9 Common Medical Myths about Digestive Problems
Benjamin Brown teaches nutritional medicine and is on the advisory board at the UK College of Nutrition and Health
Here's what he has to say regarding the common myths we are told about digestive problems
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1) It's all in your head
For a long time the symptoms of IBS have been thought to be purely psychological and people with chronic digestive problems are sometimes still told it's all in their head. Well, it is in your head, but not how you think! Several studies have found an increased incidence of stress, anxiety and even functional changes in the brains of people with IBS, but this is only half the picture. Your head is part of your gastrointestinal system. This may sound like a crazy suggestion but your brain and gut are in constant communication via what is referred to scientifically as the gut-brain axis. The gut-brain axis is basically a network of nerves and hormones that closely link your digestive system and brain, sending messages so that your gut can tell your brain if you are hungry or full and your brain can tell your gut if you are stressed or anxious. So the truth is that your brain and gut are intimately interconnected, and dysfunction in one area can affect the other. Just as stress can cause digestive problems, digestive problems can cause stress. So if someone tells you it's all in your head, let them know politely that scientific research has proven that their brains are in their bowels.
2) There is no known cause
The problem is that while a diagnosis can be useful, identifying the underlying cause is much more meaningful. Rather than being labelled with IBS, wouldn't you rather someone investigated every possible cause and helped you get to the reason for your symptoms? There are many different reasons why people suffer from digestive symptoms and there is a lot you can do about it.
3) Your symptoms will go away with time
For some people digestive problems are intermittent and may even disappear with time but, unfortunately, most people constantly suffer and may have symptoms for the whole of their lives. Putting up with symptoms in the hope that the condition will improve is not going to get you anywhere if you don't deal with the root cause of the problem. If you do take action your symptoms may improve with time, and in some cases very fast.
4) Probiotic supplements are useless
The media loves an attention-grabbing headline and often misrepresents scientific research and this is true for probiotic supplements. It is important to review the research in its entirety. Unfortunately, isolated studies can be misleading and these are generally what are reported on. Some probiotics have been shown to be tremendously effective for common digestive complaints such as bloating, pain and diarrhoea, but not all of them are effective for everybody. So the truth is, certain probiotics can be very helpful for some people. In fact, there is evidence that probiotics can not only relieve symptoms, they can also help improve the balance of your gut bacteria.
5) Diet has nothing to do with it
Many people with digestive complaints identify diet as a trigger of their symptoms. Unfortunately, some dietary recommendations for IBS don't take into account newer research in this area and fall short of the mark by making simplistic general healthy eating guidelines that often don't help at all. Following the popular recommendation to simply eat a healthy, balanced diet could spell disaster for a lot of people with digestive problems. There are many seemingly healthy foods that can aggravate symptoms. There really is no one-size-fits-all dietary approach. While dietary change is not the solution for everyone, for some people, diet has everything to do with their symptoms. Diet does play a very important role when it comes to digestive illness, but perhaps not in the way you have been led to believe.
6) You need to eat more fibre
Early studies claimed that dietary fibre might be able to help relieve symptoms, and since then increasing fibre intake has been a popular recommendation. In fact, pioneering research into the dietary treatment of digestive problems has found that reducing specific dietary fibres can result in dramatic improvements in symptoms. It also appears that the type of fibre you eat matters.
7) The symptoms are only in your gut
Everything in the body is interconnected and works in synchrony. People with digestive problems commonly experience symptoms that affect their mental function, feelings, sleep, muscles, joints, physical energy, urination and sexual function. This is not due to random chance. Instead of looking at your digestive symptoms as a problem affecting your gut, it is better to think of it as a complex issue that can affect many different areas of your body and result in an alarmingly wide range of symptoms beyond digestion.
8) Medications will fix the problem
The reasons medications are unlikely to offer a cure for your digestive problems is that they are targeted effects, like on a cell receptor or biochemical pathway. For most people, their gut problems are the result of several widespread factors involving the gut, brain, immune and nervous systems, so a single medication is limited in addressing the wide variety of issues that are going on.
9) There is no cure
By addressing the personal and unique causes of your symptoms, you will be able to experience dramatic improvements in your symptoms and perhaps even cure your disease but this will take some learning, personal exploration, trial and error and ongoing life-long preventative care. Modern medicine does not have all the answers and it is important to understand that digestive illness can be a complex problem with many aggravating factors. You could ignore your symptoms and continue to suffer, or take your health into your own hands, adopt a proactive approach and enjoy the freedom of being symptom-free.