You may believe you are eating healthily and mindfully, but does your digestive system concur? We investigate what else could be going on...
We're all aware that certain bad eating habits or foods are more likely to cause digestive distress.
Bolting lunch can lead to an afternoon of bloating and flatulence, whereas a 'who can eat the hottest curry' competition could leave you trapped behind the bathroom door with stomach problems.
It's sometimes more difficult to figure out what's causing indigestion, heartburn, stomach ache, or other digestive issues.
Too much fibre
We're often told that eating more fibre will help us digest better.
However, abruptly and significantly increasing your fibre intake can be jarring to your digestive system, resulting in flatulence, constipation, and discomfort.
What you can do: Increase your fibre intake gradually to give your body time to adjust. Also, because fibre absorbs fluids, drinking more water will help keep your stools soft.
Alcohol irritates your digestive system by causing it to produce more stomach acid than usual.
This can cause acid reflux and inflammation of the stomach lining.
Alcohol also reduces the number of digestive enzymes produced by our bodies, which means we may not absorb the nutrients required to properly break down our food.
What you can do
Stick to the weekly alcohol limit of 14 units and limit the total amount you consume in one day. Alternatively, avoid it entirely.
Caffeine can cause heartburn in some people because it increases the production of acid in the stomach.
Coffee has a laxative effect as well. A study of 12 healthy people published in the European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology in 1998 discovered that a cup of black coffee had the same effect on colon muscles as eating a meal.
What you can do
Limit your intake of caffeinated tea and coffee and keep an eye out for 'hidden' sources of caffeine, such as chocolate, energy drinks, and some medications.
Tobacco use damages the sphincter muscle at the end of the oesophagus, which prevents acid from leaving the stomach.
Acid reflux occurs, which can result in ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease.
What you can do
Stop smoking right now. Inquire with your doctor about the NHS Smokefree programme.
Taking certain pain relievers
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and aspirin, may irritate the gut lining by weakening its defences against stomach acid.
This may result in ulcers or bleeding. NSAIDs can also weaken the oesophageal sphincter muscle, increasing the likelihood of heartburn.
What you can do
Ask your doctor to review the medications you're taking.
Our bodies digest best when we are upright.
This means that lying down in bed soon after eating allows stomach acid to travel up the oesophagus and cause heartburn.
What you can do about it
Allow three to four hours after eating before lying down to allow your stomach to empty.
In a 2003 study published in Gut, researchers discovered that when participants were upright, stomach gas was expelled faster than when they were lying on their backs.
If you still have heartburn in bed, try propping your shoulders up on pillows or raising the head of your bed so your chest is higher than your waist.
Taking too much vitamin C
We need vitamin C every day, but taking large amounts in supplement form – usually more than 1000mg – can cause diarrhoea, flatulence, and stomach pains in some people.
What you can do
Always read the label and follow the dosage instructions exactly. You can also try a 'buffered' vitamin C supplement that contains minerals to help with sensitive digestion.
Is stress interfering with your digestion?
When you're stressed, it's natural to experience symptoms like insomnia or to rely on coffee to get through the day.
However, stress can negatively impact your digestion, which can have serious consequences.
We may not produce enough stomach acid when our digestion is out of balance.
This means we may not be able to absorb nutrients from our food properly, resulting in a lack of vitamins and minerals.
The significance of vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 serves a variety of functions, the most important of which is to assist our bodies in converting food into energy.
It can also aid in the production of red blood cells, which transport oxygen throughout the body, as well as the maintenance of the brain and nervous system.
We cannot produce B12 naturally, so we must obtain it from foods such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, or from supplements.
Fortified cereals, soy products, and some plant milks also contain B12.
The problem with vitamin B12 is that we rely on stomach acid to absorb it – and up to one-third of us don't produce enough of it.
The B12 we get from food is bound to protein.
This bond must be broken – by stomach acid – before it can be absorbed and used by the body.
It must then bind to another protein known as intrinsic factor, which is produced by the same cells that produce stomach acid.
However, bacterial infections, thyroid problems, and ageing can all cause a decrease in stomach acid production.
In fact, by the time we reach our fifties, 10-30% of us will struggle to absorb B12 from food due to low stomach acid levels.
Stress is especially hard on our digestion.
To prepare us for 'fight or flight,' the body's stress response diverts blood away from the digestive system and towards the muscles.
This could affect our stomach acid production in one of two ways: either increasing or decreasing.
Mental stress increased gastric output (stomach acid) in about half of the volunteers in a study of 14 healthy men published in the journal Digestive Diseases and Sciences in 1990, but decreased it in the other half.
So, the first step in rebalancing your stomach acid levels should be to address any sources of stress.
Increase your B12 consumption.
The NHS recommends that adults consume at least 1.5mcg of B12 per day.
If your stomach acid levels are low, you may require more.
If you are deficient in B12, you may experience the following symptoms:
- extreme exhaustion
- insufficient energy
- muscle wasting
- vertigo or loss of balance
- decreased pain or pressure sensitivity
- numbness or pins and needles
- visual impairments
- pallid, yellowish skin
34 best vitamin B12 foods and sources
Vitamin B12, a critical nutrient that our bodies cannot produce on their own, is obtained through our diet and supplements.
But what exactly is vitamin B12? Why is it significant? And what are some of the best sources of vitamin B12?
Sort low acid levels
You can also take steps to restore your stomach acid balance.
To increase stomach acidity, some practitioners recommend drinking diluted lemon juice or apple cider vinegar or taking a digestive enzyme containing betaine hydrochloric acid (betaine HCI).
A pilot study of six volunteers conducted by the University of California in 2013 discovered that 1500mg of betaine HCI helped lower gastric pH, which may increase stomach acid production.
If you have digestive problems and want to try alternative treatments, consult your doctor.
The key to determining what causes your digestive upset
Constipation, diarrhoea, indigestion, and acid reflux can all result from a malfunctioning digestive system.
If any of this sound familiar, don't worry; these are very common problems.
Poor digestive health can also lead to more serious conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (IBS).
However, once you've identified what's causing your flare-ups, most digestive complaints can be resolved with dietary changes.
Even if you only experience occasional digestive discomfort, it is well worth paying attention to your gut and what it is trying to tell you.
Perhaps you are allergic to some of the foods or drinks you consume. Maybe you eat too much, too little, too quickly, or at the wrong times.
Eating a varied diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and wholegrains, not smoking, and only drinking in moderation are all excellent first steps toward gut health.
However, it is a good idea to see if you can improve your understanding of your gut to determine what works best for you.
Maintain a food diary.
Keep a record of everything you eat and drink for two weeks.
Include the time of day you had it and a brief description of what was going on at the time.
For example, if you are wolfing down a sandwich between meetings, eating sweets in the car, or indulging in a midnight snack, it all matters.
Try to estimate the amount of food consumed. Remember that portion sizes are frequently smaller than we believe!
A portion of dry pasta, for example, is 75g, which is the equivalent of a couple of handfuls or a small bowlful.
Your smartphone can be of assistance. There are numerous free apps available to help you track your digestion.
How to Maintain a Food Diary
- Make a list of everything you eat on a daily basis.
Include the time you ate it, as well as the severity and timing of any symptoms you experienced that day.
- Keep an eye out for patterns.
Is there a pattern where eating a certain food consistently coincides with an increase in your symptoms? If this is the case, consider eliminating it from your diet for a few weeks.
- Reintroduce foods in small amounts gradually.
This enables your body to adjust and accept foods to which it may be more sensitive. Keep track of any changes in your symptoms. This will determine how much you can eat without experiencing a reaction.
- Repeat with the remaining foods.
Repeat these steps if necessary with other foods that may be causing your digestive issues.
Analyzing your findings
Bloating is commonly caused by wheat, fizzy drinks, and dairy products, as well as alcohol.
In fact, alcohol, caffeine, and smoking are all risk factors for those with sensitive stomachs and should be avoided if at all possible, if only to see if your symptoms improve.
Greasy, spicy, and fatty foods found in many fast food restaurants and takeaways are bad for your digestion, so avoid them or look for healthier alternatives if they appear to be a trigger for you.
Excess wind and bloating can be caused by vegetables such as onions and cabbage, as well as beans and pulses.
However, because these foods are healthy, it is not recommended to eliminate them completely, but rather to eat them in small amounts and gradually increase your tolerance.
You may discover that some of your eating is motivated by stress or boredom.
When you eat for reasons other than hunger, you are more likely to make poor choices that do not prioritise your digestive health.
If you find yourself craving sugary foods an hour after dinner, examine your lifestyle and consider going for a walk or engaging in a hobby that gets you out of the house so you aren't tempted to make bad food choices out of habit.