What you need to know about digestion

Posted on: 06 January 2020 by Sarah Brewer

Dr Sarah Brewer, Medical Director of Healthspan, looks at how to keep your digestive system in tip top condition.

understand digestionWhen your digestion works properly, it’s easy to take it for granted. As we get older, however, reduced secretion of stomach acid and digestive enzymes can lead to indigestion and heartburn. Reduced production of stomach acid affects as many as one in five people in their 50s, rising to almost one in three of those aged 60 or more.[i]

What are indigestion and heartburn?

Indigestion, or dyspepsia, refers to discomfort in the upper abdomen, such as distension, flatulence, nausea, acidity and abdominal pain.

Heartburn is a more specific term for hot, burning sensations, felt behind the sternum, which may spread up into the throat.

how to avoid heartburn and reflux

Why do they happen?

The stomach naturally produces less hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes as you get older, the liver produces less bile (needed to digest fats) and pancreatic secretions also reduce, with the overall result that digestion slows.

The usual cause of indigestion is irritation of the stomach lining, trapped ‘wind’ or excessive contraction of the stomach wall as it tries to mechanically break down food with less acid and enzymes to help.

The usual cause of heartburn is acid reflux, in which stomach contents pass up into the oesophagus - the tube connecting the mouth and stomach. Known as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) this brings stomach acids and enzymes into contact with the sensitive lining of the oesophagus which, as well as causing burning, can trigger painful spasm of surrounding muscles.  Acid reflux is normally prevented by a valve-like mechanism between the stomach and oesophagus which often becomes weaker in later life.

Some people with acid reflux do not experience burning sensations and this ‘silent reflux’  may contribute to some cases of hoarseness, voice problems, cough, sensations of a lump in the throat and repeated throat clearing.

avoid coffee

Can you prevent them?

If you are overweight, then indigestion and heartburn are usually improved by losing even a small amount of weight. One study found that losing 4kg excess fat reduced the severity of heartburn and acid reflux by 75%. [ii]

Avoid coffee as this relaxes the ring of muscle between the stomach and oesophagus which can cause or aggravate heartburn.[iii]

Aim to eat little and often throughout the day rather than having three large meals, and take care not to stoop, bend or lie down immediately after eating. Also avoid tight clothing around your waist.

Avoid rich food (eg cream sauces) or ‘heavy’ foods (eg pastry, gateaux, cheesecake) as well as acidic fruit juices which commonly trigger indigestion or heartburn.

Avoid late-night eating as this increases the risk of indigestion waking you - digestion slows while you sleep and lying flat makes reflux more likely. Elevating the head of the bed by 15-20 cm (for example by placing a sturdy book under the bed legs) can help if symptoms come on when lying down.

Avoid smoking cigarettes, and don’t take aspirin and related drugs (eg ibuprofen) which can irritate the stomach lining.

natural yoghurt

What supplements and treatments can help?

Probiotic bacteria help to promote good digestion. Eating live Bio yoghurt and taking probiotic supplements also inhibit the growth of bacteria (Helicobacter pylori) that can irritate the stomach lining to cause indigestion.[iv]

Artichoke extracts stimulate bile production and can reduce indigestion, bloating and flatulence.

Milk thistle is a traditional herbal medicine for heartburn and indigestion, while peppermint oil is an effective treatment for wind, indigestion and bowel spasms.

Antacid combinations can also help. Healthspan’s new GastriSoothe  (24 x 10ml sachets, £12.95)  is a unique, triple-action formula for heartburn relief. Firstly, it contains sodium alginate which forms a gel ‘raft’ on top of stomach contents to help stop the reflux of gastric juices. Secondly, it contains sodium bicarbonate and calcium carbonate to reduce burning and, thirdly, it contains concentrated aloe vera juice which coats and soothes the stomach lining. The ready-to-drink sachets also have a natural mint flavour.

GastriSoothe suspension is recommended for the treatment of gastro-oesophageal reflux and relief from associated symptoms such as heartburn, acid regurgitation, reflux oesophagitis, dyspepsia, coughing and sore throat.

Take one to two 10ml sachets after main meals and at bedtime. It may be necessary to take the product for two to three consecutive days in order to alleviate symptoms. The product should be taken as is and not diluted.

NB If indigestion or heartburn persist for more than a week or are severe or recurrent, always seek medical advice to find out the cause.

Images: Drica Pinotti, Mateus Campos Felipe, Brigitte Tohmand Joshua Coleman on Unsplash

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