There are a variety of different conditions that can cause digestive issues – some serious – but Dr Cris Beer explains the most common issues causing poor digestion:
Mechanical Issues. This includes problems that arise because we do not chew our food enough! If we are not chewing properly and/or chewing quickly (often whilst talking) we will not break down our food properly. Ideally we should be chewing each mouthful 20–30 times. For most of us that is 4–5 times more than what we are currently doing. The other issue with chewing quickly or talking whilst chewing is that we end up swallowing a lot of air. This can build up in our stomach and cause belching and problems with wind. So slow down, chew your food more and keep the chat for between mouthfuls.
The other mechanical issue that commonly arises is reflux and heartburn. These issues often arise because we have too much back-pressure on the valve at the top of the stomach. This valve is responsible for holding the contents of the stomach down. Pressure is put on the valve when we have eaten a meal that is too large, we have excessive wind in our stomach, or even if we are carrying too much weight around our middle. The result is a spilling of the stomach contents up into the oesophagus and sometimes even into the mouth. Another good reason to watch your portion size! You could also try smaller more frequent meals rather than 3 big meals.
Absorption Issues. One of the most common issues with not being able to break down food, protein foods in particular, is the fact that we drink with our meals. When this happens we dilute our stomach contents and in particular lower the acidity of our stomach, which actually needs to be kept fairly constant to be effective at breaking down our food. Try taking small sips only with meals and drinking most of your fluid between meals.
Inflammation Issues. Inflammation in our digestive symptom can occur when something we are eating is not agreeing with us such as a food intolerance. Inflammation can cause pain but also reduces digestion of our food. When this happens, the food we eat does not get broken down properly and ends up passing to our large intestines partly undigested. The bacteria in our gut then ferments the undigested food, particularly FODMAP sugars in our food, and creates gas – much like a brewery for making beer. If you’re considering a low FODMAP diet read this article from Dietitian Chloe McLeod. The result is that we feel bloated and in pain and could have symptoms such as loose bowels and excessive wind. When our gut is inflamed we also feel fatigued, lethargic and just not comfortable. Inflammation of our guts can also be the result of diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) or other autoimmune-type diseases. These often cause more severe symptoms. If you suspect inflammation issues then speak to your Doctor and Dietitian.
Microorganism Issues. – Gut health also relies on the microorganisms that live in our gut. These ‘bugs’ create a microscopic ecosystem that is either a healthy one or a toxic one. Many individuals have an imbalance between good and not so good gut bugs. There have been numerous studies to indicate that having the wrong balance of bugs in our gut can result in digestive health issues. Imbalances in our gut microorganisms can arise any time in our lives including as early as infancy. They might be the result of not being breastfed as a baby or inheriting not-so-good bugs from our mum during our birth, or from taking antibiotics frequently as children or as an adult. Other factors proposed to cause this imbalance include stress, drinking chlorinated water, exposure to agricultural chemicals, being on the oral contraceptive pill, and/or having poor diets high in sugar and processed foods. There are ways to improve the balance of bugs in your gut, read this article for tips on how.
Pathological Issues – the pathological issues include diverticular disease, bowel cancer and other bowel tumours. All of these can cause some issues with gut function.
Whatever the issue, the underlying cause needs to be assessed by your managing Doctor so that a relevant treatment plan can be put into place.
Dr Cris is an integrative medical doctor, author, corporate speaker, and media doctor. As an expert in integrative medicine Dr. Cris specialises not just in treatment of illnesses, but in the attaining of optimum health. She has particular interests in preventative health, lifestyle medicine, hormone health, weight loss, fatigue and sleep problems, digestive issues, as well as women’s health. Read more about her here.