than 'you are what you eat', it would be more accurate to say 'you
are what your digestive system allows you to absorb'. Though hardly
as snappy, it gives a more accurate indication of this complex
system of organs and its importance to health. There are four main
sites of digestion that food passes through. These need to be
working well in order to absorb nutrients from what you eat.
In the mouth, the teeth and tongue break food down into smaller
bits for easy passage down the oesophagus into the stomach.
The saliva also starts digesting carbohydrates, including sugars.
Once in the stomach the food remains here for as little as 30
minutes or as long as a few hours, depending on whether you've eaten
a tough steak or a squashy vegetable stew. Churning helps
disassemble the food further, while stomach acid kills unhelpful
micro-organisms. Also in the stomach, proteins from your diet,
including meat, are broken down into easily absorbed amino
A massive 90% of absorption takes place at the next organ; the
small intestine, where food is mixed with bile from the liver,
pancreatic juice and intestinal enzymes, making the particles small
enough for nutrients to be extracted. In the next organ, the large
intestine, which is about 1.5 metres in length water,
salts and other remaining nutrients are removed, with the
indigestible leftovers being expelled later.
How long is too long?
We Brits are
supposedly obsessed with how often we 'go', but given the prevalence
of our digestive problems, perhaps we're not as concerned as we
Transit time is the length of time it takes for food to be
ingested, processed and eliminated. Depending on who you speak to, a
transit time of anything between 24 and 72 hours is considered
normal, while others suggest a shorter time of between 18 and 30
hours for optimal health. While it is generally considered good
practice to have a bowel movement once a day, if this can only be
achieved by straining, don't force it. Different foods have
different transit times, so it is impossible to give a
precise figure. The most important thing is to be
A very short transit time, e.g. diarrhoea, can be detrimental to
the whole body in the long term, causing dehydration and nutritional
deficiencies. Likewise, a long transit time, or constipation, is a
problem for many. Take a look at a compost heap and you'll see how
decaying food attracts parasites and breeds bacteria. Left to fester
in the colon, the decomposing food leaches toxins into the blood,
putting the liver (the blood's cleaner) into overdrive and causing a
host of uncomfortable symptoms, from sleep problems to bloating and
acid build-up. Small wonder we're crotchety when we're bunged
Common Digestive System Complaints
Our gastrointestinal tracts are subjected to many potential
problems and illnesses. This is partly due to diet and
lifestyle, but more simply down to the fact that it includes so
many organs and is intimately linked to all the body's other
systems. And just as problems in the digestive tract can affect the
whole body, problems in other parts of the body often affect
the digestion, for example anxiety affects many people's digestion.
Below are some of the most common digestive complaints, as well
as useful herbs and lifestyle measures. If you suspect you may
be suffering from any of these conditions but do not have a
diagnosis, we recommend you speak to your GP or Medical
Heartburn is a feeling of discomfort or burning
in the stomach (at the bottom of the middle of the rib cage) or in
the oesophagus (the pipe from the mouth to the stomach). The burning
feeling may be felt in the back, as well as the front. Causes can be
due to excess stomach acid, too little of the protecting stomach
mucous, or a problem with the valve at the top of the stomach.
Ulcers (stomach or duodenal) may occur when the
balance of acid, protein enzymes and mucous is disturbed in the
stomach and/or small intestine, the protein enzymes and acid can
start to damage the walls of the digestive tract. This can have a
number of causes, the most commonly treated cause by the NHS is an
overgrowth of the bacteria Helicobacter pylori.
Cramps and/or bloating are experienced by many.
Causes can be simple, such as over eating specific foods, or even
hormonal issues. It can be the sign of a long term infection,
imbalance or food intolerance. Symptoms can vary from a minor
discomfort to severe pain which can impact on your ability to
Diarrhoea and/or constipation are often
seen as the opposite to each other, but it's common for people to
experience both, and often they can be symptoms of the same
underlying problem. Causes may include infections, issues with fluid
intake, anxiety, different foods or alcohol (e.g. many people
experience diarrhoea after a night of heavy drinking),
side effects to medicines, overeating and eating at inappropriate
times. Many causes can often be rectified simply,
whereas more complicated conditions may need specialist
help. A change to your bowel habit can be an important sign,
and if you cannot find the answer, we suggest you consult your
GP or a herbalist.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is the most
common functional gastrointestinal disorder, IBS can only be
diagnosed once other more serious complaints are ruled out (a
diagnosis of exclusion). It can be related to a stressful life event
or infection, with some authors pointing to abnormal gut flora or a
malfunction of the immune system as its cause.
digestive system conditions such as piles ( haemorrhoids ), coeliac disease,
diverticulitis, inflammatory bowel diseases (e.g. Crohn's
disease) and a number of gall bladder, liver and pancreas problems
may also be diagnosed by your doctor. More information is available
on these and in many cases herbal and natural remedies may be of
Did you know? Most often used to treat
anxiety and tension, German Chamomile (Chamomilla recutica) can be
used to help settle a nervous stomach. Infuse a couple of teabags or
teaspoons of the flowers leaves in boiled water for 5-10 minutes and
enjoy before each meal.
Herbs and supplements for healthy digestion
There are gentler ways to ease your ailments than chalky antacids
and gut-squirming laxatives. Often, simple, relatively familiar
measures may help, such as drinking water to aid constipation, or
aiding the expulsion of gas and reducing spasms by sipping
Peppermint tea after a meal and cooking with culinary herbs such as
Rosemary, Fennel and Ginger.
If you're looking to stimulate digestion, bitter herbs such as Centaury
Root can increase stomach acid and digestive enzyme flow, and
decrease transit time. Fibres such Flax Seeds aid transit in the
lower intestine, while traditionally used laxatives such as Senna
Pods are helpful for occasional use (always increase your fluids
when taking anything which hastens transit).Did you
know? Campari and Martini contain Wormwood and Gentian, two
bitter herbs which help stimulate the secretion of digestive juices.
All the more reason to enjoy an aperitif!
Anti-inflammatory herbs are useful to soothe the gut of those
suffering occasional diarrhoea (not related to an infection). Irish
Moss is soothing and is also nutritious, helping to replace the
nutrients lost. Omega 3 fatty acids, found in oily fish, flaxseeds
and algae, aid repair and are often used along with L-glutamine. L-glutamine
is an amino acid which helps repair the walls of the intestines.
Liquorice has been shown in scientific studies to reduce
Helicobacter levels in the stomach. For this use, it is most
commonly taken in the form of Deglycyrhized
Liquorice to avoid increasing blood pressure.
A range of herbs may be applied externally to non-bleeding piles.
For example Horse Chestnut may be appropriate.
It is also possible to take supplemental digestive aids such as
hydrochloride (which provides extra stomach acid), digestive
enzymes to supplement the liver and pancreas and even lactase
enzyme for people who are lactose intolerant. Some other simple
supplements include: Medicinal
Charcoal a symptomatic remedy which can absorb the gases that
can cause bloating; Citricidal
a grapefruit seed extract useful for travel to prevent stomach
bugs; and probiotics
are often very useful (more about them later).
Does my diet and lifestyle matter?
Yes, hugely. With the tendency to cram as much into our days as
possible and to eat convenience food on the hoof, it's not
surprising that sometimes our bodies protest.
In fact, adopting a more 'old fashioned' or Continental approach
can be advantageous: picture the large French or Italian family
enjoying a lingering meal well into the evening. We may not have the
balmy nights, but we can make the effort to at least sit down, slow
down and take pleasure in our food, without forgetting our manners
(chew well and keep the mouth closed!). Of course, it matters just
what that food is. A diet high in fresh fruit, vegetables, pulses
and wholegrains will ease the load on our digestive system, as will
the use of culinary herbs.
Water is absolutely essential for good, easy digestion (and we
don't mean an extra bottle of cola). A very simple tip to support
digestion is to sip warm water throughout the day. Comforting in the
colder months, the warmth will gently stimulate digestion. Try
adding some grated fresh Ginger if you're feeling bloated or
nauseous, or a squeeze of lemon if you're sluggish.
Don't Burn Out
Caffeine, sugar, alcohol and tobacco, used habitually by many in
an attempt to control stress and fatigue, all upset gastric juices,
as does stress itself, a major cause of digestive problems.
Taken as teas, Chamomile
Balm and Passion
Flower will hydrate and soothe the mind and body. Many people
will remember as children that a simple tummy rub can be
calming and soothing, so don't be afraid to try it as an
adult. Bodywork techniques such as Massage, Bowen Therapy, Thai Yoga
Massage, and Shiatsu aid the release of deep-seated tension while
Acupuncture, Reflexology, Ear Candling and Reiki are used by many
for stress management.
of the Month - Probiotics
Hardly an ad
break goes by these days without the mention of probiotics and
prebiotics. Just what are they? Put simply, probiotics are
beneficial bacteria that fight off the 'bad' bacteria in the
intestines. Prebiotics are not friendly bacteria themselves but a
soluble fibre that friendly bacteria feed on. Chicory, artichokes,
leeks and onions are all natural sources of prebiotics. FOS
(fructo-oligo-saccharides) is another prebiotic available in powder
A high sugar diet and overuse of antibiotics can lead
to an imbalance of digestive bacteria, commonly leading to
inflammation and the overgrowth of intestinal yeast (Candida
albicans). This balance is compounded by age, with the amount of
beneficial gut bacteria dropping sharply after age 40. When we are
ill, or over-stressed, the balance is compromised
Lactobacillus acidophilus is the most
familiar strain of probiotic and daily doses typically span from half
a billion up to several
billion bacteria and may be used daily. A higher dose is often
recommended during and after the use of antibiotics, or a bout of
'holiday tummy'. The bifidus family of bacteria Bifidus is the other
main bacteria in the gut, it is normal to supplement with both
types. Babies and infants may also need supplementation, and are
best with powders containing a probiotic mix designed specifically
for that age (e.g. Probioeasy
Top tip: Probiotics are best taken with food
to protect them from stomach acid.
of the Month - Slippery Elm and Psyllium Husks
Used by Arab physicians since the Middle Ages as
a common remedy for constipation, Psyllium
Husk ( Plantago psyllium ) contains both insoluble and
soluble fibre. Adequate fibre aids bowel function, retaining fluid
in the bowel, preventing constipation, and also providing bulk to
reduce the severity of diarrhoea. The soluble fibre forms
a gelatinous mass when combined with water which can also
soothe the bowel wall, reducing diarrhoea caused by irritation.
Taken 20 minutes prior to a meal, it's highly important to take it
with a lot of water - one teaspoon of Psyllium to at least one
glass (250 ml) water. Psyllium may make antibiotics less effective,
so be sure to leave a few hours between taking each.
Like Psyllium, Slippery
Elm ( Ulmus fulva ) is usually taken in water, though
it can also be taken as a tincture. As its name suggests, Slippery
Elm also forms a gelatinous (slimy) substance when added to water,
therefore some prefer to mix it with a recognised slimy food such as
yoghurt. It's used traditionally to sooth and promote healing
anywhere in the GI tract, from the oral cavity, where it can be used
to pacify raspy throats, to the colon, where it soothes inflammation
and irritation. It is often used as a mild laxative, to calm
heartburn (acid reflux) and may support the healing of ulcers. As
well as the single herbs, at Woodland Herbs we provide a ready-made
mix of Slippery Elm and Psyllium Husk, which has little taste
and is tolerated well by most. Because Slippery Elm coats the
digestive tract avoid taking it at the same time as medication.
Cautions and contraindications: We normally
recommend seeking advice from your doctor, herbalist or other health
professional if taking prescription medicines and thinking about
self-treating with herbs.
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