by Rosemary Ann Ogilvie
“Every aspect of our physical, emotional and
intellectual well-being is as much a reflection of a properly working
digestive system as the variety and diversity of nutrients that enters
our bodies. It is with the digestive system that our health’s glory
or failure begins.”
Getty T. Ambau, The Importance of Good Nutrition, Herbs and
Savour Your Meals
With today’s time-crunched lifestyle, indigestion often arises
from the simple fact that we don’t give our full attention to our
meals. Key digestive organs, normally stimulated by sight, smell, taste
- even thinking about food, are not properly activated. This means that
the food will be under-utilised by the body. Food consumed when we are
in a hurry, such as when we grab a sandwich and bolt it down while working
on that urgent report, usually sits for much longer in the digestive
tract leading to cramps, bloating, distention, or constipation and diarrhoea.
Improperly digested food can become a meal for intestinal bacteria instead
of fuel for your body. If bacteria starts to break it down and use it,
gas is formed as a waste product - which is the reason for the discomfort
you inevitably suffer when you eat too quickly. Researchers believe
colon cancer can be the result of food putrefying and the bacteria converting
it into carcinogenic chemicals. High protein food, and food that is
low in fibre, tends to take longer to digest, and is thus more likely
to putrefy and produce carcinogens.
Almost every culture in the world uses some form of fermented food for
digestive health. These lactic acid-rich foods keep the digestive system
sweet by hindering the multiplication of microorganisms responsible
for putrefaction in the gut. Cottage cheese, yoghurt (with acidophilus
and bifidus added), buttermilk, kefir, sauerkraut (made without chemicals),
umeboshi plums and fermented soy relishes are all effective.
Evidence from numerous studies confirms that a diet high in fibre gastrointestinal
health, with its action of protecting and improving the digestive tract.
There are two types of fibre: water soluble and insoluble. Both types
have specific roles to play in the gastrointestinal tract. Soluble and
insoluble fibre are found in the same foods, but in varying proportions.
Soluble Fibre - This type of fibre absorbs water, slowing down transit
time from the stomach. It is present in whole oats and oat bran, rice
bran, sesame seeds, lentils, dried beans, chick peas and black-eyed
peas. Whilst all fruits and vegetables contain soluble fibre, apples,
carrots, cauliflower, citrus fruits, corn, okra, pears and sweet potatoes
are the best sources.
Insoluble Fibre - This type of fibre increases stool bulk and water
content, acting as a natural laxative by speeding up the transit of
the stool through the bowel. This action is thought to reduce the risk
of colon cancer by lessening the amount of time carcinogens remain in
the gastrointestinal tract.
Insoluble fibre is found in corn bran and wheat bran, whole grains,
nuts and seeds, dried beans and peas, and popcorn. Most fruit and vegetables
contain some insoluble fibre, but the best sources are artichokes, broccoli,
carrots, leeks, parsnips, white potato and sweet potato. Insoluble fibre
prevents diverticulitis, and aids in treating irritable bowel syndrome
and haemorrhoids. By decreasing the amount of bile acids in the stomach,
insoluble fibre can help treat ulcers.
Basing your diet on fibre-rich foods is essential for preventing constipation,
so eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and whole grains. However,
don’t overwhelm your system all at once. Gradually introduce fibre-rich
foods over a period. People suffering irritable bowel syndrome may have
problems with bran, as it tends to aggravate bloating and flatulence.
Prunes, dried figs, or one to three teaspoons of psyllium stirred into
water or juice, can be taken in the morning during those times when
you are not getting sufficient fibre - such as when you are travelling.
We need around two litres per day (or eight 250 ml glasses) to ensure
our cells have adequate water to function. Fibre absorbs huge amounts
of water. One of the most effective ways to banish constipation is simply
to drink more water. When you are not taking in enough water, stools
tend to be dry and hard. The straining needed to pass them can result
in haemorrhoids, or anal tears and bleeding.
Exercise is important, as it stimulates peristalsis. A brisk walk will
help keep everything moving through the digestive tract. Constipation
can occur when extremely low fat diets are eaten. Certainly, it’s
important to restrict saturated fats (generally those of animal origin),
but be sure your diet includes ‘good’ fats that provide the
essential fatty acids needed by every cell in the body. Olive, soy and
safflower oil are the preferred cooking oils; use flaxseed and walnut
oil in salads; supplement with evening primrose oil.
Make sure you are getting magnesium - around 900 mg per day. Magnesium
works to ease constipation by drawing water into the contents of the
large intestine, and by relaxing constricted or irritated intestinal
walls. Eating unprocessed, fibre-rich foods is a start; include herbs
such as gotu kola, horsetail, alfalfa, hawthorn berry and skullcap.
Probiotics, which boost the beneficial bacteria in the gut, can help
with both constipation and flatulence. Purchase good-quality granules
from the health food store. Make sure they come from a refrigerator
- and store them in one when you get home. Take probiotics three times
a week, before breakfast.
Good old-fashioned Epsom salts are still effective! You don’t have
to swallow them; simply drop an entire box in a tub of hot water and
have a good long soaking bath - at least twenty minutes. You may have
a bowel movement within two hours.
Certain foods are notoriously gas-producing. Protein foods are culprits,
as are foods rich in sulphur - eggs, broccoli, cauliflower and beans.
Intestinal bacteria convert these foods into hydrogen-sulphide gas -
the most offensive type. The soluble sugars called raffinose and stachyose
present in legumes also produce gas; however, plant foods generally
convert into less penetrating methane gas. If you start introducing
large amounts of fibre to a system unused to it, it can overwhelm the
intestinal bacteria, causing them to proliferate and go into a feeding
frenzy - producing huge quantities of gas. As mentioned earlier, introduce
additional fibre a step at a time.
Milk and milk products can cause gas in those people unable to metabolise
lactose, or milk sugar, because the milk-processing enzyme, lactase,
may not be present in the digestive system. Bacteria then processes
milk into gas. Abstinence from milk and associated products is the only
effective remedy. The best anti-gas supplement is activated charcoal,
available from health food stores. Taking two or three tablets with
meals generally eliminates the problem. Sipping peppermint tea can help
occasional attacks of gas or bloating.
Here are some remedies for occasional bouts with diarrhoea:
This ayurvedic remedy is extremely effective. Grate one teaspoon fresh
ginger root into a cup. Fill the cup with a 50-50 mixture of plain,
live yoghurt and filtered water, then grate in some fresh nutmeg.
Nourishing barley water controls diarrhoea and, as a bonus, acts as
a liver tonic. Place 125 grams barley in a saucepan and just cover with
filtered water. Bring to the boil, then strain off the water. Put barley
back in the pan with one litre filtered water and the scrubbed peel
of one lemon. Bring to the boil, then simmer very gently until the barley
is soft, adding more filtered water as needed. Strain, and stir in two
tablespoons of raw honey.
Drink plain cold green tea - a good quality one such as Gunpowder Green.
The tannins help check infection and inflammation.
Ulcers can be the result of poor nutrition, a diet based on refined
foods, excessive acidity, a stressful lifestyle, alcohol abuse, or use
of NSAID drugs. However, 90% of duodenal ulcers and 70% of stomach ulcers
are caused by H. pylori. This common stomach bacterium suppresses acid
production and forms holes in the protective mucous layer lining the
stomach, allowing acid to seep through and burn holes in the delicate
tissue underneath. H. pylori also increases the risk of insufficient
acid secretion (atrophic gastritis) as well as ulcer cancer and stomach
Rapid eradication of H. pylori is essential for healing ulcers, and
some people may choose conventional medicine. However, cleansing diets
have also helped many cases. If you suffer the tell-tale accompanying
symptoms of indigestion and heartburn, your doctor will perform a blood
test to see if the bacterium is the cause of the ulcer and then there’s
a choice of dietary changes, cleansing diets or antibiotics.
Drugs such as Tagamet and Zantac commonly prescribed for ulcers (and
also heartburn) suppress the formation of hydrochocking drugs and interact
with the food you eat. Inadequate acid production also impairs digestion
of food and nutrient absorption.
Herbal therapy focuses on gastric mucosal support and re-establishing
intestinal balance. Instead of suppressing acid released into the stomach,
herbs stimulate normal immune defences that prevent the formation of
Cut out irritants such as caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and NSAIDS.
Licorice extract (deglycyrrizinated licorice) fights H. pylori as well
as increasing the production of protective mucous in the stomach, acting
as an excellent healing aid for ulcers. Take 300 mg four to six times
Eat unripe bananas for the same effect, or take 150 mg extract of unripe
plantain banana four to six times per day.
Slippery elm and marshmallow root also work. Try 200 mg four to six
times a day. Other specific herbs that fight H. pylori include bilberry,
garlic, panax ginseng, goldenseal root, echinacea root and pau d’arco
Stimulating Digestive Juices
With age, the production of those all-important digestive juices declines,
leading to indigestion and poor nutrient absorption. Here are some methods
for boosting the production of digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid.
Licorice root, garlic, dandelion root, alfalfa, kelp and sea vegetables,
goldenseal root, ginger root and papaya all help boost digestive enzymes.
Take bitter herbs. When the herbs come in contact with the bitter receptors
of the mouth, they trigger secretion of the hormone gastrin from the
stomach wall. Gastrin sharpens the appetite, boosts output of digestive
juices and bile. You can buy Swedish bitters to take before meals. Other
alternatives include drinking unsweetened dandelion coffee and chamomile
tea after dinner, or taking a popular Italian drink called canarino.
Pare the yellow rind (not the pith) of an unwaxed lemon and steep it
in a cup of boiling water for a few minutes until the water turns bright
yellow. Drink it unsweetened.
Take hydrochloric acid supplements with to take sufficient tablets to
give a warm feeling in the gut. Start with the lowest dose and increase
as necessary. Sip a teaspoon or more of apple cider vinegar (buy a brand
that includes the ‘mother’ - the cloudy lees which settles
at the bottom of the jar - otherwise it won’t work) mixed with
filtered water at mealtimes. Start with the smaller amount and increase
it until you find the right quantity - it could be a tablespoon or more.
Indigestion and Heartburn
Contrary to popular belief, heartburn and indigestion are caused by
poor eating habits and a lack of stomach acid rather an excess.
Skip fatty or fried foods (which slow the emptying of the stomach),
coffee, orange juice, tomato juice and products, spicy foods, meats
processed with nitrates or nitrites, too much sugar, alcohol, chocolate
Chew foods thoroughly.
Eat several small meals throughout the day rather than three large ones.
Don’t wear tightly fitting clothes that constrict the waist or
Don’t lie down for three hours after eating. Instead, if possible
take a ten minute walk.
Chew some caraway seeds after the meal as you sip a glass of warm water.
Try plain herbal teas such as fenugreek, slippery elm, comfrey and licorice.
A glass of raw cabbage juice or raw potato juice (it’s horrible
- but effective) can bring quick relief.
Finish your meal with sliced papaya or pineapple, which contain digestive
Take one or two 380 mg tablets of deglycyrrizinated licorice extract
three or four times per day.
Take hydrochloric acid with meals (see above).
Avoid drinking icy cold drinks with meals.
Lose excess weight as it exerts pressure on the abdomen, increasing
the tendency for the stomach contents to be pushed back up into the
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