unaltered. Sources include whole grains (whole wheat, brown rice, barley, farro, bulgur and couscous), popcorn, lentils, dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, cabbage and celery.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gel, which slows digestion and enhances feelings of satiety. Bacteria that normally inhabit the intestinal tract ferment the gel, which promotes bowel health. Sources include oats, barley, beans, flax seeds, psyllium seed husks, nuts, carrots, apples, oranges, pears, strawberries and blueberries.
According to one study, for people with IBS, soluble fiber appears to alleviate symptoms, while insoluble fiber may do the opposite. Consult your physician to consider whether reducing insoluble fiber may be helpful for you.
Rule Out Food Allergies and Intolerances
Food allergies involve a reaction from the immune system, which carries out a misguided attack against various food proteins. Symptoms include nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, hives, respiratory congestion and dizziness. For some people, food allergies trigger anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition marked by swelling of the lips and mouth, hoarseness, difficulty breathing, wheezing, rapid heart rate, low blood pressure, confusion and collapse.
Doctors use blood and skin tests to identify food allergies. Eight foods account for most food allergies: cow’s milk; soy; wheat; eggs; peanuts; tree nuts (such as almonds, walnuts, pecans and cashews); shellfish; and some fish. Management involves avoidance of these foods. Some food allergies, such as those to milk and eggs, can be outgrown. Other allergies, such as those to peanuts and shellfish, last a lifetime.
Unlike food allergies, food intolerances (also called food sensitivities) don’t directly involve the immune system. Many times the problem stems from the digestive system’s inability to digest a particular food. For example, an insufficiency of the enzyme lactase causes lactose (milk sugar) intolerance. Allergy to cow’s milk, on the other hand, involves an immune system response to milk protein (casein and/or whey).
Food intolerances can cause nausea, gas, bloating, diarrhea and headache—but no respiratory distress. Whereas a tiny amount of allergen can trigger an allergic response, it usually takes larger amounts and/or frequent exposure to elicit symptoms of intolerance.
Elimination diets can identify problem foods. The protocol usually involves eliminating the usual suspects—especially dairy and gluten-containing foods (wheat, spelt, kamut, oats, rye, barley and malt)—from the diet for two weeks, then slowly reintroducing foods over a period of weeks while observing symptoms. Keeping a food diary provides a useful record. For more information, see the handouts available from the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.
Eat Beneficial Bacteria
To work properly, bodily systems such as the skin, upper respiratory tract and digestive tract team with mutually beneficial bacteria and fungi. Our intestines alone are home to up to 500 bacterial species—these “gut flora” outnumber our own cells by a factor of 10. They aid digestion and absorption of food, discourage colonization with disease-causing microbes, and promote immune system health. Laboratory research suggests that gut microbes protect against autoimmune disease and inflammatory conditions. Disturbances in gut microbes have been linked with inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and diabetes.
Probiotics are live microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast that, when consumed, offer numerous health benefits (read more about this in 13 Proven Health Benefits of Probiotics). These come in the form of fermented foods (such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and tempeh) and supplements.
Most of the research has focused on strains of the Lactobacillus species. For instance, studies have found some strains treat and prevent certain types of infectious diarrhea such as traveler’s diarrhea and rotavirus infection in children. A 2010 review of 10 studies found probiotics helpful in managing IBS. Probiotic supplements and active-culture yogurt can also reduce the risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Consumption of fermented dairy products such as yogurt can also relieve constipation and may reduce the risk of colon cancer.
Water is an essential part of our diet. Among water’s many functions, adequate amounts promote regular bowel movements and prevent constipation. In fact, low fluid intake predicts constipation more reliably than low fiber.
The Institute of Medicine recommends men consume an average of 3.7 liters (about 4 quarts) daily and women drink 2.7 liters (about 3 quarts) a day. However, you don’t really need to track your water intake. In the absence of extreme old age (when thirst mechanisms weaken) and serious illness, thirst is a good guide.
In other words, manage stress. The intestinal tract is exquisitely sensitive to it. Stress activates our sympathetic nervous systems (fight or flight) and dials down our parasympathetic nervous systems (rest and digest). When we’re stressed, blood flow to the gut decreases, saliva dries, enzyme secretion diminishes, small intestinal motility slows and large intestinal motility speeds up. The net effect can be poor digestion, abdominal discomfort and, with more severe stress, diarrhea.
Anxiety and stress correlate with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition marked by abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation. Preliminary research suggests that a technique known as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a therapy that blends yoga and mindful meditation, can ameliorate symptoms of IBS.
Psychological stress also plays a role in peptic ulcers. From about 1950 through the mid-1980s, doctors thought psychological stress was the main cause of ulcers. Then blame shifted to the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, and the main treatment to antibiotics. Today most physicians have come to a middle ground, recognizing that stress sets the stage for and perpetuates ulcers. Other important factors include smoking, alcohol consumption and the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.
Digestive Tea Recipe
The herbs in this formula relieve cramps, bloating and flatulence.
• 1 tablespoon peppermint leaves
• 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
• 1 teaspoon anise seeds
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon chips
• 1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds
• 2 cups water
1. Combine herbs in a clean jar.
2. Boil water; remove from heat.
3. Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of herb blend per cup of hot water. Cover and steep for 20 minutes. Strain and enjoy before and after meals.
—Adapted from 500 Time-Tested Home Remedies and the Science Behind Them by Linda B. White, Barbara Seeber and Barbara Brownell Grogan.
Tummy Rub Recipe for Pain and Bloating
This oil blend relieves intestinal upset in adults and children.
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 drops peppermint essential oil
• 2 drops basil essential oil
• 2 drops lavender essential oil
• 2 drops ginger essential oil
1. Blend ingredients in a jar.
2. To use, lie on your back. Massage 1 to 2 teaspoons of the mixture onto your belly in a clockwise direction. Cover with a damp cloth and a hot water bottle or heating pad.
3. Cap and store leftovers out of reach of children. External use only.
Variation: Add 8 to 10 drops of any one of these essential oils to olive oil, then use as directed.
Linda B. White is a Denver-based doctor, writer and lecturer. Her latest two books are Health Now: An Integrative Approach to Personal Health and 500 Time-Tested Home Remedies and the Science Behind Them.