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Cramps, bloating, wind - bluntly put, if your insides aren’t happy, then you aren’t happy! Naturopath Ben Brown shows you how to transform your digestive health.

The gut bacteria in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is distinctly different from people who have healthy digestion and this difference is thought to play an important role in symptoms of abdominal pain and discomfort, changes in bowel habits, bloating and distension, and anxiety or depression. Furthermore, improving the balance of gut bacteria using prebiotics and prebiotics has been shown to relieve these symptoms. Improving your gut bacteria using prebiotics and/or probiotics, as well as natural foods that boost your beneficial bacteria, will improve your symptoms while addressing a major underlying cause of your digestive issues – bad bugs.

Probiotics

The word probiotics comes from the Latin preposition ‘pro’ and the Greek adjective ‘biotics’, literally meaning ‘for life’. Probiotics are live bacteria that are consumed as a dietary supplement or in a fermented food, such as yoghurt. In 1907 the Nobel laureate Ilya Ilyich Metchnikoff was the first to show that fermented milk containing lactic acid bacteria could change human gut bacteria and have a beneficial health effect. Only in the last few decades, however, has scientific and medical interest in probiotics really taken off and now the use of probiotics is generally accepted in medical practice as an important treatment for some illnesses.

Probiotics have been shown to improve symptoms of IBS, although not all supplements are effective and some are more effective than others for certain symptoms. Refer to “Symptom relief” guide based on clinical studies that have shown which probiotics work particularly well and for what symptoms they are most successful. If you are going to use a probiotic follow the recommended dose on the product label or the advice from your practitioner and take it daily for a minimum of four weeks to see if you improve. If you do benefit you can continue the probiotic long-term if necessary. If one probiotic does not improve your symptoms, trial a different product to see if that works better for you. The probiotics listed in “Symptom relief” are generally not difficult to find or purchase. If you are considering using a different probiotic supplement ask the manufacturer if there have been any studies showing that it works.

Prebiotics

In 1978, Japanese researchers were the first to show that special types of dietary fibres were able to beneficially change the bacterial ecosystem in the gut. These special types of fibres are called prebiotics and are unique in that, although we do not digest them and use them for energy, our good bifidobacteria do. Bifidobacteria use prebiotics to grow and increase in number, which has wide-ranging benefits for digestive and general health.

Because bifidobacteria play a host of important roles in maintaining digestive health, and low levels of bifidobacteria are common in people with symptoms of IBS, prebiotics are a particularly promising therapy. Experimental evidence suggests prebiotics may counter a number of underlying features of IBS, including changes in gastrointestinal transit time, pain hypersensitivity, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, and excessive fermentation, and wind. The results of two clinical studies have found that prebiotics can significantly improve digestive symptoms.

It is important to follow the recommended dosage, as higher doses may make symptoms worse; the dosages in “Symptom relief”, however, are unlikely to cause problems. There are many other prebiotics available (e.g. inulin, long-chain fructo-oligosaccharides and various fibre blends) and you could try these at a dose of no more than 5g daily to see if they help.

Natural foods

Healthy food is good for you and your gut bacteria. For example, diets high in calories, refined sugars, fat and protein (typically from processed foods, sweets, and high-fat animal products) increase levels of bad bacteria in the gut while diets rich in complex carbohydrates (from wholegrains, fruits and vegetables) not only lower levels of bad bugs but increase your levels of healthy bifidobacteria too. In addition to generally eating well, a number of foods have been shown to have natural bifidobacteria-boosting effects.

Apples: Eating two apples daily significantly increased bifidobacteria within just seven days, and other beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus also tended to increase as well. However, apples can upset some people and are best avoided initially.

Bananas: In one study, women who ate a banana twice daily as a pre-meal snack for two months had an increase in good bifidobacteria levels and a significant reduction in bloating. In fact, before the study, they were bloated almost every day, but adding bananas to their diet cut their symptoms in half.

Blueberries: Blueberries are very high in polyphenols which, like fibre, act as a prebiotic and boost your good gut bacteria. Consuming a wild blueberry drink equivalent to approximately 175g of fresh blueberries doubled bifidobacteria in the gut after six weeks. Dark-skinned grapes may have a similar effect.

Cocoa: Like blueberries, cocoa is very high in polyphenols and has a natural prebiotic effect. A dark chocolate drink each day for four weeks was able to significantly increase beneficial bifidobacteria and lactobacillus bacteria in the gut and decrease potentially harmful clostridium bacteria.

Green tea: Packed full of polyphenols, green tea can boost your good bacteria, too. Drinking about four cups of green tea daily balanced out gut bacteria within 10 days, increasing the relative proportion of beneficial bifidobacteria.

Wholegrains: Wholegrains are higher in fibre and therefore more likely to improve your gut bacteria. Studies have found that eating a wholegrain breakfast cereal daily results in a significant increase in beneficial bifidobacteria compared to anon-wholegrain cereal.

So look after your bacteria, and yourself, and eat some of these healthy foods regularly. An advantage over prebiotic supplements is that foods are relatively cheap, completely natural, they taste great, and are unlikely to make your symptoms worse, apart from wholegrain wheat perhaps. You could try using a prebiotic in the short-term while you start to include more of these foods in your regular diet. Keep in mind that, although these foods are beneficial, they have not specifically shown to improve digestive symptoms, so probiotics and prebiotics are a surer way to get relief.

Calm your nervous gut

Abdominal breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is a powerful way to decrease stress by activating the relaxation response in your nervous system. This technique is a simple and quick way to place your body and mind in a state of relaxation and over time may reduce tension and fatigue. Initially, practise this technique three times daily for 10-15 minutes before meals, then after one month you can reduce it to just one to two times a day if you like. To begin:
* Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, with your feet slightly apart, one hand on your abdomen near the navel, and the other hand on your chest.
* Gently exhale the air in your lungs through your mouth, and then inhale slowly through your nose to the count of four, pushing out your abdomen slightly and concentrating on your breath. As you breathe in, imagine warm air flowing all over your body. Hold the breath for a count of at least four but not more than seven.
* Slowly exhale through your mouth while counting to eight. Gently contract your abdominal muscles to completely release the remaining air in the lungs.
* Repeat until you feel deeply relaxed for a total of five cycles.

Naturopath Ben Brown is the author of The Digestive Health Solution (Exisle Publishing, www.exislepublishing.com.au) available wherever good books are sold.