A huge percentage of people who seem perfectly healthy on the outside go through life feeling quietly bloated and uncomfortable. It seems like everyone around them can eat anything they like with no obvious consequences, while they seem to react to anything and everything.
It’s nothing so extreme they can’t deal with it, of course; if they found themselves doubled over in pain from a particular food or restaurant, they’d quickly learn to avoid the trigger. But they’ve never been able to pinpoint the problem. Their bowels alternate between constipation and diarrhea, with no apparent pattern. Because they can’t identify the cause, and because the doctor has told them all they can do is manage symptoms, they’ve just learned to live with it.
And yet they wonder… does everyone feel this way? Is this normal?
I see cases like this every day. There was even a time when I lived it myself. And I can tell you: the answer is no. It’s not normal, and it is possible to heal.
The collective term usually applied to such symptoms is Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS. This is less of a diagnosis, and more of a description of symptoms.1 This is because there are several possible underlying causes.
The digestive process begins in the mouth and carries on through the esophagus, to the stomach, with contributions by the liver and the pancreas, and then absorption of nutrients should occur in the small intestine. The remaining waste then passes through the colon and out the anus.2 The problem can begin in any one of these places, or in several.
In my practice, I’ve found there are one of four main causes of digestive disturbance: Dysbiosis, Hypochlorhydria, Food Allergies, or Slow Bowel Transit.
The Four Causes of Digestive Disturbance
- Dysbiosis.3 Dysbiosis is an imbalance in your gut flora. You can think of your gut flora as being part of two groups: the good guys, and the bad guys. We all have some of each, but we start suffering physically if there are more bad guys than good guys.
- Hypochlorhydria.4 Hypochlorhydria means that you have too little stomach acid. Trying to digest food without stomach acid is like trying to brush your teeth without toothpaste: you can go through the motions, but the gunk remains undissolved. In the same way, when you try to eat food without enough hydrochloric acid, your food cannot be properly broken down. This means the bacteria in your gut will have to do it for you.
- Food Allergies.5 Food Allergies are when your immune system gets a little confused and thinks that something good for you is actually bad for you. Because it is your immune system’s job to protect you from anything that it perceives as bad, it starts attacking certain foods as invaders, when it should be recognizing them as your friends. This typically happens because of a breakdown in the gut lining that lets food particles end up in places they shouldn’t.
- Slow Bowel Transit.6 Slow Bowel Transit means that your food takes too long to digest—kind of like a car driving 35 on the highway. Slow bowel transit isn’t the same as constipation because it is not a problem with the stool itself, but with the digestive tract’s ability to process it. Of course, slow bowel transit can actually cause constipation, so it is possible to have both.
The good news is, no matter which of the four main causes of digestive disturbance you have, you can likely improve your digestion if you follow these simple steps. You can get your healthy digestion back.
Steps to Improve Your Digestion Right Now
- Slow down. Chew your food slowly. When you’re eating, be all there. Relax! This will help redirect blood flow to your gut,7 assisting your pancreas in enzyme production and release.
- Cut out processed foods. This means eating whole, real foods that are not in packages: things like nuts, seeds, grains and legumes you buy in bulk and cook yourself, veggies, fruits, eggs, meat, and fish. This will eliminate a lot of the food additives that you might be reacting to, and will likely help calm down at least some of your gut inflammation.8
- Steam, sauté, or lightly cook your veggies. Raw veggies and legumes can easily induce bloating. Light heat will help break down these starches, easing the strain on your gut.9 While you’re at it, soak your beans before you cook them, as well.
- Drink plenty of water. One major cause of constipation is low water intake.10 You should be getting in half your body weight of water in ounces daily—more if you’re sweating!
- Start exercising. Movement helps your bowels to move too!11 Bonus: the endorphins will help you feel healthier overall. If you have been sedentary for awhile, make sure you start slow: even just walking for twenty minutes three times per week will go a long way.
To find out what is causing your gut health issues, take the Gut Health Quiz. It’s free!
- Chey WD et al. “Irritable bowel syndrome: a clinical review.” JAMA. 2015 Mar 3;313(9):949-58. doi: 10.1001/jama.2015.0954.
Carding, Simon et al. “Dysbiosis of the gut microbiota in disease.” Microb Ecol Health Dis. 2015; 26: 10.3402/mehd.v26.26191
- Seier, Taylor and Vayali, Thara. “The Hype of Hypochlorhydria: A Brief Review of Gastric Acid Analysis.” Naturopathic Doctor News and Review. 2015 Jan 2. Web 15 Jun. 2017. <http://ndnr.com/gastrointestinal/the-hype-of-hypochlorhydria-a-brief-review-of-gastric-acid-analysis/>.
- Frattini, Jared et al. “Slow Transit Constipation: A Review of a Colonic Functional Disorder.” Clin Colon Rectal Surg. 2008 May; 21(2): 146–152.
- Waaler, BA et al. “Digestive system’s large and changing needs of blood supply.” Tidsskr Nor Laegeforen. 1999 Feb 20;119(5):664-6.
- Lerner, Aaron et al. “Changes in intestinal tight junction permeability associated with industrial food additives explain the rising incidence of autoimmune disease.” Autoimmunity Reviews, Volume 14, Issue 6, June 2015, Pages 479-489
- Barampama, Z et al. “Effects of soaking, cooking and fermentation on composition, in-vitro starch digestibility and nutritive value of common beans.” Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 1995 Dec;48(4):349-65.