Gut Health: Constipation & Diarrhoea
Here at Microbio Health, gut issues are one of the main health concerns that we hear from our customers, but with so many different gut conditions and symptoms it is hard to know what the right course of action is to help relieve these gut issues and get you back to feeling healthy.
In this blog, we will discuss two of the most common gut conditions, constipation and diarrhoea, their symptoms and underlying factors and how to manage them, either through lifestyle changes, supplementation or through Homeopathy with Aislinn.
What is the 'gut'?
To understand these health conditions, we will first explain the functions of the gut, the microbiome and the whole digestive system.
The ‘gut’ can be used as a very general term but typically refers to any or all of the organs within the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
The microbiome is the ecosystem of bacteria that lives in our digestive system. It is compromised of around 100,000 billion viable bacteria, which resides in our intestines.
We are so interested in the working of the Microbiome here, it’s even partly in our name ‘Microbio Health’. The microbiome not only influences our digestive health but it plays a pivotal role in the maintenance of the health of our whole body, including our immune system, cardiovascular system, metabolism, skin health, brain and even can influence our mood via the vagus nerve. But for this blog we are concentrating how how the microbiome affects gut health, and will touch on the role of the microbiome on these other systems in future blogs.
The main job of the digestive system is to breakdown the food we eat into usable nutrients. The first act of digestion starts in the mouth, with the action of chewing. This in turn helps to produce saliva, which not only lubricates the food to make it easier to swallow but also produces digestive enzymes to break down the food. Once the food is swallowed, it moves along the oesophagus and into the stomach.
The stomach is roughly the same size as a fist and should be full of hydrochloric acid. It has a sphincter at the top (oesophageal) and the bottom (pyloric) to prevent the acidic digestive juices from escaping. The main actions of the stomach are; to liquidate chewed food into a mush called ‘chyme’, to further digest food, particularly protein, to kill off bacteria and prepare vitamin B12 for absorption. The stomach empties via the pyloric sphincter, passing the chyme through into the small intestines.
The small intestines is made up of three parts, the duodenum, jejunum and ileum. The duodenum is the beginning of the small intestine and is where the final breakdown of food nutrients takes place assisted by the liver, gall bladder and pancreas. The jejunum is the middle of the small intestines and it is here the most nutrients are absorbed in to the body. The ileum is where the small intestine connects to the large intestine.
In the large intestine (colon) some nutrients are absorbed, but its main role is to reabsorb water from the chyme and pass waste material along to the rectum for elimination.
The digestive system works like a domino rally - each step relies on the previous to be set up correctly. If something has gone wrong within chewing or stomach, liver or gall bladder, the process of digestion, absorption and elimination in the small and large intestine may not work as well as it should.
Constipation is the single most common digestive complaint and is described as an inability to pass stools regularly. Typically 3 or fewer bowel movements per week and/or straining during more than 25% of bowel movements or a subjective sensation of hard stools.
Symptoms of constipation include:
- Infrequency of bowel movements
- Abdominal pain
- Skin conditions
Some of these symptoms may not seem like they are linked to constipation. An old-time naturopathic belief is that ‘disease begins in the colon’ that is; improper elimination of waste products had significant health repercussions. Therefore if constipation is allowed to go untreated, it can have serious consequences, so do not shrug it off lightly and try to get to the root cause.
Key underlying factors of constipation include:
- A lack of dietary fibre
- Food intolerances
- Poor hydration
- Physical inactivity
- Imbalanced microflora
As well as these factors, constipation is more prevalent in women, due to hormonal factors and damage of the pelvic floor due to childbirth - so keep up those pelvic floor exercises!
Constipation responds well to lifestyle changes.
It is well accepted that increasing dietary fibre is an effective treatment for chronic constipation. High levels of dietary fibre increase both the frequency and quantity of bowel movements, decreases transit time of stools, decreases the absorption of toxins from the stool and appear to be a preventative factor in several disease.
A whole foods based diet is very beneficial as these natural foods stay soft in the digestive tract because they contain fibres that absorb water and expand. Fruit and vegetables naturally contain a lot of water, and whole grains such as oats and rice absorb water and provide watery bulk for the digestive tract. Some foods have a mild laxative effect and may be beneficial in adding to the diet such as flaxseed, chia seed and prunes.
Some people have food intolerances that contribute to constipation. When food particles enter the bloodstream, your immune system can identify these food particles as 'foreign' and produce IgG antibodies to 'attack' the particular food in question. This can create inflammation which then triggers troublesome symptoms, such as constipation. Check out our Premium Food Intolerance Test for more information on food intolerances.
Not drinking enough water is a major cause of constipation. Therefore as well as increasing foods such as fruit and vegetables high in water content, aim to drink between six and eight glasses of water a day.
Exercise such as jogging, brisk walk and swimming are associated with a decreased prevalence of constipation. As well as that, exercise is great for mental health and decreasing stress levels, which can be an underlying factor of constipation.
With the right high fibre diet, enough water intake and regular exercise, a person should experience the need to defecate two or three times a day. Many people suppress or ignore the natural need to go to the toilet, which in itself can cause constipation, so if you have the slightest urge to go after a meal, go for it.
Supplements for Constipation
An imbalance in the microflora can be an key underlying factor of constipation. The microbiome consists of roughly 100,000 billion viable bacteria, but sometimes this can be imbalanced and we can have too much of one type of bacteria and not enough of another. Therefore supplementation with probiotics, particularly Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium animalis, have demonstrated a beneficial effect on bowel motion frequency. Browse our extensive range of probiotics here.
Prebiotics have also been found to be beneficial in relieving constipation. Prebiotics are non-digestible food that stimulate the growth of bacteria within the colon, they feed good bacteria and help it grow. Fructose oligosaccharides (FOS) supplemented at 15g a day results in significant increases in bifidobacterial levels and increases the absorption of calcium and magnesium in the large intestine.
Magnesium powders such as magnesium citrate, can be used to help relax the muscles of the intestinal tract. Magnesium also helps accelerate intestinal transit time leading to better stool consistency.
Vitamin C can be used can be used as a bowel flush and supplemented by 1000mg every hour until bowel movement occurs.
Essential fatty oils such as omega 3 and omega 6 are important for gut healing, reducing inflammation and lubricating the bowels.
Diarrhoea is described as an increase in volume, fluidity and frequency of bowel movement, where matter is being moved through the digestive tract too quickly. The ability of the small intestine to transport substances exceeds the ability of the large intestine to absorb substances and, therefore, will cause diarrhoea.
Acute diarrhoea, defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as lasting less than 14 days, has an infectious cause, with key underlying factors including:
- Viruses, such as rotavirus, norovirus
- Bacteria, such as food poisoning, salmonella
- Parasitic infection
Chronic diarrhoea, defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as lasting more that 14 days, can be caused by other conditions such as:
- Celiac disease
- Chron’s disease
- Lactose intolerant
- Dysbiosis (microflora imbalance)
Lifestyle Changes for Diarrhoea
For both acute and chronic diarrhoea drinking enough water is vital, as the amount of fluid being reabsorbed through the bowel is reduced, leading to an increased risk of dehydration.
As well as that, eating the right foods is important. Bulking fibres are easy to digest, and provide ‘bulk’, which could actually slow the transit down. So avoid some fruit, raw vegetables and wheat bran, and opt for cooked root vegetables, oats and brown rice. Avoid eating fruit with other foods, as fruit ferments quicker than other foods and passes through our digestive system more quickly, with the exception of apples and banana as they don’t readily ferment.
For chronic diarrhoea, getting to the root cause is very important. Whether that is getting a diagnosis of certain disease, such as celiac, Chron’s, IBS, IBD, or if it is food related our Premium Food Intolerance Test can be beneficial in targeting which food is causing the issue. As well as that, managing anxiety levels can greatly improve symptoms, as our gut and brain are connected through vagus nerve, so what happens in our brain can affect our gut and vice versus.
Supplements for Diarrhoea
An electrolyte supplement is advisable as diarrhoea can cause an electrolyte imbalance, that is the loss of sodium, potassium and magnesium, which all play a key role in vital bodily functions.
A key underlying factor of diarrhoea can be a microflora imbalance. Therefore supplementing with a probiotic can be beneficial, with specific good bacteria shown to be useful for diarrhoea being Lactobacillus cases, Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Streptococcus thermophilus.
One of the best probiotics for diarrhoea is Saccharomyces boulardii. What makes S.boulardii is different from other probiotics in that it is not a type of bacteria but a friendly yeast. It has been extensively studied for the last 50 years for it's beneficial effects on diarrhoea and gut inflammation.
S.boulardii probiotics do not colonise for long in the gut but they harmonise well with good bacteria. They displace bad bacteria and unfriendly yeasts and create a healthy gut environment in which good bacteria can flourish. Therefore, it is beneficial to take then along side other probiotics.
The amino acid L-glutamine is also a useful supplement, as it helps reduce inflammation and repair damaged tissue in the small and large intestine and can help to slow down a fast bowel.