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Nine Common Myths about Digestive Illness

By: An extract from The Digestive Health Solution by Benjamin Brown ND

Myth 1: It is all in your head

For a long time the symptoms of IBS have been thought to be purely psychological and people with chronic digestive complaints are sometimes still told that 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. The interesting thing is that your gut can change your emotions, but more on that later.

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. Stress, depression and anxiety are very common complaints in people suffering from digestive illness, but these afflictions are far more often a symptom rather than a cause.

Myth 2: There is no known cause

As you will find in this book, there are a lot of very different potential causes of your digestive complaints, and the symptoms are remarkably diverse, so understanding what's going on requires a big-picture view. This is why people with digestive complaints are frequently misdiagnosed and wrongly treated.
Drug treatments for the symptoms of IBS rarely work well because of the narrow way they act.
The problem is that while a diagnosis (the classification of an illness based on symptoms or testing) 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?
The purpose of this book is to help you explore a wide range of possible causes of your symptoms and for you to achieve long-term relief by identifying and dealing with the reason for your problems in the first place, rather than being labelled with IBS and given little hope for recovery. Actually, there are many different reasons why people suffer from digestive symptoms and there is a lot you can do about it.

Myth 3: Your symptoms will go away with time

For some people, digestive troubles are intermittent and may even disappear with time but, unfortunately, most people constantly suffer and may have symptoms for the whole of their lives. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that having the symptoms of IBS increases your risk for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), a severe and crippling autoimmune condition.

Some researchers believe that IBS is actually a mild precursor to IBD; in fact, the two diseases share many similarities and people with IBS are far more likely (up to fifteen times) to develop IBD.5 Researchers also think that IBS may be linked to the development of conditions such as obesity, heart disease and type-2 diabetes because of poor digestion, nutrient absorption or changes in gut bacteria.6

The good news is that it is highly likely your symptoms will go away with time if you get to the underlying cause.
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 your problem. For example, if it turns out you have a food intolerance and something in your diet is aggravating your symptoms, you are unlikely to mysteriously get better with time, or with medication for that matter, if you keep eating the problem food.

While this book does not claim to be a miracle cure, it will empower you with the information and tools you need to take control of your health rather than live in the hope that things will just get better. If you do take action your symptoms may improve with time, and in some cases very fast.

Myth 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's not that the people in the media are wrong or mischievous, it's that we need to be smarter when it comes to science reporting and believing media headlines.

When looking at the effect of dietary supplements like probiotics, it is important to review the research in its entirety.
Unfortunately, isolated studies can be misleading and these are generally what are reported on. A headline might read 'Probiotic supplements are useless' but what do the thousands of other studies suggest?

Some probiotics have been shown to be tremendously effective for common digestive complaints such as bloating, pain and diarrhoea, but not all of them (even the ones that have shown some benefit) are effective for everybody. So the truth is, certain probiotics can be very helpful for some people. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that probiotics can not only relieve symptoms, they can also help improve the balance of your gut bacteria, which may well be a reason why people develop digestive problems in the first place.

Myth 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 and, although touted as being beneficial, may actually be the root cause of the problem.

As the old adage suggests, 'One person's food is another person's poison' and there really is no one-size-fits-all dietary approach. This book will help you identify common but perhaps surprising foods that may be a problem for you, and enable you to personalize your diet for optimal digestive health.

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.

Myth 6: You need to eat more fibre

Early studies claimed that dietary fibre might be able to help people with symptoms such as bloating, pain, constipation or diarrhoea, and since then increasing fibre intake has been a popular recommendation. But these early studies had important flaws in the way they were conducted and we now know that for some people, fibre can make things a lot worse.

In fact, pioneering research into the dietary treatment of digestive illness has found that reducing specific dietary fibres can result in dramatic improvements in symptoms, which flies in the face of the 'eat more fibre' mantra. It also appears that the type of fibre you eat matters, with some able to aggravate symptoms while others can be used to provide relief.

So, if you have tried eating more fibre and found that it doesn't help much, or makes things worse, don't worry, you are not alone. Understanding how certain fibres can aggravate symptoms and why, as detailed in this book, will help you make dietary changes that don't send you into a symptom attack. You will also learn which types of fibre can really help get your digestive system back on track.

Myth 7: The symptoms are only in your gut

One of the biggest misunderstandings about digestive illness, and perhaps the human body in general, is that dysfunction in one area is not connected to another. Everything in the body is interconnected and works in synchrony. So ill health in the gut is linked to ill health throughout the rest of your body.

People with digestive problems commonly experience symptoms that affect their mental function, feelings, sleep, muscles, joints, pain sensitivity, physical energy, urination and sexual function. This is not due to random chance, it is because many of the disturbances in the gut are connected to, or are creating disturbances in, the rest of the body.

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.

Myth 8: Medications will fix the problem

Unfortunately, there are no medications that cure the symptoms of IBS and it is unlikely that a wonder drug will ever exist. There are some medications that are used to help control certain symptoms, such as severe diarrhoea, but the effectiveness of these for the most troubling symptoms, mainly abdominal pain bloating, is disappointing.
The reason medications are unlikely to offer a cure for your digestive issues is that they have 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. And the symptoms themselves can be caused by a variety of different issues such as diet or changes in your gut bacteria. Logically then, identifying and dealing with the actual cause is going to be far more effective than treating the symptoms with a drug. Even if medications could and do provide relief, they may not be dealing with why the problem is there in the first place.

Myth 9: There is no cure

There is a cure for the various symptoms of IBS, but not in the traditional sense of a one-size-fits-all magic bullet. The cure varies from person to person and in most cases requires addressing multiple dietary, behavioural and lifestyle factors. 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.

This may seem like a lot to ask in today's quick-fix, pill-foran- ill society, but the idea of an instant cure, as you already know, is often an illusion. 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.

Extracted from The Digestive Health Solution by Benjamin I Brown, ND, available from

About the author

Benjamin Brown is a naturopath, science writer and speaker. He is a lecturer and on the advisory boards at the UK College of Nutrition and Health (BCNH) and guest lectures at various educational institutions and in university settings. Ben regularly speaks at major conferences and delivers continuing professional development courses on integrative medicine. Throughout his career Ben has had extensive clinical experience, maintaining a private practice in Australia and in London, England. He has also worked in natural product research and development for a number of leading global companies and currently serves as Technical Director at Viridian Nutrition. He sits on the advisory boards of integrative medical clinics and corporate wellness services. And as an established science writer, Ben frequently contributes editorials, articles and research to integrative medicine publications and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Ben's tertiary qualifications are in naturopathic medicine, a distinct profession of primary health care that integrates conventional clinical medicine and diagnostics with functional pathology and a broad range of natural therapies including therapeutic lifestyle change, mind-body therapies, nutritional and herbal medicines.


Jun 22 2017 1:38PM
Thank you for sharing this with us. (Not sure why there's 2 copies though!) Informative & helpful.
Comment by: Louisa
Jun 22 2017 3:10PM
Thanks Louisa
My mistake - I've fixed it now
Comment by: Judy

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