Your stomach is like a car. As long as it’s running smoothly, you don’t pay much attention to it. But as soon as a weird sound is heard or the brakes are failing, it demands your attention. It’s not only annoying—it may hinder you from going where you want and doing what you want.
So let’s ask an expert how you can keep your digestive system on track!
Anna-Carin Lagerström has a Masters of Science and works as a physiotherapist, health educator and nutrition counselor at the Spinalis’ foundation for people with spinal cord injuries, and she meets a lot of people with bladder and bowel problems. In fact, the majority of all people with damage to the nervous system (SCI, MS, ALS or Parkinson’s disease) have some kind of stomach trouble.
Common bowel problems
The most common problems are constipation, abdominal gas and bloating. Reasons for constipation can be a sedentary life style, low fluid intake and medicines used for the primary diagnosis, like painkillers (e.g. morphine and codeine), diuretics or antidepressants.
Some people are incontinent and the bowel tends to have a life of its own, which often creates stress and anxiety surrounding having an accident in public.
Some bowel problems demand medicines or other therapies, such as transanal irrigation (TAI), but all people, regardless whether a therapy or an other medical procedure is necessary, benefit from a healthy digestive system. In fact your diet can help prevent or ease secondary health complications such as pain, bladder infections, osteoporosis, obesity, pressure sores and cardiovascular disease. You have everything to gain.
So… Here are Anna Carin’s 10 best tips for a healthy stomach!
1. High-fiber diet
Fibers increase the volume and weight of the intestinal content, which improves the bowel movements and the passage of the contents. On top of that, fibers even out the blood sugar levels, give you a feeling of satiety and improve the blood fat levels. A win-win-win! And for the record—lettuce and cucumber don't make it... You need cauliflower, broccoli, beans and peas...
But remember to increase the fiber intake slowly. A dull side effect is temporarily increased gas and bloating before your stomach has become accustomed. To complicate things a bit more, fiber can add to constipation for some people with spinal cord injury, and if that happens you should decrease the intake again and ask your doctor for advice.
2. Don’t forget to hydrate
Drink 1.5 to 2 liters of water/fluid every day. If you are dehydrated and don’t drink enough, the body will compensate by taking fluid from your bowel and use it for other important body functions, causing dryer and harder stool.
The hydration is even more important if you are on a high-fiber diet. Unfortunately you can’t count fluids in terms of coffee, soda and alcohol. That could be counterproductive since they have a slightly diuretic effect.
3. Avoid constipating foods
Avoid processed carbohydrates, such as white bread, pasta, white rice and biscuits. This type of food is low in fiber and contributes to constipation.
4. Good fats
Fat helps lubricate the bowel and makes the stool softer. You should choose good fats such as vegetable oil and oil that comes naturally in avocado, nuts and fatty fish.
5. Probiotics—for a happy bowel
Your bowel needs billions of good lacto bacteria to function. The bacteria manage the fermentation and degradation of the foods and they need your help! Add new ones by eating garlic, onion, sour milk, plain yoghurt and different types of probiotic foods.
Also avoid sugar and food with fast carbohydrates—they nourish the bad intestinal bacteria.
6. Magnesium—your personal plumber
Magnesium has a mild laxative effect. You will find this mineral in oat and wheat bran, sunflower and sesame seeds, black beans and quinoa.
7. Eat little and often
When you have stomach problems it is extra important to let the bowel work in a healthy rhythm—it helps the digestion. Eat small portions at regular times: breakfast, lunch and dinner with one or two small snacks in between. Eat slowly and chew carefully to help the digestion and nutrient uptake.
8. Move your body
Physical activity will help speeding up a slow bowel.
9. Regular toilet habits
The best time to go to the toilet is within 30 minutes after a meal or a hot drink. The best chance to get your stomach started is in the morning after breakfast when the body and bowel have naturally started up. The bowel likes consistency and works best at set times. And don’t forget to take your time. No stress in the bathroom.
10. Sitting posture
Make sure that the way you sit helps the bowel evacuation. A crouching posture with support for your feet is preferable. Move your upper body back and forth a little bit to further facilitate the evacuation.
Want to learn more about food and weight? Download an extract from Anna Carin Lagerström and her colleague Kerstin Wahman’s book: The art of healthy living with physical impairments. It is really useful!