So many of us experience digestive issues these days – and this can mean a whole host of uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating, cramping, indigestion to full blown IBS and intolerances. Even more so at this time of year when festivities tend to centre around rich food and the drinks are flowing. Of course, we can always hold back, but a deeper understanding of the subtleties of how our digestive system works alongside some sensible advice can help see us through without being too bah humbug.
We talk about gut feelings, butterflies in our tummy in our day to day, so we instinctively know our digestive system goes beyond just a mechanical churning system – and indeed it is connected to our minds. It is our ‘second brain’, being made up of over 100 million neurons (cells), spread along its entire length which make up what’s called the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is constantly reacting to the state of play whether it’s hunger, bacterial infection or stress, sending messages to and from the brain via the vagus nerve, a kind of super fast information highway.
The master controller of all this is the central nervous system, the involuntary arm of the nervous system that also controls our heart rate and breathing. It has two branches – the sympathetic and parasympathetic – which are in communication with the gut and regulate the speed at which food transits, the secretion of stomach acid in our stomach, and the production of mucus which forms the intestinal lining, as well as the much talked about microbes ie flora and fauna which inhabit the gut.
When we’re stressed, the sympathetic nervous system – otherwise known as ‘fight or flight’ – kicks in and slows or can even shut down the digestive process. It’s a hangover from our pre-historic past when we might be in life threatening situations and the body needed to switch to full blown high alert. These days it could be Christmas shopping, not getting the coffee we’d like in the morning, or receiving an upsetting email which triggers this response. Even good things – orgasm, a vigorous run, a fairground ride – put us into that sympathetic mode. Which is fine if we allow things to settle – the problem is we tend push through especially at this time of year and our system gets out of balance.
The solution is to slow down and allow the balancing parasympathetic, otherwise known as the ‘rest and digest’ mode to kick in. Simply by taking five minutes to deep breathe, our heart rate naturally reduces and intestinal activity increases. Best news of all is that focusing on enjoying our food, employing our senses – touch, taste, smell, vision – will also trigger that ‘rest and digest’ mode. So go ahead, indulge in some good food and drink, take pleasure in enjoying it. Meanwhile, read on for some more simple tips to keep your gut happy over Christmas and beyond.
- Self help sip plain hot water first thing in the morning and throughout the day to help movement of food through the body. If you’re feeling over-full, try a very simple yoga posture – Hero Pose (Virasana) – which helps with digestion. Kneel on the floor, sitting on your heels, rest your hands on your thighs and breathe into your belly for up to 5 minutes. As you relax into this you’ll notice the space between your hips and your rib cage opens up to help allow your meal to digest. It’s much better than slumping on the sofa!
- Natural soothers have these on hand for emergencies over the holidays. Something For Bloated Tums, £16.90 this plant-based remedy has probiotics, ginger and chloride to help re-balance digestion, alongside fennel and green anise, which are renowned for their ability to boost the function of the intestinal tract. Yogi Tea Stomach Ease, £4.50 (2 boxes) this sweet, soothing tea contains fennel which in Ayurveda is used to increase digestive fire; licorice to help soothe the stomach lining; peppermint to relax intestinal cramping as well as warming herbs such as ginger to relieve nausea.
Further information these are two great books which help with understanding and improving the health of your digestive system. Be Good to Your Gut by Eve Kalinik is full of great information as well as delicious recipes such as banana honey nut crumble and miso cod with wasabi broccoli designed to improve gut flora and fauna. Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders is a fascinating and easy read which is essentially a straight talking guide with cute illustrations which takes the mystery out of the workings of your insides.