How well is your digestive system working?

Use this simple questionnaire to determine whether your digestion could use some help

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Today’s busy lifestyles have led to changes in our eating habits, and not necessarily for the better. We shovel in a quick bite of food at our desk, in the car or while standing over the kitchen counter. We eat late at night in front of the television, or we skip meals altogether. The food choices we make have changed as well, often favouring packaged, processed convenience foods loaded with hidden salt, fat and sugar. These poor eating habits can have a direct effect on our bodies, and not just by giving us a stomachache.

A whopping 60 percent of our immune system is clustered around our digestive tract. Food allergies, bacterial imbalance, enzyme or acid deficiencies, yeast overgrowth, parasites and stress all negatively impact not just our digestion, but also our entire immune system. Painful conditions such as gas, bloating, heartburn, reflux, constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are all related to inflammation in the digestive system. And when our bowels aren’t moving properly, waste builds up in our body, creating toxicity and hampering our overall health.

Getting to the bottom of it

Let’s face it: few of us like to spend much time thinking about the contents of our toilet. But together with your general feelings in and around your gut, the frequency and quality of your bowel movements can provide a lot of information about your digestive health.

Use this simple questionnaire to determine whether your digestion could use some help — answer yes or no to the following questions:

  • Do you have less than one bowel movement a day?
  • Do you ever have stools that are black in color?
  • Have you ever noticed blood in your stool?
  • Have you ever noticed mucous in your stool?
  • Are your stools very narrow?
  • Do you have a tendency towards loose stools or diarrhea?
  • Do your stools sink?
  • Do you experience excessive gas?
  • Do you experience abdominal bloating?
  • Do you have heart burn, indigestion, or reflux?
  • Do you have recurring nausea?
  • Do you have abdominal pain or cramping?
  • Do you notice food in your stools (besides corn)?

If you answered yes to even one of these questions, your digestive system needs work.

What does healthy digestion look like?

Optimal bowel function is one bowel movement after each meal — ideally three times a day, but a minimum of once daily. Any less than that, and you’re constipated. Quality matters, as well. The perfect bowel movement should float, be free of food particles and mucous, and not be overly narrow.

Mucous in or covering the stool, or narrow stools, is a sign of inflammation of the bowel. Strong-smelling gas could be caused by a deficiency of the enzymes necessary to properly digest protein or an imbalance of healthy gut flora (e.g., parasitic infection). If you wake in the morning with a nice flat stomach but look five months pregnant by day’s end, your digestion also needs help. Abdominal tenderness is yet another indication that your bowels could be inflamed and that you need to investigate your food choices, bacterial balance, enzymes and the state of your digestive-tract wall.

Some digestive problems are caused or exacerbated by adverse reactions to particular foods. Such reactions can impair the release of enzymes, the movement of your intestines and the walls of your GI tract. An extreme example is celiac disease, an immune reaction to gluten that interferes with nutrient absorption in the small intestine. In other cases, the barrier of the intestinal wall can become permeable, allowing foreign substances to pass into the bloodstream. When this disruption occurs, inflammation, immune compromise or allergies may result and lead to hormonal imbalance.

What can you do to improve digestion?

1. First things first: you should remove the allergenic foods that can be the culprit behind your digestive disturbances. These are primarily wheat, dairy, corn and eggs. After two weeks, begin to introduce each item one by one. If you find that your digestion goes downhill, you have found the cause.  This complete process is laid out step by step in The Supercharged Hormone Diet.

2. You should include a non-psyllium (and therefore non-irritating) fibre supplement in your smoothies or in a large glass of water twice daily. You can also revisit my article on choosing fibre-rich foods to reduce belly bloating.

3. Add these must-have supplements for digestive health:

  • A probiotic supplement: Healthy bacterial balance in our digestive tract is easily affected by poor dietary habits and by the use of medications, such as birth control pills, corticosteroids and antibiotics. Everyone can benefit from the use of probiotics for healthy digestion, regular bowel function and immunity.  Look for a supplement with 10 to 15 billion cells per capsule and take it on rising, before breakfast.
  • Magnesium citrate or glycinate: This supplement can encourage bowel movements because it’s a natural muscle relaxant. Take 200-800 mg per day, normally at bedtime. Start with a low dose and increase it gradually.
  • Essential fatty acids: These help lubricate the bowel. If you choose a liquid form, one tablespoon per day is sufficient. Good brands include Udo’s Choice, Essential Balance, Nordic Naturals, Carlson, Nutra Sea or Clear Omega. Liquid forms of fish oil supplements should be kept in the freezer. If you choose capsules, take 2–4 capsules a day with food. If you find that fish oil “repeats”, put the bottle in the freezer and take it with food, or try an enteric-coated formula.

With these simple tips your belly should be happy in no time.

Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist, and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and her newest release, The Supercharged Hormone Diet, now available across Canada. She is also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique.