Dr John Briffa: Tract of your tears

As anyone who reads Nigel Slater's column will be only too aware, eating can be an intensely pleasurable experience. However, while many of us enjoy our grub, we may not be so keen on what it can do to us once we've eaten it. For a significant proportion of the population, eating can signal the onset of problems with indigestion, heartburn, bloating and belching.

Those with persistent digestive strife should seek medical help. However, sometimes symptoms are resistant to the most sophisticated conventional treatments. In such cases, I have found that a few dietary adjustments can often restore a state of calm to a troubled digestive system.

From a physiological perspective, the primary function of food is to nourish the body. However, before we can extract whatever goodness food has to offer us, we must first break it down into bits small enough to make it through the gut wall into the body. Acid in the stomach, along with bile and enzymes in the small intestine, do the bulk of the work, and convert the food into an accessible form.

However, digestion does not always work as well as it might. Poor digestion can cause food in the stomach to stall, where it may end up feeling like a brick. Also, food that sticks around in the gut tends to ferment, with bloating and belching the result. The key to curing indigestion is often to take steps to rev up the digestive process.

One very simple but effective way to improve the body's digestive capacity is to do as our grandmothers told us and chew our food properly. The act of chewing mixes food with saliva, which contains an enzyme that starts the breakdown of starchy foods such as bread, potatoes, rice and pasta. Plus, chewing breaks food up into smaller pieces, which allows the acid in the stomach to penetrate the food and do its digestive work. Ideally, each mouthful of food should be chewed to a cream before swallowing.

The body only has a finite capacity to digest food, so the more we eat, the greater the risk of indigestion. Semi-starving ourselves during the day only to gorge ourselves in the evening is generally a recipe for late-night indigestion. As a rule, eating smallish meals regularly makes relative light work for the digestive tract.

One other tip for improved digestion is food combining. This involves keeping protein-based foods (such as meat, fish and eggs) away from carbohydrate-based foods (such as bread, potatoes, rice and pasta) at meal times. The body digests proteins and carbohydrates in relatively distinct ways so, in theory, keeping them apart can make things easier for the digestive tract. A piece of fish with vegetables (no potatoes), or pasta with a tomato sauce, is a generally easier prospect for the body compared to fish and chips or spag bol. My experience is that food combining is most useful in the evening, when the body's digestive capacity tends to take a natural dive.

One other nifty little trick for improving digestion is to drink a cup of dandelion coffee before meals. Dandelion is believed to stimulate digestive function, thereby priming the gut for the meal to come. Look for dandelion coffee in your local health-food store.

Nutrition news

One barrier to eating a healthy diet can be cost. Healthy food can seem expensive, and the temptation can be to stick with less pricey (though less healthy) options. Recently, researchers at State University in New York tested the real cost of eating healthily by tracking food expenditure in 31 families urged to eat a better diet. After a year, families were found to be consuming far more in the way of fruit and vegetables, and less in the way of high-fat, less nutritious foods.

Interestingly, at the end of a year, food costs were found to be significantly lower than they had been at the start of the study.

Quite how these savings were achieved is not clear, but the evidence suggests that eating a healthy diet does not necessarily need to burn a hole in our pockets.

Dear John

I am 36 and suffer from migraine attacks each month before my period. What can I do to prevent these?
Bridget Carney, by email

Migraine is characterised by severe headache, usually on one side of the head. Attacks last from two hours to two days, and can be preceded by visual changes such as flashing lights or partial blindness.

Migraine attacks are often triggered by food. Culprits include chocolate, cheese, red wine, coffee, wheat-based food and many breakfast cereals. Avoiding these before your period may help.

Migraine can be triggered if the level of sugar in the blood- stream gets too low (hypoglycaemia). Eat regular meals, and have the occasional snack between meals, too. A danger time for low blood sugar is the late afternoon, and munching on fruit at this time can help.

Migraine sufferers tend to have lower levels of magnesium in their blood, and supplementing with this mineral can help prevent attacks. You might like to try taking 300-500mg of magnesium each day. These measures should help to reduce or stop your migraine attacks within two or three menstrual cycles.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.