Bloating, flatulence and other common bowel problems can be uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing, but can often be managed with natural health supplements and changes to your diet and lifestyle.
What are the symptoms of bowel problems?
Common symptoms of bowel problems include flatulence (intestinal gas), bloating (in which the abdomen becomes distended and taut) and colicky pain (abdominal cramping). Disturbances to normal toilet habits are also common, ranging from the infrequent, hard stools associated with constipation through to the frequent, loose, watery stools of diarrhoea. (Alternating episodes of constipation and diarrhoea may indicate irritable bowel syndrome or other more severe bowel problems, and should be discussed with your healthcare professional). Chronic or persistent bowel problems may also be associated with a reduced ability to properly metabolise your food or eliminate bodily wastes, potentially resulting in a wide variety of other symptoms, including nutritional deficiencies, low energy, skin problems, headaches and more.
What causes bowel problems?
Bowel problems are commonly caused or triggered by what you eat. For example, foods like baked beans, eggs and onions are notorious for being associated with increased gas production and foul-smelling flatulence, which are caused by the high levels of sulfur they contain. In some people, eating high fibre foods or meals that are rich or spicy can also increase gas production. For others, bowel symptoms may be triggered by food sensitivities (including coeliac disease, in which the body is unable to digest the gluten found in many common grains, and lactose intolerance, in which low levels of the enzyme lactase prevent the effective digestion of dairy products). In addition, bowel function is often impacted by inadequate functioning of the organs in the upper gastrointestinal tract (such as the stomach and liver). For example, sluggish liver and gall bladder function often leads to issues with digesting and breaking down fats, which may trigger urgent, loose bowel movements. Similarly, when stomach function is poor, issues may arise in the early stages of the digestive process, sometimes leading to the presence of undigested food particles in the faecal matter, which may contribute to food sensitivities and problems with bowel movements. From the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), symptoms such as flatulence, bloating, loose stools and diarrhoea may also indicate that the Spleen organ-meridian system isn’t functioning properly and is inhibited in its ability to transport the nutritious components of the diet to where they’re needed in the body. For some people, stress and anxiety can contribute to bowel problems, increasing the tendency to become constipated or experience diarrhoea or abdominal pain. (This is a common feature of irritable bowel syndrome, IBS). Food poisoning and other types of gastrointestinal infection are a common cause of diarrhoea, sometimes accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Many of these ‘tummy bugs’ are resolved quickly once the organism responsible for the problem is expelled from the body, but in some cases ongoing disruption of the normal population of friendly bacteria (microflora) in the intestines can lead to longer term bowel issues and other health problems. Many prescribed medications can also interfere with bowel function. For example, the use of antibiotics can compromise the health and functioning of the friendly bacteria in the bowel, interfering with regularity and causing changes in the consistency and texture of the faeces. Less commonly, bowel symptoms may be symptomatic of severe health problems that are beyond the scope of this article and best discussed with your healthcare professional.
Natural therapies for bowel problems
Probiotics support healthy bowel function
The friendly bacteria (microflora) that are naturally present in the human bowel play important roles in digestion and immunity, but are easily disturbed by poor diet, the presence of infectious organisms and the use of some medications, notably including antibiotics. Taking a probiotic supplement helps to restore the proper balance of the microflora and inhibit the colonisation of the bowel by invading micro-organisms. Probiotics also support healthy digestion and bowel function, and may help normalise the frequency of defecation, improve the characteristics of the bowel movements and reduce flatulence, bloating and abdominal discomfort. To support bowel function in babies and children, we recommend choosing a specially formulated kids’ probiotic supplement containing specific bacterial strains that are naturally present in the microflora during the early stages of life.
Chinese herbs to support the Stomach and Spleen
In TCM, bowel problems are often treated with digestive tonic herbs that support and strengthen the Stomach and Spleen organ-meridian systems, which are respectively considered responsible for transforming consumed food into nutritious components and waste material, and then transporting those substances to where the body needs them. For example, Asian Hawthorn is traditionally used to stimulate and enhance the digestion and promote the elimination of stagnant food, and is taken to relieve symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, abdominal pain, and the presence of undigested food in the faeces. It’s usually taken in combination with other herbs that also help to augment Stomach and/or Spleen organ-meridian function, such as Chinese Yam, Atractylodes, Codonopsis, Wild Cardamom and Ziziphus.
Andrographis helps relieve mild tummy bugs
When bowel problems are caused by gastroenteritis (commonly referred to as a ‘tummy bug’), the immune system-stimulating herb Andrographis has traditionally been used to help to relieve symptoms such as diarrhoea, flatulence, indigestion (dyspepsia), and loss of appetite.
Diet and lifestyle recommendations for bowel health
- Avoid eating large, heavy or fatty meals, which are common triggers of digestive difficulties such as flatulence and bloating. Some people also experience problems after consuming spicy foods like curries and/or artificially sweetened food or drinks
- From the perspective of TCM, if you’re experiencing bowel problems it’s best to avoid dairy foods, sweets, and cooling foods such as raw vegetables, citrus fruits and their juices, and iced drinks. Instead, choose light, warm foods and drink chamomile or peppermint tea to help calm your digestive system
- Eating too fast or while you’re feeling stressed can put pressure on your digestive system, so instead take the time to relax and enjoy your food, chewing it thoroughly before swallowing it
- In TCM, working too hard, worrying, anxiety and a tendency to over-think things are regarded as common causes of Spleen organ-meridian imbalance, which in turn may lead to symptoms like flatulence, bloating and loose stools. If you’re a worrier, take steps to restore balance to your thinking by talking to a counsellor, taking up meditation or spending time in nature
- If sulfur-containing foods such as legumes, cabbage, onions and eggs give you lots of flatulence, limit your intake to small amounts, increasing the quantity as your body adapts to tolerate them
- If you’re experiencing diarrhoea, increase your fluid consumption to help reduce your risk of dehydration, but avoid alcohol, soft drinks, caffeine and juice. When severe fluid losses have occurred due to diarrhoea and/or vomiting, it is advisable to use an electrolyte replacement formula
When should you see your doctor or other health professional about bowel problems?
- Seek medical advice for diarrhoea that persists for more than 6 hours in infants under 6 months, 12 hours in children under 3 years, 24 hours in children aged 3-6 years or 48 hours in adults and children over 6 years
- You should also see your doctor if you are experiencing:
- Diarrhoea with blood or mucus visible in the faeces
- Diarrhoea accompanied by decreased urination, increased thirst, vomiting or fever
- Severe or ongoing bowel symptoms, including alternating episodes of constipation and diarrhoea, and severe flatulence associated with a particularly foul smell
- Food intolerances and allergies are common causes of bowel problems; if you’re concerned that you may be affected, your healthcare professional will help you identify any sensitivities that are present and adapt your diet to cope