Creating healthy digestion for a healthy, happy life
Everyone has heard the saying ‘you are what you eat’ but I wonder if there should be another one liner to get us thinking about what happens to all of that food once we’ve eaten it, something like ‘a poop a day keeps the doctor away’ (not very inventive I know).
Unless you’re a naturopath or nutritionist bowel regularity is not a subject that usually comes up in dinner conversation. But with one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world[i] and an estimated 15% of New Zealanders affected[ii] by some form of bowel irregularity or discomfort perhaps it should be something Kiwi’s start talking about, with their health provider at least. Maintaining a healthy bowel is in fact fundamental to not only our long term health and disease prevention, but also to our everyday comfort and happiness as anyone with a digestive condition will attest to.
Too often we ignore the signs of digestive dysfunction such as irregular bowel motions, abdominal pain, cramping, bloating or gas and that state eventually becomes our ‘normal’. While it’s not something most people really want to talk about, efficient elimination of waste from the body is essential to good health, so let’s look at some ways to make sure this happens.
One simple step to improving bowel regularity is to consume more fibre and the best way to do this is simply to eat more vegetables. Drinking enough water is also essential to help the body clear toxins and prevent constipation, aim for at least 2 litres each day. Herbal teas can contribute to your water intake; ginger, chamomile and peppermint are all beneficial for easing digestive discomfort. You'll also want to establish and avoid any 'trigger' foods that cause digestive upset, common culprits are dairy, wheat, alcohol, caffeine, sorbitol, corn, beans, chocolate, nuts, fatty foods[iii], onions and eggs[iv].
Ensuring a strong population of healthy gut bacteria will help the entire digestive process and really help with the prevention of bloating, gas and cramping. You could take a probiotic supplement, but that gets pricey over time. Ideally you should try to eat some form of fermented food every day such as yoghurt, kefir, kimchi, kombucha tea, sauerkraut, miso soup and tempeh. These traditional foods are having a resurgence in popularity and are commonly available in most health food stores – or there are plenty DIY recipes available on the internet.
On a more holistic level there is much more to it than what we eat, such as trying to:
We know that regular exercise not only increases our metabolism and improves our mood, but it also helps the peristaltic movement of the muscles of the digestive tract. Any exercise is good but there are some great yoga poses that specifically target the abdominal region improving circulation and provide stimulation to the abdominal organs which naturally improves the digestive process.
Wind relieving pose, the name says it all really! Increasing pressure in the abdominal cavity assists in releasing trapped digestive gas from the stomach and intestines.
Cat / cow
Provides a gentle massage to abdominal organs as well as improving spine mobility and being very calming.
Garland pose (squat)
This pose naturally aligns the intestinal tract in such a way that the intestinal wastes are moved downwards, helping the body expel waste matter efficiently.[vi]
Images from http://www.abc-of-yoga.com
Living joyously may sound a little off-beat, but really the rationale behind this is all about managing your stress levels. Looking at bowel health from a psycho-somatic view point, constipation is the inability to let go of old ideas, becoming stuck in the past. Bloating can be related to a fear of “stopping the process”. By choosing to ‘live joyously’ you are choosing to live in the present and accept things for what they are, not to mention, just enjoying life. Positive attitude affirmations from Louise Hay:
"As I release the past, the new and fresh and vital enter. I allow life to flow through me."
"My intake, assimilation and elimination are in perfect order. I am at peace with life".[vi]
Finally, we come to eating mindfully - but what exactly does this mean? Well, there are a number of things to consider under this one point, such as eating slowly, taking note of the taste, texture and aroma, not eating while distracted, recognising when you are full and really thinking about what you are about to eat and how it will serve you. Eating mindfully will assist the body in the entire digestive process.
Studies regarding mindfulness and acceptance of the situation have been shown to help cope with the stress associated with having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Cognitive behavioural therapy involving relaxation exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises and simple meditation combined with positive affirmations have been shown to be beneficial in reducing IBS symptoms.[vii]
These tips offer a number of benefits, not only to our digestive system, but to our overall health and wellbeing so you can look forward to a healthy bowel and a healthy life.
[i] New Zealand Ministry of Health ‘About Bowel Cancer’ Available: Accessed 29 June 2014
[ii] Higgins PD, Johanson JF. ‘Epidemiology of constipation in North America: a systematic review’, American Journal of Gastroenterology. 2004 Apr;99(4):750-759
[iii] Friedman, L.S. (2005). Irritable Bowel Syndrome: (The Sensitive Gut). Harvard Special Health Report, pp 23-31.
[iv] Osiecki, H. (2007). The Physician’s Handbook of Clinical Nutrition (7th ed). Eagle Farm, QLD: Bio Concepts.
[v] Yoga Journal ‘Yoga Poses Database’ Available: Accessed 30 June 2014
[vi] Hay, Louise ‘You Can Heal Your Life’ (1984), Hay House Publishing
[vii] Naliboff, B.D., Frese´, M.P. & Rapgay, L. (May 17, 2007). Mind/Body Psychological Treatments for Irritable bowel Syndrome. Electronic Journal of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (eCAM), 1-10