Digestion and intolerances

When your gut feeling isn’t right

The digestive tract of an adult human being is up to nine metres long. Our food usually passes through it without us noticing. We only become aware of our digestive system when it causes problems. Find out what can cause these problems in our advice.

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Imbalanced digestion

What could be the cause of digestion problems?

Eating food is vital for our body because it supplies energy, proteins, minerals and vitamins. A good meal also creates a sense of well-being and satisfaction and enjoying a meal in company can also fulfil important cultural and social functions. The fact that quality of life, health and nutrition are closely linked is now also widely known to us. But what if food is not only good for you, but also causes you problems? Why is it that food literally makes our gut feel weird?

The symptoms are varied and the causes of gastrointestinal complaints can be just as varied. Inflammation, chronic diseases and stress can all throw the stomach and intestines out of balance.

Puzzling intestinal problems

Disturbed digestion with flatulence is usually accompanied by constipation or sudden diarrhoea. Outwardly recognisable by the bulging abdominal wall, it is noticeable to the person affected by a feeling of fullness and even cramping pain. Often these complaints persist over a longer period of time without an organic condition being present: Nausea, heartburn, headaches, back pain and even depressive moods can be the consequences of this.

People rarely think that a food intolerance can also be the trigger for the digestive complaints: Common intolerances involve fructose (fruit sugar) and lactose (milk sugar) and can also manifest themselves in flatulence, bloating and abdominal pain!

What causes flatulence?

Put simply, flatulence is nothing more than gas accumulation in the digestive tract. Small amounts of carbon dioxide are absorbed directly. Other gases, such as hydrogen and methane, collect in the intestine, where they lead to unpleasant consequences such as painful colic and draining intestines.

One reason for this can be an unbalanced diet: An excess of carbohydrates from white flour and sugar, for example, leads to a higher number of gas-forming bacteria in the intestine, which produce putrefactive gases with their fermentation processes. Sugar substitutes, such as those commonly found in light products, are also thought to cause flatulence, but large amounts of animal proteins can also trigger it.

If flatulence occurs as a result of eating cabbage or onions, enzyme preparations can help.

Constipation: Intestinal congestion

Irregular bowel movements do not automatically mean constipation. Often it is simply a case of sluggish digestion. This affects between 30 and 60% of Germans and women are affected twice as frequently as men.

Constipation may be an issue if you empty your bowels less than three times a week and your stools are usually too solid. If the symptoms come on suddenly and are short-lived, this is called acute constipation. It can occur on holiday, for example triggered by unfamiliar food, lack of fluids and a change in daily schedule. However, it can also indicate an emergency such as a bowel obstruction or functional bowel paralysis. However, if the symptoms last longer than 3 months, it is probably chronic constipation.

An exact diagnosis should always be left to an experienced gastroenterologist. Depending on the cause, the treatment of constipation ranges from dietary changes, surgical or drug therapies to voiding aids and psychological methods. Taking laxatives over a long period of time can sometimes have dangerous consequences: The repetitive purging no longer challenges the intestinal muscles. The natural movement of the intestines is weakened and constipation is even more likely to occur. Therefore, laxatives should only be taken for a limited time and exactly as instructed by a doctor or pharmacist. A bowel-friendly lifestyle with plenty of exercise and a healthy diet can help prevent chronic bowel problems.

Food intolerances

When milk, fruit or vegetables cause discomfort

A balanced diet contributes to health and physical fitness just as much as plenty of exercise in the fresh air and sufficient sleep. But what if healthy foods such as fruit, vegetables or milk suddenly cause unpleasant complaints such as flatulence or abdominal pain after eating?

The trigger can often be clearly narrowed down through observation (e.g. with the help of a food diary). Consultation with your family doctor or a nutritionist is advisable in any case. If the complaints are food-related, then two possibilities come into consideration: an allergy or an intolerance. While an allergy is always an overreaction of the body’s own immune system, food intolerance usually involves the body not being able to break down certain substances or only being able to do so insufficiently.

What is the cause of my digestive problems?

The triggers for the complaints can come from a very wide range of foods. Cereals containing gluten in particular have recently come into focus in this context. Gluten is a protein that gives bread dough its consistency, for example. However, it can lead to chronic inflammation of the mucous membrane of the small intestine in people with a predisposition to this. This disease, called coeliac disease, is hereditary, but occurs relatively rarely (in less than 1% of the population in Germany). Whether gluten sensitivity can also exist without a corresponding genetic predisposition is still up for discussion.

About the same number of people are sensitive to histamine, a natural substance that plays an important role in allergic reactions and in the immune system. However, bacterially fermented foods such as salami, hard cheese, sauerkraut, red wine and beer also contain histamine and can trigger allergic reactions in people with histamine intolerance.

A lesser-known but widespread food intolerance, on the other hand, is oligosaccharide intolerance, which can cause symptoms after eating beans and cabbage, for example, due to indigestible carbohydrates. Similarly, many people cannot tolerate fruit and vegetables because they suffer from fructose intolerance. If you experience a rumbling stomach when eating dairy products, it is very likely that you are lactose intolerant.

Oligosaccharide intolerance - When vegetables really are a pain

Every little bean will make its own little sound. As prosaic as it sounds, the metabolic processes behind this phenomenon are complex. For some people, their digestion does not run quite as smoothly after eating pulses or grains. The cause may be a common food intolerance: oligosaccharide intolerance. Beans, cabbage, peas, onions, soy, wholemeal and wheat products, as well as some fruits, are particularly rich in these polysaccharides. In the small intestine, an enzyme is responsible for digesting these almost exclusively plant-based nutrients: alpha-galactosidase. We have provided a shopping guide for you on the topic of oligosaccharides in food.

Alpha-galactosidase is the key to carbohydrates

Alpha-galactosidase is an enzyme used by microorganisms in the digestive tract to break down and digest multiple sugars (oligosaccharides) from complex carbohydrates. If this enzyme is missing, oligosaccharides enter the large intestine undigested, where they are broken down by bacteria, i.e. fermented. This produces carbon dioxide and hydrogen, which can result in abdominal pain and flatulence!

It is not advisable to stop eating healthy foods such as wholemeal bread, beans or even some types of fruit because they contain valuable nutrients and you should consume them regularly. For example, pulses are not only good sources of vital substances, but also indispensable sources of vegetable protein. In addition, the oligosaccharides contained in these foods, similar to dietary fibre, bind lots of liquid and support digestion. If necessary, preparations for the dietary treatment of oligosaccharide intolerance with alpha-galactosidase can facilitate the digestion of such “problematic” foods.

You can also read about digestive problems when eating fruit, vegetables or milk in our brochure: “When food causes discomfort…”

Help with flatulence, constipation and similar conditions

What can I do about my bowel problems?

Who would have thought that the intestine, at 300-500 square metres, is the largest human organ in terms of surface area? However, it plays a major role in our health not only in terms of digestion: The intestinal mucosa contains over 70 percent of the body’s defence cells! But the 300 species of bacteria that form the so-called intestinal flora inside the intestine also help to keep harmful germs away from our bodies. If the intestinal flora and intestinal mucosa are damaged (for example by constant digestive problems), this also weakens our immune system.

Our digestion is influenced by various factors: by the condition of the intestinal mucosa, by stress, by medication and, last but not least, by diet. Disturbed digestion, which manifests itself in constipation or flatulence, is a serious signal from the body that something is wrong. However, it is not necessarily an indication of a serious illness. Often a change in eating habits and daily schedule is enough to get the unpleasant problems under control.

What can I do about flatulence?

Traditionally, anise, fennel and caraway are known to be natural remedies for flatulence in folk medicine. However, if the symptoms occur regularly and frequently after eating pulses or dairy products, food intolerances such as oligosaccharide intolerance or lactose intolerance should be ruled out by a doctor first.

In order not to have to do without these nutrient-rich foods, food supplements or dietary foods that can supply the body with the digestive enzymes it lacks (e.g. alpha-galactosidase or lactaseand support natural digestion) are offered as part of a balanced and mindful diet.

Help with constipation

Over the course of a lifetime, the intestine processes around 30 tonnes of food and sometimes we don’t make it easy for it. Nowadays, fats, proteins and refined carbohydrates really are part of our daily bread. About 70% of the population does not reach the recommended minimum dietary fibre intake of 30 grams per day. Stress and a hectic pace of life, lack of time when eating, too little exercise and insufficient fluid intake further encourage constipation. If you avoid these factors and instead focus on achieving a balanced, high-fibre diet, you have already done a great deal to help!

Indeed, dietary fibres are important components of our daily diet: They bind water in the intestine and stimulate natural intestinal movement by swelling. Both of these things accelerate and promote the transport of intestinal contents, which can prevent constipation.

Build up your intestinal flora

Bacteria living in the intestine, e.g. bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, act as little helpers. They are absorbed through food and live in the intestine. Probiotic foods with a high content of live bacterial cultures include natural yoghurt, kefir and sour milk. But lactic fermented foods such as sauerkraut, bread drink and miso also contain the beneficial bacteria.

These microorganisms need complex carbohydrates (also called prebiotics), such as the dietary fibres inulin and oligofructose, to grow. These polysaccharides (multiple sugars) are a natural component of many plant species. Unlike other types of sugar, however, they are not broken down by the human body, but migrate undigested to the large intestine, where they can serve as a food source for the natural intestinal flora.

Dietary fibre and digestion

Fibre and digestion as part of a healthy diet

Dietary fibres are indigestible food components that are mainly found in plant-based foods. They are an important part of a healthy diet and have important functions in digestion.

A distinction is made between water-soluble and non-soluble dietary fibres. Water-insoluble dietary fibres have a higher swelling capacity compared to water-soluble dietary fibres. They increase the stool volume and ensure that the intestinal contents are transported more quickly. Water-soluble dietary fibres, on the other hand, are fermented in the intestine by the intestinal flora. Substances are produced that serve as an energy-providing substrate for the intestinal mucosa, for example.

The German Nutrition Society (DGE) recommends that adults consume at least 30 g of dietary fibre per day. However, according to the National Nutrition Survey II, around 68% of men and 75% of women do not reach this guideline value.

As part of a high-fibre diet, you should eat three slices of wholemeal bread, a portion of muesli and a portion of potatoes and vegetables per day. Special dietary supplements can additionally help to reach the guideline value for dietary fibre intake.

Products containing psyllium husks must first swell for a few minutes before you eat them. This generally sticky substance is often difficult to enjoy. An alternative is fibre powder made from inulin and acacia fibre. The powder dissolves completely in food and drinks during preparation and can be consumed directly.