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Get your gut in great shape: Britain’s top experts on avoiding bloating, IBS and a sluggish stomach

Today, the fourth part of our 100 health secrets series opens the kitchen cupboards to reveal small changes that will overhaul your diet. 

Whether it’s bloating, irritable bowel syndrome or a sluggish gut, these tweaks will have you feeling more comfortable — and possibly even dropping a few pounds.

Today, the fourth part of our 100 health secrets series opens the kitchen cupboards to reveal small changes that will overhaul your diet

1. Eat within two hours of waking

Eating first thing stimulates the gastrocolic response — a natural reflex that stimulates movement in the gut after a meal. As a result of eating, this mechanism stretches your stomach and this in turn stimulates the gastrointestinal tract.

Within a reasonably short time you should want to open your bowels, which will help prevent constipation, says Peter Whorwell, a professor of medicine and gastroenterology at the University of Manchester.

‘The gastrocolic response is only active in the morning — typically within three hours of waking, so if you skip breakfast you might not get this reflex again that day and this can gradually lead to constipation. This is why eating even a little breakfast and a cup of tea or coffee is an excellent way of ensuring regular bowel habits.’

2. Tummy trouble? Cut caffeine

Dr Simon Smale, a consultant gastro-enterologist, says more than three cups of caffeinated drinks a day can 'make you more likely to have diarrhoea' (file photo)

Dr Simon Smale, a consultant gastro-enterologist, says more than three cups of caffeinated drinks a day can ‘make you more likely to have diarrhoea’ (file photo)

If you’re prone to diarrhoea, avoid drinking more than three cups of caffeinated drinks a day, says Dr Simon Smale, a consultant gastro-enterologist at Manchester Royal Infirmary.

‘More than three caffeinated drinks a day — whether coffee, tea or energy drinks — can increase gut motility and make you more likely to have diarrhoea. Fizzy diet drinks that contain artificial sweeteners can also cause gas, bloating and diarrhoea.’

3. Sit up straight at the table

‘Sitting up straight at a table to eat means you can get gravity on your side, whereas slouching on a sofa when eating means you’re more likely to get indigestion,’ says Julie Thompson, a specialist gastroenterology dietitian at the charity Guts UK.

‘Try to stop working when eating at your desk — if you are taking a stressful phone call this may induce the “fight or flight” response that results in the hormone adrenaline being released and slowing digestion. Rushing your food can mean you swallow air, too, and this can induce bloating.’

4. Colic remedy for grown ups

‘Colic remedies or gripe waters such as Infacol contain the active ingredient simethicone, which works well for easing cramping tummy pain that some people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) get from gas build-up, says Dr Adam Farmer, a consultant gastroenterologist at University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust in Stoke-on-Trent.

‘It works by encouraging bubbles of gas in the gut to come together, allowing for easier passage of gas out of the gut.’

5. Drink lemon and ginger

‘I tell all my patients to drink a glass of hot water with a slice of lemon and a little fresh ginger first thing every morning and then after every meal,’ says Dr Maria Eugenicos, a gastroenterologist at Western General Hospital in Edinburgh and a lecturer in gastroenterology at the University of Edinburgh.

‘Lots of people suffer from constipation due to dehydration. We need to drink six to eight glasses of fluid a day. It’s hard to get people to drink enough in a cold climate, so drinking it hot makes it more appealing.

‘Hot water also has a calming effect on pain similar to the effect a hot water bottle has on cramps and it helps with regular bowel habits. Lemon and ginger soothe nausea and aid digestion.’

6. Eat 30 different plants a week

‘I advise people to aim for 30 different plant-based foods a week to promote diversity in the gut microbiome,’ says Megan Rossi, a dietitian and research fellow in the department of nutritional sciences at King’s College London.

‘We now know that the gut microbiome (the trillions of bacteria that live in your gut) governs much more than our digestive health. For instance, 70 per cent of the immune system is found in the intestine.

‘Thirty different foods a week sounds a lot but it’s not just fruit and vegetables we’re talking about, but nuts and seeds, wholegrains and legumes, too.’

7. Eat linseeds and kiwi

‘On average we only eat 18g of fibre a day — we need almost double that, 30g,’ says Yvonne McKenzie, a dietitian specialising in gastrointestinal nutrition and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), based in Oxford. ‘My tip for topping up your fibre intake is to take two tablespoons (24g) of linseeds mixed with yoghurt every day — they won’t induce bloating or wind in the way some wheat-based foods or rye will, because they are low in FODMAPs (a type of sugar) and ferment slowly in the gut.’

Randomised controlled trials (where an intervention is compared with another group of patients who do not receive the active treatment or are given a placebo) have also shown that kiwi fruit is effective for constipation. The thinking is that they are high in soluble fibre. This has a good water-holding capacity, which can bulk out but also soften stools.

8. Live yoghurt every day 

Dietitian Megan Rossi says live plain yoghurt is one of the 'cheapest and most readily available' types of fermented food that could be eaten every day (file photo)

Dietitian Megan Rossi says live plain yoghurt is one of the ‘cheapest and most readily available’ types of fermented food that could be eaten every day (file photo)

‘If I had just one tip for a healthy gut it would be to eat some type of fermented food three or four times a week,’ says Megan Rossi, a dietitian and research fellow in the department of nutritional sciences at King’s College London. ‘Kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi are trendy but live plain yoghurt is one of the cheapest and most readily available and could be eaten every day. These foods have been used to promote health for thousands of years in many cultures.’

9. Have a fig chew before bed

‘Lots of my patients who suffer from constipation have told me that a fruit and fibre chew product (such as Ortis fruit and fibre chewable cubes, £8.99, most pharmacies and health food shops) has completely changed their lives,’ says Dr Ana Wilson, a consultant gastroenterologist at St Mark’s Hospital in North-West London.

‘The chews look a bit like a stock cube: you chew on them before bed and then drink water. They act slowly and gently overnight so you wake up in the morning and have a bowel movement.

‘The main ingredients are figs and dates; they are old-fashioned natural remedies for constipation and work by speeding up food transit time.’

10. Sip herbal teas after sickness 

‘Drink herbal teas after a bout of gastroenteritis. You need to keep your fluids up if you’ve had a bout of sickness, but stick to non-caffeinated herbal teas as caffeine can cause discomfort,’ says Dr Wilson.

‘Peppermint and fennel herbal teas in particular will reduce bloating and cramps.’

11. Take pills before food

‘Millions of people now take medicines such as omeprazole, a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), for acid reflux,’ says Nicholas Boyle, a consultant gastrointestinal surgeon at RefluxUK, a private clinic in London.

‘They work by stopping stomach acid production, but remember to take the pills 30 minutes before you eat. If you take them afterwards, your stomach will have already started producing acid to digest the food.’

12. Eat 3 hours before sleep 

Dr Jason Dunn, a consultant gastroenterologist, said eating close to bedtime can trigger acid reflux symptoms, including a sore throat or hoarseness in the morning (file photo)

Dr Jason Dunn, a consultant gastroenterologist, said eating close to bedtime can trigger acid reflux symptoms, including a sore throat or hoarseness in the morning (file photo)

‘Avoid eating too close to bedtime as it may cause acid reflux in your sleep — symptoms include a persistent night-time cough or a sore throat or hoarseness in the morning, because the acid is irritating the larynx,’ says Dr Jason Dunn, consultant gastroenterologist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in London.

‘Most people don’t associate coughing and sore throats with acid reflux, so the problem can go undiagnosed.’

13. For IBS, pop probiotics 

‘I recommend patients with IBS symptoms take a probiotic supplement [which provides ‘good bacteria’ to the gut] for a month to see if it improves their symptoms,’ says Julie Thompson. ‘Everyone’s gut microbiome is different, so it’s worth experimenting.’

… Plus 7 foodie tips from a top dietitian

Jane Clarke, a dietitian who runs a specialist cancer and dementia nutrition clinic in London and the website nourishbyjaneclarke.com, recommends these tweaks:

14. A daily shot of turmeric 

Turmeric has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties that may reduce our risk of developing cancer — so adding a dose of this warming spice to your day is an easy tick on the wellbeing chart.

The potent part of the plant is curcumin — in countries where they eat a lot of curcumin-containing foods, such as curries in South-East Asia, incidences of breast and bowel cancer are lower.

I like to grate fresh turmeric and ginger into a shot glass of fruit juice, or to warm half a teaspoon of turmeric, a pinch of black pepper and around 70ml of coconut milk in a pan to make a delicious drink.

The pepper works as a catalyst for the curcumin, making it easier for our bodies to use; while the fatty acids in the coconut milk help the body to absorb the active ingredient.

Our expert panel

They’re some of the world’s leading experts on health from across the NHS and private practice — and all this week they’re giving you their unexpected, but effective, lifestyle advice.

Today, we share invaluable tips on how to boost your gut health and beat digestive trouble — from world renowned experts including Peter Whorwell, a professor of medicine and gastroenterology at the University of Manchester — and then dive into the kitchen cupboard where dietitian Jane Clarke, who runs a specialist cancer and dementia nutrition clinic in London and nourishbyjane clarke.com, recommends her top foods for better health.

From diet and exercise to your social circle and love life, more than 50 experts share tips that really can transform your life.

15. Eat protein twice a day

I try to include protein-rich foods in meals at least twice a day to help my blood sugar levels stay steady. Protein-rich foods have a less rapid effect on blood sugar levels than carbohydrates, and protein is the base component of all our immune system cells and helps repair our body after we’ve been unwell.

I feel at my strongest when I enjoy a protein-popping breakfast such as poached eggs, then an evening meal with more protein. It doesn’t have to be heavy or time-consuming; a quick stir-fry with prawns or tofu does the trick.

16. Stewed apple for breakfast 

Cooked apple is naturally sweet, easier to digest and more satisfying than a raw apple, and tastes wonderful with yoghurt for breakfast, too. The fibre in the apple means the sugar from the fruit is absorbed more slowly, for sustained energy as you go about your day.

Apple also contains pectin, a natural starch that helps to soothe the gut and is great if you’re feeling stressed or nauseous.

Simply peel, core and cube apples, then simmer in a little water, orange or apple juice, until soft. I like adding a little cardamom, another spice that’s great for settling the gut. Cinnamon and nutmeg work well, too.

17. Use rapeseed or coconut oil 

We’re frightened by fat, thinking it will cause us to become overweight, but it shouldn’t be demonised. Some fat is essential in our diet, as it helps us to absorb fat-soluble vitamins and minerals from other foods.

Choose oils with a high smoking point such as coconut and rapeseed, as they are more stable when heated and produce fewer trans fats, which are damaging for our heart and brain.

18. Ditch low-fat products 

I never eat low-fat products — they’re highly processed, full of additives, preservatives and, often, refined sugar.

Look at the label and you might be shocked to find your low-fat food actually has a higher calorie content than the full-fat original.

Fat also gives us the full feeling that stops us from eating too much — one reason so-called diet foods leave us craving more to eat.

19. Snack on soup around 3pm 

Dietitian Jane Clarke says a cup of warming vegetable soup can help to reduce inflammation in the body, reducing the risk of cancer, dementia and more (file photo)

Dietitian Jane Clarke says a cup of warming vegetable soup can help to reduce inflammation in the body, reducing the risk of cancer, dementia and more (file photo)

Instead of reaching for the biscuits, try my afternoon energy booster: a cup of warming vegetable soup.

It’s full of easy-to-digest fibre and high in probiotics, both of which are great for the friendly bacteria in our gut — helping reduce the symptoms of IBS and aiding digestion.

It has also been shown to help reduce inflammation in the body, which reduces the risk of cancer, dementia and more.

Use lots of different coloured vegetables — carrots, peppers, spinach — so that you get the full range of antioxidants, compounds that protect cells from damage. I guarantee it will be more satisfying than a cup of tea, with or without the usual biscuit.

20. Enjoy warm lavender milk before bed

Milk is rich in magnesium, a mineral that helps the muscles and mind relax, so you’re ready to nod off. Lavender milk is a personal favourite, made simply by infusing one teaspoon of dried lavender flowers in a mug of warm milk.

Tomorrow: Soothe skin and shop smart 

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