This month we are focusing on digestive health. Food is essential to provide the body with everything it needs. Food gives you energy, builds muscles, produces hormones, grows hair, builds your blood, indeed all the bodily processes! However, many of us at some time experience tummy troubles after eating. This article is the first of two looking at digestive health from a nutritional point of view.
The phrase “tummy problems” often encompasses a number of symptoms. These range from belching, bloating, occasional flatulence, trapped wind, constipation, diarrhoea, vomiting, allergies and intolerances, through to more serious long-term conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, gall stones and more. You might experience these symptoms infrequently, or you they might feel like they are there all the time, which can start to affect not just your physical health, but also your emotional health. Tummy troubles and problems with digestion can also affect your weight. It might make it harder to lose weight and for some people is makes it challenging to maintain a healthy weight.
At La Crisalida Retreats we serve a healthy natural plant-based diet, with low or no preservatives. The majority of guests find an improvement in their digestive health after only a few days of eating this way. In this article I share some tips on plant-based foods for providing relief when you experience some of the short-term (time limited) tummy troubles. I also look at a couple of items that might bring some short-term symptoms as the body adjusts.
Plant-based food for digestive health
Eating a healthy plant-based diet, packed full of fresh vegetables and fruit, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, with few or no preservatives, means that you are naturally eating a diet that will support your digestive system. It contains lots of nutrients, vitamins and minerals, plus proteins, which the body needs to function. When using lots of natural ingredients, you are automatically also limiting the amount of chemical toxins that you put into your body, compared to prepacked processed foods.
Before going into detail, I want to add a note here about vegetables in general. A plant-based diet is based on using an abundance of vegetables. Most vegetables are high in fibre, as well as containing lots of nutrients. Fibre is one thing that really helps to maintain our digestive system in tip-top shape. If your body is not used to eating large amounts of fibre, it can experience pains (from trapped gas), flatulence and other problems when you first start eating more vegetables. If you wish to change your diet at home, take your time including higher quantities of vegetables, if you do experience tummy troubles. Your body will gradually become more used to the higher amount of fibre – you will experience fewer and fewer symptoms, until your digestive system is used to that level of vegetable consumption and you will cease to experience symptoms. Indeed, you should start feeling much better!
Plant-based foods to provide relief
When you experience digestive problems, there are a number of simple things you can do, using plant-based foods to provide relief. Read on for our tips:
- Eat bland foods
If you are feeling sick, experiencing pains in your tummy or have a lot of gas, bland foods generally are easier to digest and can help to bring relief. Ease off the spices for a day or two. Look for simple foods, cook them well so they are soft, as these are easier to digest. Keep the portions small, but maybe eat a little more frequently.
Garlic has natural antiseptic properties so it is good to include it in your diet normally, but it can help if you experience problems related to your colon – constipation, diarrhoea or pain in that area. You can try garlic raw in salad dressings, or cook with it for a softer flavour.
Softly cooked carrots, mashed, are the perfect remedy for a dodgy tummy! Try this months dip: creamy carrot, sweet potato and hazelnut dip. You can leave out the hazelnuts if you want to keep this dip really soft and simple.
Fennel has been a home remedy for tummy pains for hundreds of years. It contains something called volatile oils, which really supports the digestive system. It can help to provide relief from flatulence. You can lightly cook it (boil, steam or waterfry – can make it easier to digest) or eat the bulb raw by cutting it into pieces and including it in your salad. You can add fennel seeds into salads or other foods, as fennel seeds are also great digestive support. Fennel tea is a fabulous digestive aid and can help to bring relief from pains or constipation. If you want to try juicing fennel, read try our juice of the month: digestive supporting fennel juice recipe.
It´s easy to digest and also helps to calm the digestive system. A bonus is that celery is low calorie! You can also juice it. Some people like to start their day with a glass of celery juice.
- Brown rice
High in fibre, brown rice helps to cleanse the whole of the gastro-intestinal tract. It´s also great for supporting hormonal balance. When you feel sick, eating plain brown rice can really help calm things down, as it moves the contents of the stomach and small intestine down.
- Apple cider vinegar
If you experience indigestion, taking 1 or 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar can help to restore the acid balance in the stomach. Eat on its own, or add into a salad dressing. Make sure you pick up a high-quality apple cider vinegar for the best effects.
Plant-based foods to watch
Some plant-based foods can cause short-term digestive problems, like belching, bloating, flatulence and tummy pains caused by trapped gas. The main culprits are:
Beans, like pinto, black, red, white etc, are one of the main causes of flatulence among retreat guests or people new to vegetarian (or vegan) food. This is mainly due to the three sugars they contain that cannot be processed in the small intestine. These sugars therefore move into the large intestine, where they are broken down by the bacteria. This ferments the sugars, which in turn produces gas (carbon dioxide, hydrogen plus others). To minimise this, soak dried beans for 4-5 hours minimum, ideally overnight. You can also try different beans as some produce less gas than others.Beans are a fabulous source of plant-based protein, so if you do find that they produce flatulence for you, it is worth introducing them in small amounts and gradually increasing over time.
Beans are also moderately high in purines, so don´t overdo the beans if you suffer gout or arthritis.
- Cabbage and cruciferous veggies
Cruciferous vegetables include things like kale, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts and broccoli. All of these items are fantastic nutritionally for your body, so including them as part of your healthy plant-based diet is certainly something we recommend. However, if your body is not used to digesting them, you might experience bloating or flatulence, particularly with cabbage and Brussel sprouts. Start with a smaller portion of softly cooked vegetables. Introduce them gradually into your diet, increasing the portion size and regularity as you feel more comfortable with them.
If you want to try eating plant-based but are not sure where to start, read our article: quick and easy tips for vegan cooking at home.
Listen to your body
The next time you eat, be conscious of how your body responds. Stay present during eating. If you experience symptoms after eating, take a moment to identify where about the symptoms are. To identify where the symptoms appear read the linked article: digestive health part 2: the digestive system. Mindful eating also helps to become more aware of how your digestive system responds to food.
Try a raw diet
Some people find eating a predominantly raw diet really helps to reduce their digestive problems. Whereas others (myself included) find that their tummy troubles increase when eating mainly raw food. My digestive system seems to respond better to cooked food. Here at the retreat, we always offer at least one completely raw dish each meal (in addition to a big leafy salad) and at least one cooked dish, so you can choose what suits you best. If you´ve not tried it, then it is worth testing for yourself as I know a number of people who found eating a raw diet brought massive benefits for their health. Try it for a few days, tune in and notice how you are feeling, changes to symptoms etc. If it works for you, keep it going. If not, then chalk it up to experience.
Apply the 80:20 rule
Whilst we follow a plant-based diet here at the retreat, we know it can be difficult to do 100% of the time in “normal” life. It can take more planning to eat plant-based. Work, travel and general busy-ness can make time very limited. Therefore, you might consider applying the 80:20 rule. Follow a plant-based diet 80% of the time. For the remaining 20% give yourself some slack – however, consider whether you might want to exclude some items permanently. For me personally I know that eating more than a small amount of dairy gives me tummy problems (pain, gas and diarrhoea – apologies for writing bluntly!). However, when I´m away from home sometimes I have to make a choice of what to eat, when dairy is the least-bad option. In this case I do my best to follow this meal with a good plant-based dish as soon as possible, to balance things out.
What about friendly bacteria?
There are many adverts and much talk about “healthy” bacteria and the importance of supporting this. There is a colony of bacteria that lives in the colon, this is completely natural and is needed. It is estimated that 80% of these bacteria are “friendly” (i.e. needed for our digestive process) and 20% are yeasts. The most common friendly bacteria are: lactobacillus acidophillus and lactobacillus bifidus.
These friendly bacteria have specific functions, one of which is to manufacture certain vitamins, in particular the B group of vitamins, like B12, and vitamin K. An imbalance of these bacteria can create problems. Taking antibiotics for health problems anywhere in the body can wipe out the friendly guys in your colon too. Speak to a nutritionist, your medical practitioner or your local health food store about taking good probiotics if you have taken antibiotics recently. Taking B vitamin supplements and eating garlic can also help maintain a good balance of these much needed bacteria.
A note about “acidic” stomachs
There is a misconception in the popular press that many digestive problems, like burping, belching and indigestion are caused by an overly-acidic stomach. In fact, the opposite is usually true. Indeed, almost 50% of people over 50 years of age either have low or no stomach acid! There is a specific medical test that can be done to check this, speak to your medical practitioner. An easy do-it-yourself home remedy is taking 1-2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar, before or during a meal.
If you want to know more about how your digestive system works, from a nutritional point of view and for tips on how to improve your digestive health, read the associated article: Digestive health part 2: the digestive system.
What are the common tummy troubles at the retreat?
Guests that eat highly processed foods, live on take-aways or pre-packed meals, who maybe drink a lot of caffeine or alcohol, can find moving to a plant-based diet a little challenging in the short-term.
An abrupt change to your diet can lead to short-term changes in the digestive process, which can show up as various symptoms. This is normal as the body adjusts and normally resolve in a couple of days.
Belching is commonly caused by people rushing to eat and over gulping – we encourage you to slow down! Sometimes it can be due to low (or no) stomach acid in the person, so it is worth investigating further.
The main cause for bloating at the retreat tends to be a reaction to the large increase in high fibre foods and problems digesting things like beans and cabbage. Drinking peppermint tea or fennel tea can help.If you regularly experience bloating at home, it might be caused by an intolerance or allergy, gluten and dairy are common culprits. It can also be due to an over-proliferation of yeasts in the colon. Keep a food diary and seek support from a qualified nutritionist or medical practitioner.
Constipation means that your faeces are very hard and difficult to pass, so the frequency at which you experience a bowel movement becomes less often. Constipation can feel very uncomfortable. The three main things to do are: drink more water (lots of it – there is insufficient water getting into your colon), eat more fibre and get active! Apples are great to eat to help with constipation. Taking a little warm water with lemon juice first thing on a morning, 30 minutes before breakfast, can also help to activate the digestive system. If you suffer from constipation for an extended period of time, it can become problematic. Seek medical advice.
Good quality, high fibre food can help combat diarrhoea. Also increase the amount of water that you drink, as diarrhoea can lead to dehydration.Diarrhoea can also be caused by a number of things, including stress, allergy, infection or an inflamed bowel. An inflamed bowel causes liquid food to pass through too quickly. This in turn means nutrients are not as effectively absorbed. In people with long-term diarrhoea, a lack of potassium in particular is the most concern. Seek help if diarrhoea continues for more than 1-2 days.
Many times at the retreat I have two guests, one with diarrhoea and one with constipation, both eating the same food. Our digestive system and bowels work differently. Sometimes travelling can upset our bodily processes leading to either of these scenarios. Take a moment to think – when you travel, is one of the other more likely?
Vomiting is quite rare at the retreat however it can very occasionally happen. Generally, vomiting is a natural reaction from the body, to get rid of something that it does not want, or that is dangerous. When people swap to a highly nutritious natural diet, removing many of the common toxins, if their liver has been overburdened, the respite of the natural food can mean toxins are dumped into the system, leading to a feeling of sickness. From my experience at the retreat I suggest that you avoid eating fruit if you feel sick, particularly when accompanied with a headache. It seems to trigger vomiting. Plain food works best, like brown rice, or soft carrots. Keep drinking the water to support the liver doing its job of cleansing.
To read more about natural remedies for detox symptoms, like constipation and diarrhoea read our article: natural relief from detox symptoms.
Allergies and intolerances
Some people are allergic or have an intolerance to specific food items. If you think this applies to you, keep a record. Notice if any symptoms develop after eating certain foods. You can be tested by your doctor. Read our article: how do you know if you have a food intolerance.
This is not something we usually see at the retreat, as we do not serve products that contain lactose. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include bloating, cramps, gas, nausea and/or diarrhoea. These symptoms typically appear 30 to 120 minutes after eating or drinking milk, yoghurt or other foods containing lactose.
What some guests do notice is that their digestive system improves after a few days at the retreat, when they have excluded dairy for the first time. Typically snoring is also markedly reduced – dairy can cause mucus that blocks the sinuses, leading to snoring.
Products that contain lactose include all dairy products, like milk, cheese and yoghurts. Check the labels of any packaged food as dairy products can appear in many processed foods. Following a natural plant-based diet is a great answer!
Boost your digestive health – lifestyle changes
You can support your digestive health by making also some lifestyle changes at home:
- Reduce stress
Sometimes we can experience tummy problems when we experience high levels or persistent stress. For help and ideas in this area, read this month´s article from Rachel: effects of stress on the digestive system and how to relax it.
- Practice yoga
As well as helping to reduce stress, yoga can also aid digestion. Read Tania´s article yoga and digestion: asanas to support a healthy digestive system.
- Stay active
Walking can stimulate peristalsis action, which helps to keep the digestive system moving. It also boosts your overall health.
Seek professional help
Some digestive problems are short term and do not reoccur. However, if you experience chronic symptoms (usually defined as more than six months) or have intense pain, then we strongly recommend that you speak to a suitable health professional.
Improve your diet, improve your digestive health
To give your digestive system a boost, come to the retreat for a detox . To read more about the food and juice that we serve, click on these links: food and juicing at La Crisalida Retreats. There are also lots of recipes on the blog for you to enjoy at home.
To your health and wellbeing.
About the author
- Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).