You and your gut

Most of us take a lot of interest what goes into our stomachs, but a lot less in what happens thereafter yet the end product can give vital clues to our state of health.

“I believe that good health starts with good digestion,” says nutritional therapist Ian Marber. A sound philosophy, and yet, at any one time, a third of the UK population is suffering with one of the following digestive disorders: irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhoea, stomach ache, nausea or sickness. These may not sound like conditions worth getting into a tizz about until you also consider that 14% of deaths in the UK are linked to the digestive tract.

Toilet talk is commonly the domain of comedians and new parents, but without intending to be crude, it’s time we all got a little more au fait with our faeces. According to new research revealed during Gut Week (20-26th Aug), a quarter of people surveyed said they would ignore blood in their stools; 73% said they wouldn’t bother visiting their GP even if they suffered with persistent diarrhoea; and 69% wouldn’t investigate further even if they had to endure ongoing stomach cramps. No wonder, then, that the toll for digestive-related deaths is so high. That’s why we’ve decided to lift the seat on bowel movements with a guide to checking yours, ensuring you stay healthy and fit for years to come…

Constipation concerns

If your trips to the loo are about as regular as your visits to the zoo, don’t panic. ‘Anything between three times a day and three times a week can be normal,’ says Dr Anthony Leeds, senior lecturer in nutritional sciences at King’s College London. But, he adds, if you’ve had a recent change of bowel habit that has no obvious explanation such as a change in diet or a lack of liquid intake, then that may be a sign of a problem, so you should see your GP.

And consistency is relevant in more than one way: your stool should be firm but not hard. The more fibre you eat, along with plenty of fluids, the larger and easier to pass your stools will become. “The intestine works rather like a tube of toothpaste – so by adding fibre you make it easier for the intestine to squeeze out what’s in there,” says registered nutritionist Carina Norris. “When there’s not much ‘bulk’ inside the tube, it becomes more difficult to get anything out.”

Possible causes include dehydration, which slows down the digestive process; lack of fibre intake, which hinders the formation of a stool; certain medications (check the listed side-effects on the packaging); stress or anxiety, which can prevent the stomach from properly digesting food.

See your GP if:

You also have abdominal (tummy) pain: this can be caused by straining, but if it’s a recent and persistent problem, and you’re over 40 years old, it should be checked out by your doctor. “Sometimes colon cancer starts in this way and the sooner it is detected and treated the better,” says Dr Leeds. “There are many different kinds of abdominal pain, and some are caused by serious problems like stomach ulcers or inflammation of the pancreas gland, so it’s always worth a visit to your GP.”

You also have cramps: If you also experience cramps and/or pain in the rectum, you should see a GP as you may be suffering with faecal impaction where there is a blockage in the intestine.

Colour prejudice

All the leaves are brown, as the Mamas and the Papas sang, and so should your stool be.

See your GP if your stool is:

Black This can indicate bleeding in the digestive tract. Red blood reacts with stomach acid and enzymes turning it black.

Red Don’t panic, blood in your stool doesn’t spell instant death but it does mean you should go to your GP for a check-up. “A dark stool or one containing blood shows that there is bleeding from somewhere inside the gut and this needs to be investigated,” says Dr Leeds. It could be a sign of an ulcer, inflammatory bowel disease, irritation caused by drugs such as aspirin, for example, or cancer.

Gut Bacteria
Gut Bacteria

Diarrhoea dilemmas

With this stomach upset you get double the trouble as, bizarrely, it can also be a symptom of constipation. “Although infections from food poisoning or contaminated water are the most common causes of diarrhoea, older people can experience diarrhoea alongside constipation,” says Dr Leeds. If someone is suffering with faecal impaction, for example, where a blockage has formed in the intestines, a watery mucous can find its way around the blockage and the individual mistakenly believes that this discharge indicates diarrhoea, when the opposite is true.

See your GP if:

You have ongoing cramps: this could be a sign of faecal compaction (see above).

With nausea or vomiting: usually indicates an infection or a toxic substance. You may need antibiotics.

Floating your bloat

Aside from forcing you to release your skirt or trouser button, bloating can indicate an intolerance to certain foods or that you’re eating too much of a particular food group. Large quantities of protein or fruit, for example, will produce bloating; if you’re lactose intolerant, dairy products will also encourage gas formation; and ingesting large quantities of fructose have also been found to cause bloating, as well as diarrhoea.

A recent study undertaken at the University of Kansas Medical Center in the US found that drinking just one can of soft drink that contains fructose, the sweetener often used by food manufacturers, produced bloating, diarrhoea and gastrointestinal discomfort in 50% of participants. But it’s not just soft drinks that contain this seemingly innocent sugar. Kellogg’s Cornflakes and All-Bran, Ribena and Yoplait Petit Filous also contain fructose. And, of course, natural fruit juice also packs a fair whack of the stuff, so if you often suffer from bloating, try diluting your juice, and check food labels.

See your GP if:

You think you may have an intolerance to a food type: write a food diary so you can ascertain which food is causing you painful bloating or other problems and take this with you. Some intolerances can be alleviated with medication.

Tips for better digestion:

*Eat regular, smaller meals rather than missing meals and then feasting

*Sit down to eat and chew your food, it’ll make it pass through your system more easily

*Drink at least six to eight glasses of water or fluid daily, making sure that of those, only two are caffeinated as they are diuretics, making water pass through you more quickly

*Include wholegrain cereals or breads in your daily diet, as well as five portions of fruit and veg, to ensure you have enough fibre in your system

*Keep your digestive system maintained by topping up with a daily probiotic drink or yoghurt

The benefits of goats milk

Many people are turning to goats’ milk products as a ‘healthier’ alternative to dairy products — indeed the UK market is now worth £50?million a year.

At around £1.40 per litre (compared with 52p for cows’ milk), goats’ milk is clearly not cheap — but is it worth the outlay?

First, let’s look at the nutrition.

‘Both cows’ and goats’ milk contain similar levels of calcium and most other vitamins and minerals,’ says Jennifer Lowe of the British Dietetic Association.

But when it comes to vitamin B12 — which is important for the formation of healthy red blood cells — cows’ milk wins hands down.

‘Half a tumbler of cows’ milk contains nearly two thirds of the recommended daily intake — you’d have to drink nine times that amount of goats’ milk to get the same levels,’ says Lowe.

Some children given goats’ milk have been found to have B12 deficiency (symptoms include fatigue and weakness).

However, goats’ milk may boost iron absorption more effectively than cows’, according to a study last year from the University of Granada in Spain.

The study also found goats’ milk contained higher levels of zinc and selenium, which help the immune system.

Furthermore, many fans of the milk claim that those with an allergy to cows’ milk can happily pour goats’ milk on their cereal.

But this may not be the case.

If you have an allergy to cows’ milk — around five per cent of the UK population is thought to be affected — you’re likely to have a similar response to goats’ milk, and sheep’s milk, too.

‘The protein that causes an allergy is very similar in all these types of milk,’ says Lowe.

People who claim to be intolerant to lactose, the natural carbohydrate in milk, often swap cows’ for goats’ milk.

But Lowe points out that, ‘the two actually contain similar levels of lactose — 4.1 per cent in goats’ compared with 4.7 per cent in cows’ — so switching to goats’ milk won’t make any difference to your symptoms.’

Goats milk
Goats milk

Instead those people with a lactose intolerance should opt for a dairy-free alternative such as soya milk. But could goats’ milk help you shed the pounds?

When it comes to calories and saturated fat, there’s little difference between cows’ and goats’ milk.

A 100ml serving (about half a tumbler) of whole fat cows’ milk provides 67 calories and 3.9 grams of fat, while goats’ contains 60 calories and 3.5 grams of fat.

The semi-skimmed versions of both contain around 45 calories and 1.7 grams fat.

However, although it may not be a great help to slimmers, some claim that goats’ milk helps to minimise abdominal bloating.

It’s true that its fat globules are generally smaller than those in cows’ milk so the body’s digestive enzymes can break it down more rapidly — however, there’s no confirmed link with reduced abdominal bloating.

Other more tried and tested methods of reducing bloating include avoiding foods such as onions and cauliflower, which are known to be a cause of the problem.

Experts also recommend trying to avoid ‘gulping’ too much air when drinking and eating.

They advise chewing with your mouth closed, not talking and eating at the same time, and sitting down when you eat.

Drinking lots of fluids is also important, and some experts believe that consuming foods and drinks with probiotic ‘friendly’ bacteria may also help.

And last year’s study at the University of Granada found goats’ milk contained a significant amount of oligosaccharides, compounds that reach the large intestine undigested and act like prebiotics, enhancing the growth of healthy ‘probiotic’ gut flora that wards off infections.

There’s been a 40 per cent rise in demand for goats’ milk for children in recent years, the result of an increase in the numbers said to be either allergic to dairy or unable to digest it.

But goats’ milk is not for babies and young infants — the proteins are too concentrated for young children to digest and some sources of it are unpasteurised, raising the risk of bacterial infection, diarrhoea and sickness.

According to the Department of Health: ‘Infant formulas and follow-on formulas based on goats’ milk protein have not been approved for use in Europe’.

So when you’re considering whether to switch to goat, it seems that sticking with old-fashioned cow may be better for your health — as well as your wallet.