Go with your gut. Stop problems before they start.

Gut healthBy Siri Carpenter

Once you’ve polished off a meal, you probably don’t give it much thought. But when you push away from the table, your gut’s work is only beginning — it will take between 9 hours and a day or two for the food you just ate to be fully digested. During that time, your stomach and small intestine break your food down into molecules that the small intestine’s thin lining can absorb, allowing essential nutrients — the energy stream that fuels every cell in your body — to enter your bloodstream. The lower part of your small intestine then wrings out the water remaining in your meal and ushers it into your colon, which funnels it into your bloodstream to help keep you hydrated.

As straightforward as this process sounds, the seemingly simple chore of digestion depends on a finely orchestrated series of muscular contractions, chemical secretions and electrical signals all along the 30-foot-long gastrointestinal tract. But there’s also plenty you can do to keep this operation running smoothly.

Follow its pace 
A rushed meal is out of sync with the creeping pace of the gut. Savor your meal. In a neat bit of mind/body magic, the thought, sight and aroma of good food jump-start the digestive process, signaling the stomach and salivary glands to secrete chemicals that will help break down food. Chew your food well so your gut doesn’t have to work as hard to break it down. Eat slowly to avoid gulping air, which will make you gassy, bloated and — thanks to the mind’s payback to the body — irritable.

Nurture its residents 
Gut-friendly bacteria use fiber, an indigestible carbohydrate, as their main food source, so eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, such as oats, barley, whole wheat and popcorn. Fiber also aids the passage of food and waste through the gut. Most adult women should aim for over 20 g of fiber a day; men should get at least 30 g. But again, go slowly: Increasing your fiber intake too quickly can cause gas and bloating.

Respect its opinions 
Even the most finely tuned machine has its quirks — if certain foods trigger GI problems for you, avoid them. Common heartburn culprits: acidic, spicy and fatty foods; caffeinated and carbonated drinks; chocolate; and onions.

Notorious gas producers include beans, onions and cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage and radishes. (These veggies are loaded with vital nutrients, so don’t shun them altogether, but enjoy them in small doses.) The same goes for packaged low-carb treats and other foods containing artificial sweeteners — especially the sweetener sorbitol.

Lighten its load
People who are overweight are more likely to suffer from GI problems. Whatever your weight, though, regular exercise can help alleviate digestive distress. In a study involving 983 people participating in a weight loss program, the more physical activity people got each week, the fewer GI symptoms they had. Aim for at least 20 minutes of moderate activity each day.

It’s your second brain 
Your gut is also intimately involved in some intensely emotional business: We rely upon our gut instinct to tell us the right thing to do. We have a gut reaction to people who offend or delight us. We do a gut check when facing a challenge and congratulate ourselves when we display the intestinal fortitude, or guts, to take it on.

When you think about it, you won’t be surprised to learn that your gut, or “second brain,” is synced up with your real brain. Just think about how a bout of intense fear or panic can liquefy your innards — or, more commonly, when a cramp or brief wave of nausea alerts you to a nagging anxiety your mind had been working so hard to suppress. There’s a good reason your gut and your “first brain” communicate so seamlessly: Every class of neurochemical produced in the first brain is also produced in the second.

Another kind of chemical is the primary go-between for these two brains: stress hormones. When the brain detects any kind of threat — whether an impending layoff or a dustup with your spouse — it shoots stress hormones to your gut. Sensory nerves there respond by adjusting acid secretion and shutting down both appetite and digestion — a throwback to more dangerous times in our past, when we needed to summon all our resources to stand and fight, or flee. The result may be a nagging stomachache or a full-blown bout of GI distress.

Tummy trouble is the body’s way of saying, “Pay attention to what’s bugging you!” says clinical nutritionist Elizabeth Lipski, PhD, CCN, author of Digestive Wellness and Digestive Wellness for Children. “If my gut doesn’t feel right, my job is to figure out what’s out of balance.” Although resolving work or personal problems requires long-term strategizing, you can tamp down the symptoms of a troubled gut with these tried-and-true anxiety-reducing techniques:

Breathe into your belly 
Meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and other practices that encourage mindful relaxation make the body less sensitive to stress, research suggests. Deep breathing, using the muscles of your diaphragm (you should feel your belly expand and deflate with each inhale and exhale), can also help calm your mind and release tension in your abdominal muscles, easing indigestion. Another way to calm the body’s autonomic nervous system — which regulates digestion, among other things—is through progressive muscle relaxation, tightening and then relaxing small groups of muscles beginning in your toes and working your way up to your face.

Go for easy workouts 
Moderate exercise is a known enemy of stress. (Whenever you can, exercise outdoors — natural settings help calm frayed nerves.) Start slowly and increase activity gradually — even a 20-minute stroll will help soothe nerves, improve digestion and reduce bloating, gas, and constipation by optimizing the passage of waste through your bowels.

Remember: Your ultimate goal in soothing a troubled tummy is to get clearer intuitive signals. When something really bugs you, your second brain will let you know loud and clear.

It’s your shield against germs 
If you’ve ever had food poisoning, you know your gut is an uncompromising vigilante. When a nasty microbe hitchhikes a ride into the body on the back of real food, the gut quickly recognizes the interloper and strong-arms it to the nearest exit. To make the ID in the first place, it calls upon a reliable army of sentries, millions of immune system cells residing in its walls.

If the fact that the gut plays a major role in immunity sounds surprising, consider that the whole purpose of the immune system is to differentiate what’s you from what’s not you. Then consider that every day, you introduce pounds of foreign material — your daily bread — into your gut. The immune system has to decide what’s okay to let through and what’s not, so it makes sense to headquarter that process right where the food comes in.

This powerful system gears up from day 1. A newborn’s gastrointestinal tract is entirely germ free, but immediately after birth, pioneering bacteria begin to colonize it. The first few years of life, everyone’s gut develops a unique extended family of bacterial species, determined in part by genetics and in part by diet, hygiene, medication use and the bacteria colonizing those around us. Perhaps bacteria’s most important job: stimulating and training the body’s immune system and, by its overwhelming presence, crowding out more harmful critters.

The specific microbial mix (your gut contains thousands of species of bacteria) you wind up with has a big impact on your health. Besides making you more resistant to disease, the balance (or lack thereof) of microbes in your gut may lower your risk of obesity or influence your risk of autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease. Clearly, this extended family deserves coddling. Just in time for cold and flu season, here are immune-boosting ways to protect it:

Steer clear of detoxes 
Colonic “cleansers” rid the colon of good bacteria and can cause overgrowth of bad bacteria.

Avoid overusing antibiotics 
They kill not only pathogens causing your ailment but also good bacteria.

Consume foods with probiotics
Look for yogurts and soy milks that contain strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. In addition to protecting against colds and flu and promoting healthful bacteria, probiotics can help relieve diarrhea caused by infection or antibiotics, irritable bowel syndrome, or Crohn’s disease.

Health Canada Adds Bisphenol A to List of Toxic Substances

BPA toxicityThe federal government has decided to add bisphenol A to the country’s list of toxic substances, a move that is likely to renew attention on the widespread use of the controversial chemical in almost all food cans sold in Canada.

The toxic determination, issued in Saturday’s Canada Gazette, makes Canada the first country to classify as risky bisphenol A, the chemical building block for polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins.

The government took the action based on worries that infants up to the age of 18 months might be inadvertently getting too much of the chemical, which mimics the hormone estrogen, from baby formula cans and plastic baby bottles, as well concerns that fish and other wildlife could be harmed from environmental exposure. The federal statement didn’t raise concerns over adult exposure.

Big Waist Raises Risk of Diabetes, Analysis Suggests

Waist size and diabetesLarger waist size, rather than traditional factors such as obesity, is the major reason why the United States has a higher diabetes rate than England, researchers say.

The new findings offer more evidence that excess fat around the mid-section is a health risk and suggest that studies of type 2 diabetes should focus on waist size along with traditional risk factors, said the American and British researchers.

Diabetes occurs in about 16 percent of American men, 14 percent of American women, and 11 percent and 7 percent of men and women in England, respectively, the study authors noted in a news release from the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.

When the researchers analyzed studies about the health and lifestyles of people in the United States and England, they found no association between higher diabetes rates in the United States and conventional risk factors such as age, smoking, socioeconomic status, or body mass index (the height and weight ratio used to measure overweight and obesity).

But they did find that American men’s waists were an average of 3 centimeters (1.5 inches) larger than those of men in England. And American women’s waists were an average of 5 centimeters (2 inches) larger than those of women in England.

In addition, women in America were much more likely than women in England to face a higher risk of diabetes because of their waist size (69 percent versus 56 percent), while American men had only a slightly higher waist size-related diabetes risk than their counterparts in England, the study authors found.

“Americans carry more fat around their middle sections than the English, and that was the single factor that explained most of the higher rates of diabetes seen in the United States, especially among American women. Waist size is the missing new risk factor we should be studying,” study co-author James P. Smith, corporate chair of economics at the RAND Corp., said in the news release.

The study findings were published online Oct. 7 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Adding zinc, prebiotics to oral rehydration speeds diarrhea recovery

Gut healthChildren with acute diarrhea recover more quickly when treated with a hypotonic oral rehydration solution containing zinc and prebiotics than those given standard oral rehydration, an Italian group reports in The Journal of Pediatrics online September 9, 2010.

For parents, this meant less time off work — 1.49 vs. 0.39 days in the two groups, respectively.

“No adverse events related to the use of the ORS were observed in the study groups,” the researchers report.

Efficacy of a New Hypotonic Oral Rehydration Solution Containing Zinc and Prebiotics in the Treatment of Childhood Acute Diarrhea: A Randomized Controlled Trial
J Pediatr 2010.

Food allergies make kids a target of bullies

Food allergy bullyingBy Elizabeth Landau, CNN

It’s tough enough having to avoid products with peanuts and other ingredients as a kid with severe food allergies. It’s tougher when someone at school waves a granola bar in your face at the peanut-free lunch table.

That’s what happened last week to a Pennsylvania fifth-grader whose mother asked that he not be identified. The boy had experienced allergic reactions to merely touching peanuts or breathing peanut particles in the past, so the act of granola-waving was more serious than for other allergy sufferers.

“He said [he was] scared, and ‘sad that he would do that to me,’ and ‘mad that he would do that to me,’ and worried that it’s going to happen again,” the boy’s mother said.

As the prevalence of food allergies grows in America, doctors are becoming more conscious of a disturbing trend in children getting picked on for not being able to eat certain foods.

According to a new study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, about 35 percent of children over age 5 with food allergies have experienced bullying, teasing or harassment. The study, which mostly surveys the parents of these children, said those negative social experiences, which included physical and verbal incidents, happened because of food allergies.

“The school has to really address it. It’s not the child’s job to take care of this problem, because there’s already an imbalance of power,” said study author Dr. Scott Sicherer, pediatric allergist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Gina Clowes, director of allergymoms.com and a coach for parents on food allergies, hears stories about food-allergic kids targeted by others in school all the time.

“They’ll make fun of what they’re eating,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s innocent or malicious, but some kids will literally threaten them with the peanut, or ‘I’m going to throw peanuts at you.’ “

While bullying with regard to food allergies isn’t all that different from bullying about other attributes, children with food allergies have an additional burden because they have the responsibility of taking care of themselves medically already, Clowes and Sicherer stressed.

“Here you have a child who already has to deal with not eating the same things as the other children; they already have to worry about is this meal safe for them; about having an allergic reaction,” Sicherer said. “This is an additional problem of someone making it even harder on them.”

The warning signs are similar to other forms of bullying, Clowes said: A child may appear sad, upset, withdrawn, anxious or say that he or she doesn’t want to go to school. But parents should also look for changes in their kids’ eating habits: They may come home with an untouched lunchbox, for example.

“I’ve had parents say kids go the entire day without eating because they’re being made fun of for special foods,” Clowes said.

The latest data from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention show that about 3.9 percent of children younger than 18 in the United States have food allergies, representing an 18 percent increase from 1997 to 2007.

None of the incidents reported in the study resulted in allergic reactions, but the danger of them resulting in a dangerous reaction is self-evident, the study authors wrote. The emotional toll is also great. Common consequences included feelings of sadness or depression and embarrassment or humiliation.

This is the first study to address the scope of bullying as it relates to food allergies, the authors said. The information about allergic individuals came from 353 surveys, most of which were completed by parents who were attending various Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network conferences.

More children with food allergies may experience acts of bullying and other targeted negative behaviors than their peers, Sicherer said. A 2001 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study found that about 17 percent of children in grades six to 10 reported being bullied. By comparison, 50 percent of kids in that age group in the food allergy study were reported to have experienced bullying, teasing or harassment.

The study had the limitation of obtaining most data from parents, rather than children themselves. On the other hand, some children likely do not report these incidents to their parents, meaning Sicherer and colleagues could have underestimated behaviors targeted at food-allergic children.

Parents should inform teachers and administrators right away if an incident occurs, Clowes said.

Children should try to stay away from the person who has bullied them and stand by trusted friends, Sicherer said. Ultimately, it also takes intervention on someone else’s part to speak to whomever is doing the bullying, so children should tell trusted adults what’s going on, he said.

Dr. Stanley Fineman, a practicing allergist with the Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Clinic, said allergists don’t normally ask children if they’ve been bullied or harrassed, but that this study suggests they should. In his own practice, Fineman has heard of incidents such as a child eating peanut butter and then spitting on a peer. He will more regularly inquire about allergy-related incidents because of the new data, he said.

“We as physicians need to specifically ask our patients directly what sort of bullying or harassment type situations have they had in school, because this is something that has not been on our radar screen as it probably should be,” he said.

The Pennsylvania mother whose child got a granola bar waved in his face last week isn’t worried about her son managing his allergies — it’s the other kids she’s nervous about. The teachers at the school have been understanding, but she believes there needs to be more education that one person’s allergy is not the same as another’s — and her son is particularly sensitive. She also dislikes that the school puts her son into a category called “peanut kids,” who get a peanut-free table.

“It’s very open, it’s obvious who has a problem and what the problem is,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t think people understand the severity of it.”