Quarantine Constipation

How lockdown impacts your gut

Sorry another less glamorous post, but one that’s a reality for a lot of people right now.

It’s been over a month since we all went into lockdown.

With it, our routines, our usual exercise, our regular meals, our normal sleep patterns,  literally went out the window…. and so has our daily rhythm.

During normal times the NHS estimate’s that around 1 in every 7 adults and up to 1 in every 3 children in the UK has constipation at any one time.

Lockdown could see these figures rising as a result of being less physically active, eating a larger proportion of dried foods (judging by the empty pasta and rice supermarket shelves), and the general stress and worry that a pandemic naturally brings.

Let’s understand why stress has an impact on digestion

During a period of increased stress, hormones including cortisol, adrenaline and serotonin are released by the brain. This causes stomach spasms to occur leading to gut disturbances.

If the stress is ongoing, these disturbances may inhibit the digestive process slowing it down, causing constipation.

Furthermore, this is not a one-way telephone call.

The gut also communicates back to your brain.

Your gut contains trillions of bacteria that natural populate there. These bacteria are called your MICROBIOME. Despite them weighing a hefty 5 pounds, we’ve only really been aware of their importance in the last 25 years.

Your microbiome communicates with your brain by sending signals through a network pathway of nerves, neurotransmitters and hormones.

It’s a truly remarkable living community!

The food you eat passes through your gut, feeding these little guys.

Studies have found that eating certain foods that enhance the microbiome can have a positive impact on the brain and levels of anxiety.

In other words, good dietary choices can help you feel happy and calm.

So, if you changed the way you eat in the last month and, like many, are consuming more larder cupboard staples, you could unwittingly have affected your mood as well as your digestion.

Gut and the immune system

Now let’s talk about the relationship between your gut and immune system.

Our microbiome also plays a vital role in the strength of our immune system. In fact it shapes our gut immune response protecting us from infection.

NB/ Let’s get one thing straight first, whilst boosting the immune system is not a guaranteed way to stay protected from covid-19, it can help to fight the virus should you become infected.

In fact, weakened immunity may be one of the reasons why the elderly and people with chronic illness (as evidence from around the world is suggesting) are at higher risk of developing life-threatening complications compared with younger adults and children.

Constipation negatively impacts our gut microbiome

The bowel’s job is to eliminate waste material from the body. If those substances sit in there too long, they begin to produce toxins related to fermentation. You’ll know this, because it smells bad. This negatively impacts the gut bacteria and overtime may cause a wide range of gut problems, impacting your health long term.

With the above in mind, cultivating a healthy gut microbiome is essential for the maintenance of your overall health. Any imbalances may disrupt our immune response and lead to illness.

But with lockdown still in full swing, and likely to last for at least another month, how do you establish a regular rhythm and a healthy gut?

Six EASY ways to improve quarantine constipation;

  1. Fluids

Firstly, are you drinking enough fluids? Water is needed to soften stools, and dehydration can lead to constipation. Caffeinated (black tea and coffee) drinks don’t count as there are diuretic (stimulate urination), though herbal teas are fine.

2. Exercise

Movement helps the journey of undigested food through the intestines. Being stuck at indoors means less moving around. Current government guidelines urge us to stay in unless necessary, but we can still do exercises from home. Even walking up and down stairs or dancing to your favourite tune can help.

3. Routine

A daily routine is essential for a daily rhythm, – if you know what I mean. So, get up at your usual time, even if you’re not going to work. Eat meals at the same time every day, and get adequate amounts of sleep.

4. Fibre

We all know the importance of fibre in our diet.

Larder cupboard butternut squash salad

But not all fibre is created equally.

There are two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble.

We need to eat both to stay healthy.

All fibre rich foods should naturally contain a balance of both types…..

…….just as nature intended.

However, if we’re predominantly eating a larder cupboard diet which may include refined flour, white pasta, rice, cous cous, we’re probably not getting enough fibre at all.

Furthermore, if we’re using wheat as our main source of fibre, for example, toast for breakfast, sandwiches or crackers for lunch, boredom baking for tea and pasta for dinner, then we’ll be getting too much of one type of fibre – the insoluble kind.

Insoluble fibre – is the type of fibre that when added to water doesn’t dissolve, swell or absorb water. In this way when it passes through the digestive system, it creates bulk (good), but it’s also dry and abrasive (bad).

Soluble fibre on the other hand, is the type of fibre that swells when you add water, creating a soft gel like consistency that keeps stools soft. Think porridge oats, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.

Soaking these foods, for example stewing fruit or immersing oats, beans and nuts overnight in water, makes them even more digestible.

5. Variety

Courgette and onion pakora

In this way, variety is the spice of life, and aiming to get at least five different portions of fruit and vegetables a day will not only increase your vitamin and mineral levels but increase the soluble fibre in your diet. Changing some of your larder cupboard staples, may also have a positive impact. (Read more on how to do that here)

6. Fermented foods

‘Fermenting’ is buzz word that has dramatically come into forefront in the past few years. Although it appears new, it is actually just the traditional way some foods were prepared to stop them from spoiling.

These foods, which include sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and live natural yoghurt contain naturally occurring good bacteria that help enhance the microbiome (read more on this here) and improve digestion.

Immune boosting smoothie

Eating these foods alongside soluble fibre is an excellent way to increase gut movement and relieve constipation.

What’s even better, is that no expensive supplements are needed.

It’s easy to make overnight oats, an immune boosting smoothie or homemade sauerkraut.

Overall, whilst we many not always be able to directly reduce our anxiety levels at a time like this, making small changes to our diet can positively impact our digestion, mood and overall health.

As with any medical problem, if none of this works, as Dr. Luke in his insightful post suggests, consulting your GP is still important.  

Published by carolinementzer

Caroline Mentzer is a Nutritional Therapist, Herbalist and Writer from Oxford, UK. Married to and Infectious Disease doctor, her blog discusses the benefits of combining holistic and conventional approaches to find unique solutions to many health and parenting challenges.

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