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Tackling a taboo

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

This may not be the ideal reading material for the squeamish, or if you are sitting down to eat. But taboo as it may be, it is a critical aspect of our personal health that is often ignored.

We are talking about bowels and if you take your health seriously, suspend your squeamishness and stay with me.

What goes in, must come out and the journey from cooking pot to toilet pan, via your digestive system, has many twists and turns,

Even if two people share the same meal, the experience and outcome can be very different.

People can talk endlessly about the weather, sport, traffic etc, but when it comes to discussing a perfectly natural function, that can bring misery to many, our lips are sealed. As a result, millions of people suffer silently with a range of bowel and digestive problems, that can lead to anxiety disorders, mild depression and far worse.

Our bowel movements are a barometer of how our digestive system is working and also that of our general health. In fact, the wonderfully named Bristol Stool Scale is a medical picture chart classifying faeces into seven categories, from hard separate lumps to fluffy with ragged edges to entirely liquid.

On average, a meal spends between 36-40 hours making its way through and out of our systems. After two to four hours in the stomach it has to navigate more than six metres of small intestine, before heading down the final 1.5 metres of large intestine. This is a long journey, fraught with issues for many people, many of which can be easily remedied, bringing untold relief.

Anyone diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) will be all too aware of the horrors of abdominal pain, gaseous bloating, churning noises, the feelings of explosive urgency, constant trips to the toilet and the dreaded diarrhoea or constipation.

It can make or break an important business meeting or holiday, cause torture on a date, and make job interviews, theatre trips and other journeys a living nightmare. And so it becomes a vicious circle; as the anxiety mounts more hormones flood into the gut causing more mayhem and on it goes.

Embarrassment about going to the loo away from home or holding on and ignoring that ‘got to go’ urge can mean a build up of gas. Breaking wind is perfectly normal, with an average of 8-20 ‘releases’ per day being the norm.

Overriding the urge to empty your bowels causes our eco-friendly bodies to recycle some of the water content of the faeces (which is there to assist an easy exit) thus leading to a risk of constipation.

Regular constipation and straining can lead to piles (haemorrhoids) and the passing of blood, which can lead to fear, anxiety and discomfort.

IBS may be caused by a prior intestinal infection, but may also be associated with stress and the wrong diet. Getting to know your body and the reactions caused by certain foods can bring some relief. The 5-7 a day message has confused many, resulting in a high fruit intake in a bid to be healthy. This number should include a mixture of fruit and veg and if you suffer with IBS, remember that these foods will generate more gut activity and that a high intake of vitamin C causes diarrhoea.

Foods like beans, lentils, wheat, dairy, onions and vegetables such as cabbage, sprouts and cauliflower can increase wind, but that doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Studies have found that hydrogen sulphide in wind is also produced by an enzyme in blood vessels, relaxing them, lowering blood pressure. So releasing it may be good for you!

Finding the right diet can be simple and transform day-to-day living. People are too quick to eliminate whole food groups, like carbohydrates, dairy, etc from their diet, on advice from a friend or a supposed ‘expert’. Without a proper consultation and testing carried out by a medical professional (doctor, registered nutritionist or dietitian), this can lead to deficiencies and replace one set of problems with a completely new one.

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