April is National Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Awareness Month and International Bowel Cancer Awareness month so I thought it would be a good idea to promote how we can take better care of our gut. IBS affects 5-11 per cent of individuals, whilst over 40,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year, so here are my top 5 tips to make your digestive system a healthier place.

1. Increase fibre intake

Dietary fibre helps to keep our gut moving, reduces the likelihood of becoming constipated and getting haemorrhoids (piles) and lowers our risk of developing bowel cancer. Current dietary advice states we should be eating a variety of fibre containing foods. In the UK most people do not eat enough fibre (the average intake is just under 14g/day) which is some way off the recommended 18g per day.

Ideally we should be having a mixture of soluble and insoluble fibre in our diet; eating more fruit and vegetables (with the skins on where possible) will help you on your way. Soluble fibre is like a sponge and absorbs water. It becomes like jelly (making it easier to pass stools) and is broken down by the bacteria in our bowel (they ferment it). By eating more soluble fibre, we are boosting and feeding the good (friendly) bacteria that live there. In return, they make our bowel a much happier place; keeping harmful bacteria at bay and the by-products of their action can help lower cholesterol levels and help us better manage our blood sugar levels (reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes). Good sources of soluble fibre include oats, bananas, apples, carrots, potatoes, peas, beans and lentils. Foods that will particularly help increase the numbers of good bacteria in our bowel include onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, soya beans and certain honeys. These are known as prebiotic foods; you can buy prebiotic-containing foods from the supermarket; look for prebiotic ‘live’ yogurts and yogurt drinks, breakfast cereals and cereal bars.

Insoluble fibre does not absorb much water and is completely indigestible but it is this feature that gives ‘bulk’ to our stools and gives its laxative effect. Good sources of insoluble fibre include wholemeal breads, wholegrain breakfast cereals, bran, nuts, dried fruit and brown rice.

If you decide to increase your fibre intake it is important to do this gradually. A sudden increase can make you very windy (passing wind more than the average 15 times a day anyway), leave you feeling bloated and cause stomach cramps. Too much insoluble fibre can do this and often increases symptoms in those that suffer from IBS. In IBS sufferers beans, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, peas and onions can certainly cause painful wind and bloating. If you experience this, try eliminating these trigger foods and cutting down the insoluble fibre in your diet. When upping your fibre intake it is vital you drink plenty of fluids; at least 1-1.5 litres a day as the fibre will absorb this water which helps soften it and gives it a more gentle action.

2. Try probiotics

Probiotics are bacteria that we can consume to add to the existing populations in our bowel. There is around 1.4kg of bacteria in the human gut; 10 times more bacteria than human cells in our bodies and between 500 – 1,000 different species (!) but we can still benefit from topping up these levels, particularly if we have had a bout of gastroenteritis / diarrhoea, or have been on a course of antibiotics . There is growing evidence that a regular intake of probiotics may increase the levels of good bacteria and positively influence our digestive health. We can buy good quality prebiotic capsules (that are designed to survive the acid of the stomach and reach the bowel) from decent health food shops (my probiotics contain 10billion bacteria per gram!)  or we can just try to eat more prebiotic containing foods like live yoghurt and yoghurt drinks.  Some foods however are naturally rich in probiotics; especially fermented foods like miso soup, sauerkraut, pickles, and good quality dark chocolate (oh goody!) it seems. Recent research has shown the good bacteria in the gut break down (ferment) the cocoa, producing an anti-inflammatory effect. In turn this could improve cardiovascular health and by reducing the incidence of stroke and heart attacks. Some claims have been made that dark chocolate could even reduce cancer risk but a lot more work needs to be done to prove or disprove that theory. Having said this, chocolate can exacerbate IBS symptoms through triggering the release of serotonin (the feel good hormone that makes us fall in love with chocolate) which can cause diarrhoea.

3. Cut down on fat

High-fat foods take longer to digest so will stay in your stomach for a long time (up to 6hrs!). During this time, your stomach continues to make acid which can bubble up into the oesophagus and cause heartburn or stomach ulcers. Fatty or greasy foods like processed meats (pies, sausages, and pasties), crisps, cakes, biscuits and rich desserts can all make symptoms worse. Overconsumption of processed meats has been linked to various cancers of the digestive system and high fat foods also exacerbate IBS symptoms.

4. Limit alcohol, coffee, spicy foods

Some of us just can’t function without those two cups of coffee each morning and the Saturday night takeaway all washed down with a few beers or glasses of wine but do we know what these foods are doing to our gut?

Alcohol and caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea and cola) are amongst the main triggers of IBS symptoms. Alcohol and caffeine are both known to increase acid production in the stomach and as they relax the muscle at the top of the stomach too, they make heartburn more likely. They also have a tendency to speed up the gut and cause diarrhoea, if you have ever had a runny tummy after a night out? Alcohol consumption particularly is linked to a variety of digestive cancers from the throat down to the bowel but some research suggests that wine may be slightly less harmful?

Overindulgence of spicy food can be equally irritating to the gut. Eating spicy food more than 3-4 times per week can cause heartburn and stomach ulcers. A chilli chicken madras balti right before bedtime is a great way to fuel the flame of heartburn. Ginger however can really help with nausea and peppermint is often used to relax the gut and reduce the spasms associated with IBS; these have been used for 1000s of years to calm the gut!

5. Take time to eat and drink

My last tip is to make time to eat and drink; sit down and relax rather than (as many of us do) grab something on the run and devour it like the Cookie Monster (or we are so distracted with e-mails, we don’t even get to finish our lunch!). Only 1 in 6 of us eats lunch away from the office and 30 per cent of us eat it within 10 minutes! Stress and anxiety are not conducive to good digestion at all – it contributes to indigestion and many other digestive disorders. ‘Mindful eating’ is about making time and thinking about what we are eating and listening to our body (have we had enough?).

Fluids are so important (a) to keep us hydrated (b) to ensure we get the best out of the fibre we are eating and (c) to help neutralise and cool the effects of hot spices.  So go easy on the caffeine, cola and alcohol; try decaffeinated drinks, green or white tea, milk or diluted fruit juices for a change. Here’s to a happy gut!

The following two tabs change content below.

Mel Wakeman

I am a self confessed foody, a mum, a wife and a senior lecturer in nutrition. I want to know what exactly we are putting into our bodies when we eat and try to ensure our family eats a balanced diet. Don't get me wrong I am not a preacher of 'you must eat this and you can't eat that'. I am the first one to go grab that slice of cake and I believe you can't truly enjoy a cuppa without a good dunking biscuit. I just want to feel healthy so with the cynical voice on my shoulder and my science head on, I try to unpick all the latest news about what we should and should not be eating.

Latest posts by Mel Wakeman (see all)