You've probably been hearing a lot in the media recently about the importance of the gut in promoting overall health. Researchers are increasingly linking our digestive function and the health of the ‘good’ bacteria that live in the gut to everything from mental health, energy, autoimmunity, autism, allergies and of course cancer. As such, supporting digestive health is important for everyone who wants to improve or protect their health. Undergoing treatment for cancer puts a huge strain on the body and in particular can lead to some very nasty digestive tract side effects that leave you feeling worse than is often necessary, as well as leading to further potential complications of treatment. Supporting the digestive tract is vitally important, not only to help reduce the severity of symptoms but also to help ensure your treatments can work as well as possible without further reducing your body’s natural defences.
There are a number of foods and nutritional factors that can easily be added into the diet to help ease digestive discomfort, reduce nausea and diarrhoea and reduce the long-term impact of treatment on digestive health and function. Here are my top tips for promoting digestive health during and after cancer treatment and reducing the severity of associated symptoms:
1) Boiled bones for better bellies
Cancer treatments can leave you feeling very sick and uncomfortable so that the last thing we want to do is eat. Homemade broths, made from leftover chicken or beef bones, are a great way of ensuring you are still getting some good nutrients into your system without the need to eat huge amounts of food in one go. Bone broths contain a range of nutritional factors, in particular glutamine, collagen and glycine, that directly help heal damage to the lining of the digestive tract caused by cancer treatments; they also support the digestion of food, making it easier on the stomach when you do eat something and promote detoxification helping you to process treatment-related chemicals in the body. Consuming a few sips of warm (not hot) bone broth at every given opportunity will therefore not only help you feel more comfortable after eating other foods, but will also help reduce the severity of your side effects by protecting the gut lining itself and reduce the time the body is exposed to chemical toxins that directly cause these side effects. Pretty impressive stuff!
2) Fermented foods = effective fixes
These contain the ‘good’ bugs that live in abundance in the digestive tract and support immune function and digestive health. Chemo-, radio- and pharmaco-therapies are very harmful to these bacteria and as a result many of them die off during cancer treatment, leaving you more prone to stomach cramps, upset and sickness, as well as more vulnerable to bugs or infection. When you are feeling up to it, try to consume some fermented foods such as pickles, kombucha or kefir to help repopulate your digestive tract and keep your GI tract happy. If you aren’t a fan of fermented foods, which can be an acquired taste, or you find they cause irritation, then natural organic yogurt and a probiotic supplement can also be used with great effect, reducing side effects and promoting immune function.
3) Soothing solutions for stubborn sickness
If you, like so many others, feel sick following treatment then there are a few things that can help to soothe the stomach and ease the nausea, giving enough respite to get some much needed rest. Fresh ginger and mint teas (taken separately) can be very soothing on the stomach and are commonly used to ease nausea occurring for a range of reasons. Just a few slices of fresh ginger in some warm water or a good bunch of mint leaves sipped throughout the day will not only promote hydration – also very important for helping you to feel better – but can significantly help reduce nausea, leading to a more settled stomach.
4) Real results to reduce reflux
If you are struggling with persistent burning or indigestion-type sensations as a result of your treatment, chewing slippery elm tablets or taking it as a powder with lots of water can be very helpful. Slippery elm provides a soothing action the whole way down the oesophagus and into the stomach, helping to ease the discomfort and burning experienced almost instantly, allowing you to eat and sleep without feeling constantly like your stomach is on fire. Slippery elm needs to be taken with lots of water so make sure you are constantly sipping at some fluids according to your tolerance.
5) Move the body, move the bowel
For many people, cancer treatments can result in reduced digestive transit, leaving you feeling bloated, uncomfortable and even in pain. It is important to keep hydrated and try to consume fibrous foods whenever possible, as low levels of both fluids and fibre will reduce the volume and consistency of the stool, making it harder to pass. Drinking the above-mentioned teas, water whenever you can and consuming small amounts of legumes, green leafy vegetables, fatty fish and a few prunes can all help to aid transit and prevent things getting backed up. Lack of movement can reduce the blood flow to the digestive tract, reducing its natural peristaltic actions and slowing bowel transit. Trying to move as often as possible can help promote bowel movements so going for a gentle walk might be worth a try to get things moving.
6) Follow my 4Rs for reducing side effect risk:
- Rest is vital to make sure your body has the time to repair and recover following treatment. Whilst it may be easier said than done, allowing yourself the time needed for your body to deal with the body-wide damage treatment causes is as important as the treatment itself. Too much extra stress and activity will divert energy and resources away from where it is needed, making side effects potentially worse.
- Rehydrate regularly to make sure you are able to flush out the potentially harmful chemicals produced in the body as a result of treatment, as well as keep the digestive tract moving and fluid levels stable for carrying nutrients to the cells.
- Refuel as often as you can with natural whole foods. This is important to ensure you provide your body with the energy and nutrients it needs to process the treatment and its impact on your cells. Prioritising plant foods, proteins and healthy fats and of course your bone broth is the best way to support the body’s needs.
- Relax! Stress is your worst enemy at this time as it will compete with your immune system for resources, potentially worsening side effects and reducing treatment effect. Stress is also a major contributor to digestive symptoms, so whilst worrying and getting stressed is a natural part of undergoing cancer treatment it’s important to try to engage in regular relaxation and calming activities that take your mind off things and help you stay calm and happy. Mindfulness, meditation, gentle exercise such as yoga or walking, sitting outside and listening to audiobooks can all be great ways of keeping stress in check.
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