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Natural solutions for your digestive troubles

Natural solutions for your digestive troubles

There is a wealth of information online about how to improve the health of your gut and reduce your digestive troubles including a nice holistic article in the Telegraph. Our blog is about how to work with the two masters of your digestive system – your nervous system and your gut bacteria, with detailed information about how probiotics (which ones and how to take them), prebiotic foods, herbal medicines and massage can all help.


Organs it includes
Our digestive system stretches 9m from our lips, along our oesophagus, into our stomach and through metres and metres of folded small intestine to our colon and anus. It also includes our liver and gall bladder that secrete enzymes and bile, vital for the digestion and absorption of our food.

Our nervous system – the first master of our digestive system
Nervous control of our digestive system has two branches, our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The sympathetic system is activated when we are under stress and is so called the “fight or flight” response. It tends to close down the activity of the digestive system so that resources can be used for the brain, heart and muscles. Sympathetic nerves travel down our spinal cord and out of our spinal vertebra close to each digestive organ.

The parasympathetic system is activated when we are relaxed and at rest. Our vagus nerve is the main nerve responsible for the parasympathetic innervation of our digestive system, including breaking up food and pushing it through our digestive tract. The vagus nerve travels out of our skull and down through our neck close to our vocal cords, which is one of the reasons singing is so good for our digestion, then down through our diaphragm to our digestive organs.


How stress impairs our digestion
The link between stress and our digestive troubles is well documented. The nervous system in our gut is as complex and differentiated as that in our brains with a sophisticated messaging system between the two. When the brain receives stress signals it restricts resources to the gut. If this happens occasionally then the body returns to normal, but if this happens over and over the gut is deprived of blood flow and the ability to produce essential mucus to protect the walls of the digestive system. This impairs function and can lead to poor absorption, constipation, pain, IBS, ulcers and ulcerative colitis.


Deep, slow breathing
When we’re at rest we take approximately 27,000 breaths per day. Breathing causes our diaphragm to rise and fall and with every breath our digestive organs are given a little massage. Long, slow, voluntary belly breaths are the best – they massage our digestive organs, release blood flow by stretching our diaphragms and let our parasympathetic nervous system know that we are at rest. Short, shallow breaths, on the other hand, restrict blood flow to the digestive organs and keep our sympathetic nervous system on call.

Singing stimulates the vagus nerve and helps to release oxytocin, both of which give us a sense of wellbeing and relaxation and allow our parasympathetic nervous system to do its job in our digestive systems.

Massage has been shown repeatedly to reduce anxiety and enhance relaxation, thus innervating our parasympathetic nervous system. It has also been shown to boost the immune system, increase blood supply to organs, relax muscles and alleviate constipation as effectively as a laxative.

We offer Arvigo® therapy, a traditional Maya massage of the abdomen, thoracic and lumbar spine and sacrum. The massage increases circulation and lymph flow to the abdominal area, stretches the diaphragm, increases peristalsis and enhances relaxation. We’ll also show you how to continue the massage at home so that you can maintain your digestive health for yourself.

Herbal medicines
Many herbal medicines have been shown to have a calming effect on the digestive system. Herbs for the digestive system are often best consumed as a tea (especially as this increases our water intake – aim for 6 to 8 glasses of water per day) and key herbs include: chamomile, lemon balm, peppermint and yarrow. Herbs useful for different digestive complaints can be found at the end of this blog.


Our gut bacteria – the second master of our digestive system
Our digestive system, notably our large intestine, is home to trillions upon trillions of microorganisms (thousands of different species, including bacteria, viruses, yeasts and fungi). Bad bacteria can give us diarrhoea, digestive problems and wind but most of the bacteria do good work – helping to break down our foods, releasing energy, manufacturing vitamins, breaking down medications and supporting our immune system.

We all have different colonies of bacteria inside our digestive system and these affect the function of our digestive tract and our overall wellbeing. Indeed, skewed proportions of different bacteria have been found in people suffering from a host of conditions including chronic fatigue, poor immunity, digestive problems, depression and anxiety.


Consuming probiotics
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that we consume through our diet, absorb from our environment or take in a supplemental form. These probiotics help increase the number and diversity of beneficial bacteria in our guts and consequently our overall wellbeing.

Dietary probiotics
The following foods are a great source of probiotics. Follow the links to see how to make your own.

Environmental probiotics
It is now widely theorised that the increase in allergic conditions and depression is linked to the way we live in industrialised societies and our move away from environmental organisms previously found in soil and foods. Initial research suggests that probiotics derived from soil may help to reduce depression and anxiety.

Supplemental probiotics
Whilst a great deal of research supports the benefits of taking supplemental forms of probiotics for many health conditions, research has not currently attained NICE standards* and consequently probiotics cannot be prescribed or recommended by your GP.

Supplements come in a variety of forms, fermented and refrigerated. You may be better off with a fermented version as they can be more stable than refrigerated versions. Variety and quantity of bacteria is key. Try to pick one with at least 7 different strains of bacteria and 5 billion CFUs.

Below are some suggested supplemental probiotics with guidelines on how to take them for best results. Our patients can purchase these probiotics at a discounted rate from

  • Probiotics you can take during a course of antibiotics
    OptiBac’s Saccharomyces boulardii – this probiotic contains the yeast Saccharomyces boulardii as well as many strains of bacteria and is therefore effective taken during a course of antibiotics. You may want to change to a higher strength probiotic, with more strains of bacteria once you’ve completed the course of antibiotics.
  • No-nonsense, low cost probiotics
  • Reliable with multiple strains of bacteria
    Bio-care or Wild Nutrition
  • Gluten free and products for children & breast feeding mothers
    Bio-live liquid probiotic food in molasses, see
  • High concentration probiotics
    VSL#3 is the world’s most concentrated form of probiotics. It is a refrigerated version, delivered from the supplier in a cool box. Because it is refrigerated it is best bought directly from the supplier to ensure quality of product, see

A guide to taking supplemental probiotics

  • Take first thing in the morning ideally on an empty stomach and avoid hot drinks for 30-40 minutes as heat kills the microorganism. Take between doses of antibiotics (if taking).
  • Build up the dose slowly, particularly if taking the VSL#3 start with half a sachet daily to a full sachet each morning.
  • Temporary side effects include wind and diarrhoea. This can be normal however if diarrhoea continues then reduce the dose until your stools return to normal and / or stop probiotics.
  • When stopping probiotics, do this slowly, stretching the days in between taking them and remember to build up on prebiotic food groups (see below). These will help to feed and maintain healthy microorganisms.
  • Rotate brands of probiotics, aim for a course of 3 months for complete replenishment.
  • Introduce regular prebiotic food groups. See below, these foods provide much needed nourishment for the new microorganism – keep them alive and kicking!

* In order to achieve NICE standards “drugs” need to be clinically tested through randomised control trials. These trials are expensive and drug companies generally recoup costs through sales made on patented products. As it is not generally possible to patent natural products it can be difficult to fund trials for probiotics.

Consuming prebiotics
Prebiotics are the food that the bacteria in our guts, most beneficial to us, love to feed upon. If we don’t feed them they may die and other less beneficial bacteria may thrive.

Below is an overview of some foods high in prebiotics. Take a look at our BRUNCH club menu on the digestive system for more recipe ideas.

  • Leek, onion and garlic – their prebiotic content is best preserved when eaten raw or slightly cooked, for example in a stir-fry or salad.
  • Artichokes, especially Jerusalem artichokes – not good eaten raw, but if they’re pickled in unpasteurised apple cider vinegar they’ll retain most of their prebiotics.
  • Asparagus – roast or steam gently to retain the prebiotic fibre and serve with lemon juice.
  • Green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach and wild garlic) and dandelion leaves are a wonderful prebiotic and delicious chopped and added raw to a salad.
  • Marine algae (spirulina, chlorella, nostoc) can stimulate the growth of gut bacteria and inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria – great purchased as a powder and added to a morning smoothie.
  • Whole grains such as oats, bulgur wheat and pearl barley contain resistant starch as well as beta-glucans. This makes them the most complex of all the prebiotics.
  • Legumes and pulses contain resistant starch as well as prebiotic fibres. They are also rich in protein and other important minerals. Sometimes eating legumes can cause a little bloating and wind and you may want to try them with a probiotic supplement, or with pickled vegetables. The best are the white beans, because they contain the greatest amount of starch. Black beans and chickpeas are great too.
  • Unpasteurized Apple Cider Vinegar is a great prebiotic, not only because of its high pectin content but also because the vinegar helps convert resistant starch into butyric acid, a great support for the intestinal micro flora. Add to salads or drink a tablespoon each morning with a little water.
  • Brewer’s yeast is a probiotic (contains Saccharomyces boulardii) as well as a prebiotic. Mix 1 – 2 tablespoons per day with yoghurt or use to make ginger beer.


Herbal medicines are medicines made from plants and are wonderful for treating digestive troubles of all sorts. Medicines can be taken as a tea or as a tincture. Teas are excellent for increasing water consumption and softening the stools (aim for 6 – 8 glasses of water per day) or capsules if alcohol needs to be avoided.

Many health food shops can give you advice on which herbs to take but for best results or if your troubles are a little more complicated it is best to consult a qualified Herbal Medicine practitioner such as ourselves.

Artichoke, dandelion root, psylium seed, slippery elm.

*Try to avoid laxatives that stimulate peristalsis, as the body can become reliant upon them. Better to focus on increasing bile production and bulking and softening the stool for smooth passage.

Crohn’s disease
Cat’s claw, liquorice, reishi (capsules), slippery elm, turmeric (capsules).

Cat’s claw, liquorice, plantain, slippery elm, turmeric (capsules), wild yam, yarrow

Artichoke, chamomile, cinnamon, dandelion root, fennel, peppermint, lavender, yarrow

Gastric ulcers
Aloe gel, calendula, cinnamon, liquorice, meadowsweet, pau d’arco, propolis, thyme, yarrow.

Chamomile, devil’s claw, meadowsweet, slippery elm, wild yam.

Gastroenteritis (winter vomiting bug)
Chamomile, liquorice, marshmallow, meadowsweet, plantain and yarrow.

Chamomile, dandelion root, devil’s claw, ginger, lavender, meadowsweet, peppermint, thyme.

Cat’s claw, chamomile, liquorice, meadowsweet, peppermint (EO), slippery elm, wild yam, yarrow.

Pain on passing stools during menstruation
Cramp bark, black haw, Jamaican dogwood.

Ulcerative colitis
Frankincense, marigold, chamomile, flaxseed (ground), liquorice, plantain, slippery elm, turmeric, yarrow.

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