Our gut is a marvellous organ, it is directly connected to our brain by millions of nerves.
The constant communication between the brain and the gut means that when we are stressed, the signals from the brain are sent to the gut and may impact on our gut motility, resulting often in altered bowel movements (constipation and/or diarrhoea) and other symptoms.
Gut symptoms can at times start in the gut, this can cause distress, which in turn can perpetuate the symptoms via the messages that the brain sends to the gut. At times the symptoms can start with stress and then be perpetuated by the gut. Understanding the interaction between the brain and the gut can help find the right strategies to support health.
There can be a number of causes of gut symptoms, first of all we want to rule out anything serious, so a visit to your GP and some tests is recommended. Once we know that nothing serious is at play, there are a few factors to consider:
Has anything changed in your lifestyle since the symptoms started? Diet, stress, physical activity, sleep, injury, change in medication, alcohol or other substances intake?
Have the symptoms started after travelling overseas or to more remote areas? Could you have been exposed to a bacteria like H. pylori?
Have you taken antibiotics for an extended period of time?
The answers to the above questions can help identify a possible cause of the symptoms. Some dietary strategies that can help include:
If diet related, balancing your soluble to insoluble fibre intake may help. Soluble fibre is found in oats, bananas, barley, psyllium, fruit and vegetables flesh. Insoluble fibre is found in wholegrain breads and cereals, nuts and fruit and vegetables skin. When experiencing diarrhoea, it may help to reduce insoluble fibre intake by avoiding big salads, whole wheat and nuts and seeds. With constipation, increasing fibre intake is generally helpful by increasing the one you are having less of.
Eating regularly helps maintain gut function. Grazing is hard work for the gut.
Drinking plenty of water as you increase your fibre intake helps prevents constipation.
If you had taken antibiotics for an extended period of time, a probiotic can be helpful to support your gut bacteria.
Avoiding irritants like coffee, alcohol, spicy foods and fatty foods can keep your gut happier.
If stress is a major factor, gut-oriented hypnotherapy can be helpful.
When symptoms are ongoing, a low FODMAP diet can help identify trigger foods, which can be removed from your daily diet and resolve the symptoms. A low FODMAP diet is not a long-term diet, it is used in the short term to identify foods that are not well tolerated and is ideally done under the guidance of a gut specialist dietitian as it can be complex and very limiting.
Identifying causes of gut symptoms can be a little bit like detective work and often includes a combination of factors. The strategies used to alleviate the symptoms are dependent on the cause of the symptoms. Working with an experience dietitian who has done additional training and work in the area can help you identify problem foods and other non-food sources of the symptoms to return to a healthy, happy gut.