By dietitian Jo Travers for Love Your Gut
After a year like no other, the start of summer is the perfect time to give your gut a health ‘MOT’, to listen to it and learn about it, so that ultimately you can give it the love it deserves. Our gut health has the power to impact everything, from our mood and immunity to our weight, so it’s important to make sure we give it the love and attention it deserves!
The digestive system is unique in the sense that it communicates signs, using all five senses, to provide health indicators and early warning of gut health problems. Thankfully, picking up on these signs doesn’t have to be difficult and dietitian Jo Travers for Love Your Gut has shared advice on how you can tune in to what your gut wants and needs this summer:
Listen to it
Wonder why your gut rumbles and groans sometimes? These noises are caused by the drive of gas and fluid through different regions of the gut. This fluid is a mixture of food, drink and digestive juices, with the gas frequently a result of swallowed air. These noises are more obvious when you are hungry or nervous because stimulation of the vagus nerve (which carries a range of signals from the digestive system and organs to the brain and vice versa) causes the gut to act a little faster than usual, moving these gases and fluids through the different regions of the gut more quickly.
We can often tell the health of our gut, just by looking at our poo (also known as stools or faeces). Faeces can differ in colour, but there are some colours you need to be aware of. Black and tarry stools can indicate bleeding in the small intestine or stomach, while pale stools accompanied by dark urine could indicate gallstones. The different appearances of stools are depicted in the Bristol Stool Chart. These are often related to variations brought about by food and mood – to summarise, the harder the stool, the slower the transit through the gut.
You can also tell a lot about your hydration status. If you are dehydrated, your body reabsorbs more water from the colon, so hard, dry stools indicate you need to drink more. Watery stools mean that you are losing excess fluid so are another indication that you need to rehydrate.
Cramping of the stomach and abdominal pain can be discomforting. These pains are most likely due to contacting muscles within the gut. However, in rare cases, if the pain is persistent and severe this may indicate an intestinal obstruction. Pain like a knife just below the breastbone, that is relieved by eating, may suggest peptic ulceration – these are sores which develop inside the lining of your stomach and the upper portion of your small intestine. Pain in the right upper corner of the abdomen, spreading round to the back just below the right shoulder blade, may indicate gallstones.
Bloating may be related to a combination of stress and ingestion of gassy fruit and vegetables, or sugary or fatty fats, but if painful and continuous, it may be a sign of something more serious. Because pain and discomfort in the abdomen can occur in many different illnesses, it is always worth going to your GP to rule out a more serious conditions if the problem persists.
Sufferers of acid reflux may experience a sour taste caused by regurgitated stomach acid. Another common symptom of acid reflux is heartburn, a burning sensation in the middle of your chest and you may also experience bloating and feeling sick. Acid reflux and heartburn can be caused or made worse by eating certain food and drink, such as coffee, tomatoes, alcohol, chocolate or fatty/spicy foods, as well as if you smoke, are pregnant, have stress and anxiety, or are obese.
Simple lifestyle changes can help stop or reduce heart burn and acid reflux, including eating smaller and more frequent meals, losing weight and finding ways to relax. Reflux can be very painful but is so straightforward to manage that you should see your GP or a dietitian if you have it regularly However, if left untreated, stomach acid moving up into the base of the oesophagus can, over time increase your risk of developing oesophageal cancer.
One of the easiest ways to monitor your gut health is by monitoring what you eat and drink and cross referencing with any symptoms you may experience. A simple way to do this is by keeping a food and symptoms diary, where you can keep note of the food and drink you consume alongside symptoms and then share this with your GP or dietitian, who will be able to help identify any triggers.
In addition, completing a Digestive Health Assessment via the Love Your Gut website, can also help identify any potential issues or worries, which can then be discussed with your GP. Remember, if you’re worried about anything at all when it comes to your gut, it’s important to speak to your GP who will be able to reassure you and provide the help and further advice that may be required. Many people often feel embarrassed when it comes to discussing their gut health, but it’s important to share your worries as dealing with digestive problems alone can be stressful and isolating – having someone to talk to, who can offer support, is the best way to help improve your gut health.
Love Your Gut’s #GutTalkGuide is a useful tool to help you talk about gut health issues with healthcare professional, friends, family and colleagues.