Constipation

Constipation is a common problem, frequently due simply to lifestyle factors. It may occur as a symptom of bowel disorders, such as IBS, or of more systemic problems, such as under-active thyroid. Sometimes an individual’s constitution can predispose them to a tendency for constipation, but this will still respond to suitable treatment. If there is an underlying cause then that obviously needs to be addressed, although constipation can be treated directly, and improvements are usually made whatever the cause. Some medications and prescription iron tablets can cause constipation as a side effect. Ensuring that the gut flora is healthy is an essential step to preventing and treating constipation in the long term (See How to Grow a Healthy Gut Flora). It is important to have a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods and an adequate water intake. A diet high in refined foods and sugar leads to a congested and sluggish bowel, with an unhealthy balance of microbes in the gut. Fibre is important to add bulk to the stool. Soluble fibre is in fruit and vegetable skins, oats and oatbran, flax seed and psyllium husk (See How to Grow a Healthy Gut Flora). It absorbs water to become bulky and soft and also helps to carry toxins out of the body. Insoluble fibre such as wheat bran also adds bulk and can help to keep bowels moving, but it doesn’t absorb water, tends to be more harsh, and can cause griping and discomfort if taken in large amounts. Healthy oils such as coconut, flax, hemp ands fish oils can help to lubricate the bowels and keeps things moving.

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How to Grow a Healthy Gut Flora

The gut flora consists of many different strains of probiotic bacteria that help us to digest our food and maintain a healthy immune system. Taking probiotic supplements can be helpful in increasing our natural population, but are there foods we can eat to encourage them and how does the effect of this compare to taking a supplement?

It is possible to encourage them naturally through diet and one of the benefits of this is that it allows a variety of strains to flourish, which is the most beneficial to health. Probiotic supplements tend to contain only a few strains, although some also contain prebiotics such as inulin or FOS (fructooligosaccharides), types of plant fibre that probiotics like to feed on, which supports other strains as well as the ones contained in the supplement. Consuming prebiotics in the diet helps to grow a healthy gut flora.

According to Dr Gary Huffnagle, prebiotics are naturally present as soluble fibres in legumes, unpeeled fruits and vegetables and in wholegrains such as oats and barley. Inulin and FOS are types of soluble fibre. Inulin is present in chicory, wheat and onions. Soluble fibre absorbs liquid so it’s important to drink plenty of water for the greatest benefit from the fibre and to keep your digestion comfortable. If you’re not used to fibre in your diet you may experience some temporary discomfort and wind, but this should settle down soon and can be minimised by starting with a low amount of fibre and gradually increasing it.

Fermented foods and drinks are a natural source of probiotic bacteria. A well known source is live yogurt and probiotic yogurt drinks. These can contain high levels of probiotics. Soya yogurts are available for those who cannot have milk. Other fermented foods include: some aged cheeses and cottage cheese, that have been produced by fermentation, rather than with enzymes; kefir, a fermented milk drink; sauerkraut, which is fermented cabbage; miso made from soya, grains and salt; and naturally fermented pickles. Huffnagle points out that many pickles sold nowadays are not true pickles, which should be fermented in salt water, but are soaked and preserved in vinegar, which does not give the same results.

A probiotics friendly diet can be combined with probiotic supplementation if necessary. Some IBS sufferers require very high doses of probiotics to relieve symptoms. There are probiotic products available for specific needs, but for everyday health a diet high in probiotics and prebiotics should maintain a healthy digestion, which is fundamental to other aspects of health.

Reference: Huffnagle, G. with Wernick S. (2007) The Probiotics Revolution Vermilion, London

Low Milk Supply when Breastfeeding

If your baby is having a growing spurt you may have times when it seems like you can’t satisfy him. If you allow the baby to feed on demand, your supply should increase in a day or two. Also it may be worth checking if the baby is latching on correctly, so that the let-down, or milk-ejection reflex is stimulated. Feeding on demand, being relaxed about it and trusting your body, helps to maintain a good milk supply. If you are experiencing problems and think you may have a low milk supply, talk to a breastfeeding counsellor, as the problem can usually be sorted out. If you are going to be away from your baby for a while, and are unable to feed as usual, expressing milk will help to keep your supply going. If the above measures are not sufficient, or if you wish to breastfeed an adopted baby, or are restarting lactation the following suggestions may help, along with frequent feeding and expressing.

The first and most important thing is to make sure you are drinking enough water. The average person loses one litre of water every day through urine, sweat, breathing etc. Giving birth and breastfeeding take even more. Drinking adequate water can make a significant difference to how you feel as well as helping to maintain a good milk supply. Dehydration can make you feel tired and irritable. Water is the best thing to rehydrate you properly, rather than tea and coffee. However in her book “Mother Food” (2004) Hilary Jacobson says that drinking too much water can reduce the milk supply. She advises mothers to “drink to thirst”. Studies have shown that drinking a little above or below your thirst doesn’t affect milk supply, but drinking far above thirst levels causes a drop in milk supply. I think the important thing is to be aware of your thirst and not to forget to drink or confuse thirst with hunger. Coconut water is naturally isotonic, which means it contains mineral salts needed by the body that can be low when dehydrated.

Some herbs can help to increase your milk flow. Herbs with this action are known as galactagogues. They also benefit your health in a variety of ways. Herb teas of raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus), nettle (Urtica dioica), borage (Borago officinalis) and dandelion leaf (Taraxacum officinale) provide essential nutrients, especially minerals, such as calcium or iron. Raspberry leaf, vervain (Verbena officinalis) and borage are relaxing and strengthening to the nervous system. Some galactagogue herbs have a beneficial action on the liver, for example, milk thistle (Silybum marianum) , holy thistle (Cnicus benedictus) and vervain.
Sometimes after a difficult birth, if the mum is particularly exhausted and run down, or separated from her baby, it can be difficult to establish or maintain a good milk supply. Feeling tense and anxious may inhibit the let-down reflex. Relaxing and nourishing herbs can help in these situations. Green oat tincture is nourishing and supportive to the nervous system.

The following is a list of common herbs to use, that are generally easy to obtain (you may have some in your kitchen cupboard or garden!) These can be taken as teas, tablets, capsules, tinctures or used in cooking. Tinctures are strong and are quickly and well absorbed by the body but do not extract the mineral content of herbs as well as the other forms.

Raspberry leaf
Caraway seed
Milk thistle
Dill
Fennel seed
Cinnamon
Garlic
Borage
Vervain
Celery seed
Fenugreek seed
Dandelion leaf
Fresh coriander leaf

To make fennel seed tea, use one teaspoon seeds per cup of boiling water and leave to infuse for 10-20 minutes. As well as increasing milk flow, it helps to ease after-pains for mums and aids the digestion of both mother and baby. Be aware however that after the first few days of colostrums, when your milk “comes in”, you may have too much milk rather than too little to begin with, until your milk flow adjusts to your baby’s needs.

There are also foods you can include in your diet to help you milk supply and enrich your milk. Whatever your diet is like, unless you are severely malnourished, your milk will be good for your baby, but if you have an unhealthy diet, it is your health that may suffer, as nutrients go to the baby first, in a similar way to when you were pregnant.

Foods to include are:
Oats, barley, beans, pulses, onions, leeks, nuts (avoid peanut due to allergy risk for baby), sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, linseeds, most fruits, watercress, cress, alfalfa, spring onion, quinoa.

Relieving Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is a functional condition of the bowel. This means that the bowel does not function as it should but there is no physical damage to the bowel tissue. The muscles of the bowel go into spasm, which can cause pain with constipation or diarrhoea, which may alternate. Stress or certain foods or medications may trigger symptoms. Below are some remedies than can provide relief, alongside a careful diet. Sometimes a combination of treatments is necessary. Adequate water intake is important, as it is needed to form digestive juices and the protective mucus lining of the gut.

Probiotics

A good quality, high strength probiotic product can quickly and significantly reduce the symptoms of IBS and I have known customers who have had lasting relief within days. The best probiotics can be found in capsule or powder form rather than as a yogurt drink. A strength of 20 billion live microorganisms per capsule is ideal for quick results. The best quality probiotic brands, for example Solgar or Optibac, will say on the label that they survive the stomach acid.

Peppermint

Peppermint is antispasmodic, so it relieves the pain caused by muscle spasm in the gut and helps to release trapped wind, which also causes pain. It is available in various forms, including tea, oil, powder, tablets and capsules and of course as fresh leaf straight from the plant. The fresh leaf has a higher level of the beneficial volatile oils than in commercial teas, as the oils evaporate during drying. To minimise loss of oils use the fresh leaf straight after picking, store dried leaf or teabags in an airtight container and brew tea in a covered container to keep the oils from escaping with the steam. Unfortunately many “peppermint” cordials nowadays are made with artificial flavourings, rather than the natural peppermint needed to give the medicinal effect. When buying peppermint oil choose one that says it is intended for consumption rather than an essential oil for external use.  Oils for internal use can be used externally but not vice versa. Peppermint oil is very strong so literally only one or two drops is needed per cup of warm water.  Tablets and capsules come in various strengths. Some capsules are labelled “enteric coated”. This means they have a capsules shell that does not dissolve in the stomach but further down in the gut so that the oil is released where it is most needed.

Fennel seed

Fennel seed is antispasmodic and is well known for relieving trapped wind. It is related to dill which is traditionally used in gripe water for colic in babies. It can be be taken as a tea, and also used in cooking. The tea can be combined with peppermint or chamomile for improved effect.

Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) and Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus)

Cramp bark may be difficult to obtain over the counter but it is worth hunting around for if other remedies have not brought relief. It is an excellent, fast acting remedy for muscle spasm in the smooth muscles of the gut. The womb is also made of smooth muscle, so it can be be used for period pain. It is relaxing as well as being antispasmodic, so is useful for IBS that is triggered by stress. Wild Yam is more commonly known as a hormonal remedy, but it is an excellent digestive remedy also. It is antispasmodic and relieves inflammation in the gut. This can also be used for period pain. Wild Yam and Cramp bark together make a good combination.

Hangover Remedies

Obviously the best cure for a hangover is not to drink too much in the first place! Putting that aside, here are some suggestions for prevention and relief:

Milk Thistle

Milk thistle is a popular remedy for hangovers and in liver detox programmes. It protects the liver from damage by toxins and improves liver function. Research has shown that it can aid in the regeneration of liver cells, which can be damaged by excess alcohol consumption. Milk Thistle works best if taken in a course rather than just one dose in the morning. Don’t be tempted to take more than the recommended dosage, this can be dangerous. If only using short term try taking a dose on the morning of going out, a dose when you get home and a dose the next morning.

Siberian Ginseng

Also known as Eleutherococcus, this herbal remedy is excellent for hangover prevention and recovery. It can be taken in the morning but for best effect it can also be taken before going out. As well as reducing the symptoms of a hangover it increases energy levels.

Coconut Water

Coconut water is the juice inside the coconut, and is found in greatest amounts in young green coconuts. It is popular in sport due to being isotonic, that is, it contains high levels of mineral salts that are lost in dehydration. In particular it is very high in potassium.

N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC)

NAC is an amino acid which detoxifies the liver. It is used in cases of paracetamol poisoning, as well as a hangover treatment. To be most effective it should be taken on an empty stomach.

Mastitis and Breastfeeding Engorgement

Mastitis and engorgement are problems that can occur when breastfeeding. Mastitis is inflammation or infection of the breast, which can follow on from engorgement or a blocked milk duct. Symptoms include a painful breast, redness, a slight fever and feeling unwell and aching as if you have flu. Infection is often present. It is important to speak to a health professional to get a clear diagnosis, as other problems can have similar symptoms. Mastitis needs to be treated, to prevent or get rid of infection. There are herbal treatments you can use to help fight the infection and reduce the symptoms. If symptoms get worse very quickly it is especially important to seek professional advice.

Calendula compress

Calendula officinalis (common name Marigold) can be used to make a strong tea for a compress to relieve engorgement or mastitis. Calendula should not be confused with Tagetes species, also known as French, Mexican or African marigold, which is a different type of plant entirely.
To make the compress, put a handful of marigold petals into a teapot or pan with a lid and pour on about ¾ pint (750 ml) boiling water. Cover with a lid and leave to infuse for 10 to 20 minutes. Strain into a bowl. The tea should still be hot but not too hot to put your hand in. Soak a flannel or cloth in the bowl of tea, remove and squeeze out excess water, then place over your breast. Hold it in place for a few minutes, until it starts to cool, then dip the cloth again and repeat. Do this a few times and you should start to feel some relief. The whole procedure can be repeated several times a day, using freshly made tea and a clean cloth.
Calendula is antibacterial and also antifungal, so it can be used for mastitis and also for thrush. A Calendula compress can be used at the same time as internal treatments such as antibiotics or herbal medicine. Also the heat of the compress is beneficial in itself.
I used this compress when I was breastfeeding and starting to get mastitis and was able to nip it in the bud before it became full blown. If you suspect you may have mastitis this compress can be used straight away until you are able to get professional advice.

Hand and Foot Baths

Herbs such as chamomile, yarrow, eucalyptus or lavender can be used in hand or foot baths to help treat mastitis. They can be prepared as strong teas, in the same way as the Calendula compress above, and poured into a washing up bowl, adding cold water to make the temperature comfortable. Alternatively a couple of drops of essential oil can be added to warm water in the bowl. Essential oils are too strong for close contact with babies, so ensure you wash them off your hands afterwards.

Immune Support

Allicin max is a good quality garlic product that is effective in treating infection. You can also take Biostrath, which is a herbal tonic to support immunity and restore energy.

Rhodiola rosea (Arctic root, Rose root)

Rhodiola is an adaptogen that raises serotonin and dopamine levels. It improves transport of tryptophan and 5HTP, which the body uses to make serotonin, into the brain and also acts as an MAO inhibitor. MAO inhibitors inhibit the breakdown of serotonin and dopamine. Studies have shown that rhodiola can increase serotonin levels in the brain by up to 30%. This means that it has an antidepressant action, lifting mood and reducing fatigue. It can also improve cognitive (mental) function, attention span, memory and alertness. It may help with post-viral recovery. Those who take antidepressants or antipsychotics should seek medical advice before taking rhodiola as they may interact dangerously. Along with eleutherococcus, it has been extensively studied by the Russians in their search for adaptogens to improve performance and endurance, both physical and mental. Rhodiola increases muscle energy both during and after exercise and so improves recovery time. I think of rhodiola as a slightly stimulating antidepressant whereas hypericum (St John’s Wort) is more of a relaxing antidepressant, so a good routine might be to take rhodiola in the morning and hypericum in the evening.