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Digging deeper into IBS and gut bacteria

2014 March 27
probiotics

If you’ve looked at a yogurt label or women’s magazine lately, you know discussion of gut bacteria is no longer confined to the lab. So it’s fitting the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation recently released a series of video lectures about the bacteria in our gastrointestinal tracts and how big a role it plays in our health.

The lecture by Dr. Stephen Collins, a gastroenterologist and associate dean of research at McMaster University, intrigued me most. He spoke about examining irritable bowel syndrome (which affects a whopping 12 per cent to 15 per cent of the global population) from a “microbiome” standpoint as opposed to the more traditional “psycho-somatic” model that largely links the condition to stress and anxiety. read more…

Can Maya abdominal massage aid digestion?

2014 March 2

Last week, I told a few people I had an appointment for an abdominal massage. Most of them looked confused or recoiled while grabbing their stomachs. “Why would you want that?” one friend asked, and yes, I could see where she was coming from. Not only is my stomach sensitive, I’m also ticklish – a seemingly bad combination if someone is going to be touching your tummy for an extended period of time. And aren’t massages supposed to be relaxing?

But I was intrigued. I had read about how Maya abdominal massage could help women with painful periods and infertility by coaxing out-of-place uteruses back into position. This type of massage was also purported to help with digestive problems, including IBS, constipation and gastritis. Like a lot of women, I have a less-than-ideal period. I also tend to clench my stomach when I’m stressed. So I took to Google and found Heather Heaney, one of what appears to be only a handful of registered massage therapists in Toronto who practice Maya abdominal massage.

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How to make stomach-friendly alcohol choices

2014 January 23
Alcoholic drink

Note: This is a post I did for Global News in December – but it’s definitely relevant year-round!

‘Tis the season for socializing – and, in many cases, increased alcohol consumption. Thanks to holiday parties, friend gatherings and family dinners, there’s a good chance you’ll be passed a drink on several occasions in December. And not to be a wet blanket, but booze can really do a number on your digestive system.

Here are some ways alcohol affects the gut: It slows digestion and impacts enzyme production, which can result in abdominal discomfort, according to a 1997 study titled “Alcohol’s Role in Gastrointestinal Disorders”. What’s more, certain alcoholic drinks contain common gut irritants like fructose and gluten. And we all know drinking alcohol causes dehydration, which leads to an increased likelihood of constipation. Excess alcohol consumption can also trigger heartburn, stomach pain and diarrhea, especially for people with IBS.

But if you are going to drink, there are ways to prevent disaster. I must emphasize that you’re the most effective gauge of how you feel. If there are certain drinks you know cause trouble, avoid them! That said, here are some words of caution: read more…

What can go wrong in your digestive system? Lots, Gutbliss explains

2013 December 2
Gutbliss by Dr. Robynne Chutkan

Digestive symptoms are easy enough to identify, but diagnoses and causes – well, that’s where things get murky. After reading Dr. Robynne Chutkan’s new book Gutbliss, I have a whole new perspective on why digestive health issues are so complicated. Among the more commonly known disorders – IBS, constipation, celiac disease – there are plenty of other issues that can affect your gut.

Chutkan’s book is marketed as a 10-day plan to “ban bloat”, but the majority of the book goes into what can go wrong in the gut and how to see improvement with lifestyle (and sometimes medical) changes. Chutkan is a gastroenterologist who has studied digestion for many years, and the information and case studies in this book are fascinating. Here are a few of the things I learned while reading it:
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6 gut-friendly finds from CHFA East

2013 November 10
Health foods from CHFA East

The Canadian Health Food Association held its largest annual conference and trade show in Toronto recently, showcasing the country’s fast-growing natural health and organics industry. Supplements, beauty products and (of course) food were all on display at CHFA East, with a smattering of buzz-worthy products from both established companies and recently launched ventures.

Here are six healthy food and drink products that stood out for me, digestively speaking:

Mary’s Organic Crackers – Super Seed  

I’ve called out these crackers before because they’re an ideal thing to snack on when you’re cutting out gluten and dairy; the company’s founder started making her products after struggling with celiac disease. This new Super Seed variety eliminates tamari, making it completely soy-free (soy is one of the most common food allergies and sensitivities). It lives up to its name thanks to a crunchy blend of pumpkin, sunflower, flax, sesame and poppy seeds.

Mamma Chia Drink

This bottled drink is a weirdly satisfying smoothie/juice hybrid. Hydrated chia seeds are mixed with  juices to form a gel-like substance. As New York Times food columnist Martha Rose Shulman writes, this gelatinous property “aids digestion and contributes to [chia seeds'] low-glycemic index.” The seeds are also packed with fibre – and this drink contains six grams of it, making it a good way to help your digestive system function more effectively.

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Navigating the low-FODMAP diet

2013 October 5
Apple, red onion and red lentils - high FODMAP foods

A sensitive digestive system – and the list of “shouldn’t eats” that comes with it – can be a pain. I often grapple with how to eat right for my system without getting swallowed up by food restrictions and feeling like a social outcast.

It was restriction exhaustion that made me hesitant to do research on the low-FODMAP diet, even though it’s said to be a successful way to manage irritable bowel syndrome. What are FODMAPs? In short, they’re a group of short-chain carbohydrates that are common triggers of bloating, gas and other stomach problems. A 2010 Australian study showed cutting out or restricting these particular carbs was an “effective approach to the management of patients with functional gut symptoms.” The Canadian Digestive Health Foundation also recently created a FODMAPs fact sheet targeted at those with IBS.

FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols – a grouping that includes lactose, fructose and sugar alcohols. Certain fruits, vegetables, grains, sugars and other foods that fall under one of these categories are limited on the low-FODMAP diet. As nutritionist Monica Reinagel writes, the diet is effective because “it eliminates several categories of compounds which, together, are responsible for a large share of digestive drama.”

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3 easy steps to a digestive tune-up

2013 September 22
mint tea, flax and lemon

For many people (myself included), fall feels like an ideal time to pick up new healthy habits. If you’re looking to tune up your digestive system this fall, you don’t have to spend a lot of money or time doing it. Keep it simple and budget-friendly with these three additions to your daily routine:

Drink warm lemon water every morning. 

I’ve tried and failed at sticking with this habit because I’m constantly in a rush in the morning. That said, I’m determined to get back on track with it in September. Lemon water is repeatedly touted as an important morning habit for good reason; digestively speaking, it jump-starts hydrochloric acid production and flushes out toxins. To save time, I pre-squeeze 2-3 lemons at a time and store in a glass jar in the fridge, then add about a tablespoon and half to my morning H2O.

Aim for a tablespoon or two of ground flaxseed a day.

I brushed off flax for a long time due to my preoccupation with chia and hemp seeds. But flax seeds are special because of their high soluble fibre content – the type of fibre that helps sensitive digestive systems and combats constipation. Opt for ground flaxseed (whole seeds mostly pass through the intestine undigested) and store in a small glass jar in the fridge so it’s easy to sprinkle on cereal, oatmeal, smoothies, yogurt and applesauce. It’s best to start with a tablespoon and work your way up so your system can adjust.

Drink a post-dinner peppermint tea.

I recently re-started this ritual and I’ve noticed a big difference in my digestion. Peppermint is know for alleviating gas, indigestion and heartburn, and for soothing the digestive tract. There’s also something calming about sitting and drinking tea after a meal. If you don’t like peppermint, chamomile and ginger are also excellent choices – and they’re the perfect thing to order after a large restaurant meal.

Not so tough, right? I’ll be trying to make these habits stick for smoother sailing on the digestive front this fall. I hope they help you, too!

Relax when you eat – it’s more important than you think

2013 September 2
Bowl of cereal in front of computer

After the last long weekend away at my family cottage, I pondered a conundrum. While up north, I tended to eat not-so-good foods that I stayed away from while at home – pop, chips, candy, bacon. But at the cottage I was relaxed, mostly removed from technology and around a table with my family. At home, my diet swung back to its regular healthy ways, but I scarfed meals down regularly, often in front of my computer or while checking my phone. Why couldn’t I get the combination of eating well and being relaxed?

It seems I’m far from alone in this conundrum. A recent survey done by Love Your Gut, the organization behind the U.K.’s Gut Week, found fewer than one in ten people enjoy a lunch hour away from work and one in five eat lunch sitting in front of the computer answering emails. Unsurprisingly, the survey also revealed more people are grabbing food on the go and skipping eating meals at a table. The bad news? We’re paying the price when it comes to our digestive health.

“It’s worrying that almost a third of the people surveyed feel stressed and anxious most days as these feelings can activate the sympathetic nervous system, which can increase intestinal sensitivity and cause spasms, bloating and indigestion,” said Dr. Nick Read in a release that accompanied the survey.

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How poop can save lives (for real!), part two

2013 August 20
Toilet

I recently read a powerful op-ed piece in The New York Times written by a woman who helped a sick friend in a non-traditional way. When his debilitating ulcerative colitis wasn’t getting better from drug therapy, she donated her healthy feces to be implanted in him multiple times. The procedures worked, easing the persistent bleeding and diarrhea he had been experiencing.

I know – not the most pleasant of topics, but fecal transplants are an exciting area of research that have the potential to help a lot of sick people at a low cost. The procedure, in simple terms? Implanting healthy poop blended with saline solution into a person’s colon as a way of re-populating their gut with good bacteria. While the procedure is still considered “investigational” in both Canada and the U.S., there are a growing number of medical professionals who believe it’s an effective treatment, particularly for patients with a Clostridium difficile (C. diff) infection (more details in this recent Maclean’s article on the topic).

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Coconut oil: A fat-packed way to better digestion

2013 August 5
coconut oil

It’s always a bonus to find something decadent-tasting that’s actually good for you. Take coconut oil, a product I’ve become a fan of in the last few months. With a buttery flavour that lends itself especially well to smoothies and baking (not to mention hair conditioning), this plant-derived oil can help your digestive system in a number of ways.

People with stomach problems are often told to stay away from high-fat foods, partly because long-chain fatty acids are hard to break down. While coconut oil is indeed a high-fat food (14 grams of fat per tablespoon, 13 of them saturated), it contains mainly medium-chain fatty acids, which don’t cause strain on the system because they don’t require pancreatic enzymes or bile from the liver for digestion.

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