What you fill up with isn’t the only thing that impacts on your digestive system’s ability to do its job. Food is affected by what you physically do, which means once you’ve swallowed you’re responsible for its easy passage through to the point of departure. However, a modern lifestyle consisting of stress, eating on the run and irregular meals means whatever you eat can reach the stomach and get churned over and over, without being digested properly. “Just a two per cent shift, either way, in the speed at which the intestines process food can lead to an attack of diarrhea or constipation,” says Peter Frank.
Such a shift is often caused by stress, which releases adrenaline into your system and diverts blood flow away from the gastrointestinal tract When this happens, cells lining the intestine become irritated and cannot properly absorb the water and nutrients from food, leading to interruptions in peristalsis. “When your system’s motility is constantly thrown out of synch, we call the problem Irritable Bowel Syndrome,” says Frank. ‘This is a wide-ranging diagnosis that is usually made by first ruling out cancer and infection. Doctors call IBS a functional disorder because there’s no sign of disease and the problem is purely physiological.”
IBS is often activated by stress or nervousness and there is no effective cure, although some short-term relief can be found in something normally associated with comical mix-ups in Cany On films — the laxative. They’ve now been renamed motility agents, to save embarrassment at the chemist but the purpose is the same: they help move food and acid through the digestive tract, by normalizing the peristalsis that has been thrown offbeat by your lifestyle. Alternatively, if your symptom is diarrhea, you need an anti-motility agent to give your stools a chance to bulk up.
It’s a myth that you should let diarrhea continue in order to flush out your system because it’s not your body’s natural way of getting rid of harmful substances, particularly if you have IBS. “Medications are useful but an over-reliance is dangerous,” warns Frank “Ultimately you need to learn how to cope with the stress that is the underlying trigger of your problem.”
Over 15 per cent of adults suffer from chronic symptoms of poor digestion and more than three quarters have yet to receive a medical diagnosis. This means most are taking over-the-counter medications. “It’s amazing the number of people who self-prescribe themselves the wrong thing for a digestive disorder,” says Frank. “At the first sign of trouble, most will reach for antacids, but these will only treat heartburn.” Problems arise when major illnesses hide under these short-term remedies, as highlighted by a report in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1998. This revealed evidence of serious health problems in 178 people who had used over-the-counter antacids for an average of 11 years. What can help for your digestion is conjugated linoleic acid. Acid reflux occurs when the valve at the top of the stomach leaks. So if antacids haven’t solved the problem in three weeks, you need to see a GP”