Diet-related advice is always the first thing you hear when it comes to overcoming any sort of gut issue. That’s true whether you’re trying to avoid the abdominal pain or bouts of constipation or diarrhea that can come with chronic illness like Lyme disease or fibromyalgia, or if you’re sidestepping triggers for gastrointestinal conditions like leaky gut syndrome or irritable bowel syndrome.
It’s good guidance, of course, but it’s not always easy—and it’s not always enough.
Fortunately, there are other effective tools to help cope with digestive issues, with the guidance of a licensed healthcare provider. The following four steps are additional ways to hack common sources of GI distress. Put them into action, and not only will symptoms ease, you’ll also help prevent future ones. And as an added bonus, when you improve your gut health, you also enhance immune function and support your recovery from chronic illness.
- Nourish Your Gut Lining
In a healthy gut, the cells in the intestinal mucosa (which line your intestines and create a barrier to troublemakers like pathogens) fit neatly together like puzzle pieces. But over time, gut disruptors like toxins and gluten can inflame, irritate, and compromise the intestinal mucosa, allowing them to sneak across the gut-blood barrier and triggering symptoms like abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, or indigestion—all classic signs of leaky gut. To nourish your gut lining:
- Try carminatives. These are natural substances that lessen intestinal spasms and reduce gas. Cardamom and fennel are two excellent options to ease these troubling symptoms.
- Drink ginger tea. It’s great for soothing the stomach, plus it offers antiviral and other antimicrobial properties if you’re fighting pathogens.
- Avoid anti-inflammatory drugs and alcohol. This includes over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) as well as numerous prescription drugs. Both medications and alcohol contribute to ulcer formation in the stomach.
- Enhance Sluggish Digestion
If your gut is dysfunctional and inflamed, odds are you’re producing less of the digestive enzymes and stomach acids you need to properly digest a meal. As a result, your liver gets congested, and food moves through the digestive process at an increasingly slower pace. While you’re working to help restore gut health, the following tips can help support digestive function until it’s back up to speed.
- Take digestive enzymes. Supplementing with an assortment of enzymes (such as protease, amylase, alpha-galactosidase, and lipase) can help your body digest protein, fat, and carbs until it’s able to restore normal enzyme levels. It also promotes nutrient assimilation and the conversion and excretion of waste.
- Normalize bowel function. Vitamins A, B, and C and minerals like zinc and magnesium help your body produce digestive enzymes, ease gut inflammation, and aid in the growth of beneficial bacteria. (Note that excess vitamin C can be converted into oxalate, which can contribute to kidney stone formation, so don’t take more than 2,000 mg a day, and if it bothers you, nix it altogether.)
- Add Omega-3 essential fatty acids to your diet. Found in krill oil, fish oil, flax oil, and borage oil, these beneficial fats reduce inflammation in the gut and encourage normal bowel movements.
- Restore Bacterial Balance in the Gut
For significant intestinal dysfunction, antimicrobial supplements may be necessary to help facilitate the growth of beneficial bacteria and deter the growth of symptom-inducing microbes. Herbs with antimicrobial properties offer the advantage of inhibiting the growth of pathogenic organisms without adversely affecting normal bacterial flora. The good news is that once your gut health is reestablished, normal microbiome balance can generally be maintained with diet alone.
Here are some ways to restore bacterial balance in the gut:
- Stock up on ginger. Not only does ginger have the ability to soothe the lining of the stomach, but it offers activity against many common gut pathogens.
- Eat prebiotic foods. Prebiotics like inulin and fructo-oligosaccharides provide nourishment for favorable bacteria. These substances are found naturally in onions, garlic, chicory, and Jerusalem artichoke.
- Increase your intake of fermented foods. Daily consumption of yogurt or other fermented foods is important for seeding the intestinal tract with favorable bacteria, but concentrations of bacteria in yogurt are often not adequate if significant dysbiosis (an imbalance in the gut bacteria) is present. Probiotics may provide additional support.
- Manage Your Stress
Stubborn and overwhelming stress is often a primary driving force behind digestive dysfunction. That’s because chronic stress tells your body to stay ready to fight or flee, which in turn puts digestion on hold – it’s simply not a necessary function when you’re in survival mode. This inhibits the movement of food from your stomach through your intestinal tract. Stress also halts the flow of bile in the liver and gallbladder, which normally aids in the digestion of fats and acts as the vehicle for carrying neutralized toxins out of the body. To reign in stress and support normal digestion:
- Take stress-modulating herbs. Herbs such as ashwagandha, Chinese tree barks, and L-theanine help maintain normal adrenal function, so your body is better able to handle stress.
- Prioritize sleep. If you’re not getting enough sleep, stress will remain your constant companion. Reach for herbs that promote healthy sleep, such as passion flower and motherwort.
- Drink a mug of chamomile tea. Research suggests that sipping a cup of chamomile tea can help bring on both relaxation and sleep. It’s also excellent for calming the intestinal tract.
Remember that no matter where you are with your gut health, patience and persistence pay off. With time and effort, digestive function will return to normal. You may always have to watch what you eat, but making smart lifestyle choices a central part of your everyday life will go a long way toward sustaining recovery.
Note: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher and editors of WholeFoods Magazine.