Hyderabad food loves me. Why?
September 23, 2012 11:27 PM   Subscribe

I just spent one week in Hyderabad, India. The food was tasty, but the effect on my GI tract was amazing, and I am desperate to emulate this back home. But how? (TMI inside)

So I have a long term history of constipation, starting from when I was a young girl. I've seen a few gastroenterologists, and since having babies have spent a lot of time with various allied health professionals trying to get things better. I aim for a 4 on the bristol stool scale, but practically never get there. I'm average about a 2. Frequently a 1, and sometimes a 3. I often complain (to anyone who listens) that it is like I am dead inside. I never get the urge to go and don't feel any peristaltic activity, regardless of how many prunes I eat.

So last week I was in Hyderabad. I'm mostly vego at home so only ate the veg dishes there. Dal, curries, spicey pilafs and biryanis, lots of flat breads and white rice 3 times a day. I also went crazy with the Indian sweets. After about 24-48 hours things started picking up so to speak. This was a complete surprise. By day 3 everything was working like a dream. I was in GI heaven and each poo experience was just so satisfying and easy. The food was a bit spicey, so by the time I got home there was a bit of burning and I did feel like I was close to the runs so wondered if I had picked up a bug. But 2-3 days later, I'm back to being dead inside.

Interestingly, a colleague I was travelling with (also constipationally inclined) reported similar effects. Where as other colleagues who normally have no problem reported being constipated.

Does anyone have any ideas about what went on? And more importantly how can i replicate this at home?

Please assume that I normally try to do everything that I can in terms of diet (fresh fruit and watery food, psyllium, high fibre, beans, prunes, fibre & bulking supplements, probiotics and an insane water intake) obviously not all at once. I also try to exercise as much as I can (which admittedly could be more). I've also been trained by a physio on the correct posture for 'going'.

I've consulted Dr Google since being home and can't really find anything. A few random suggestions were: higher quantities of ghee, chili (red peppers), cumin or tumeric (active ingredient cucamin). But most sources advise avoiding spicey food if you are prone to constipation. I'm not at all familiar with Ayurvedic medicine so am wondering if this is something I should investigate further?

I guess I could try to replicate this diet at home, but that is a LOT of work. Any ideas about particular ingredients to experiment with? Or perhaps it was the sheer quantity of pulses? Has anyone else had this effect after eating a lot of Red peppers? Curry? Tumeric? Ghee?
posted by bingoes to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I would guess that you were getting a lot of fiber with this diet-- and probably a good mix of soluble and insoluble.

You were also eating a lot of refined grains in the form of white rice and naan (I assume also white). Do you usually eat whole grains? Healthier, but might be adding to the constipation. Maybe try switching to refined, non-whole grains for a bit to see?
posted by charmcityblues at 11:35 PM on September 23, 2012

I have had this effect from Indian food. I am sure it was the dal. Also, the spices might contribute, but I am not sure.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 11:37 PM on September 23, 2012

All hail lentils!

I have the same inclinations and lentils are my go to (hah!) vegetable. I try and put red lentils in anything that remotely takes them. That and green apples. Flat breads mean you tend to eat more of the stuff and less of the bread. It's difficult to do without making meals have an indian flavour though (I am trying to work out how to have lentils with the haloumi I'm planning for dinner without an obvious clash).

So I'd try adding more lentils into your diet.
posted by geek anachronism at 11:42 PM on September 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Aside from trying Ayurvedic medicine (YES!) do you regularly take a Vitamin C supplement?

One of the side effects of Vit C is, uh, movement. In fact, my husband suffered from consipation for years and it magically cleared up once he started taking Vitamin C regularly.

I can't find the website right now, but a prominent researcher suggests that many are Vitamin C deficient, and that one of the ways to test this and correct it, is to take enough Vitamin C to the point of solid elimination - that's how you determine your need for Vitamin C. With regular supplementation, your need for Vitamin C will lessen, and you'll know to dial back the C when you get diarrhea instead of healthy stool movement. Easy.

I'm trying to remember, but I think I started taking about 4,000 milligrams, spread out over the day, and now I take 2,000 miligrams (1,000mg in the morning, 1,000mg in the afternoon) and this keeps me regular and comfortable in a way I never was before.

Plenty of info about this on the internet. You might want to google "orthomolecular medicine" for more specific info.

Hope this helps!

And YES - lentils do it for me, too! But Vitamin C is likely a better choice, since your body does not synthesize it naturally and you need it for pretty much every cellular function:)
posted by jbenben at 11:48 PM on September 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm going to guess more fat/oil than you've been getting. Fermented dairy maybe? And while legumes undoubtedly help, a lot of onions with their soluble fibre probably do too -- those thick curries can have a lot of pulverised onion in them.

Also, maybe you should ask yourself: what did you *not* eat that you normally do?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:13 AM on September 24, 2012

My mother has always offered a spoonfull of ghee to help things move, as she says euphemistically.
posted by infini at 12:19 AM on September 24, 2012

I'm definitely going with the spicy food. I've noticed its effects on my digestion, and if you google "spicy food ease constipation", you'll get some explantains as to why that might be. Other spices typically used in curries, like cumin, may also contribute.
posted by Specklet at 12:31 AM on September 24, 2012

I have a stable digestive tract, and when I live in India (as I am currently) things go from normal to liquid. This, I'm told, is due to the higher quantities of bacteria in the food, mostly from unclean water. Maybe because your baseline is constipation, this 'looseness' was your version of travelers diarrhea?
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 12:39 AM on September 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

My mother suffered from severe constipation her entire life, and just this year discovered that magnesium supplements helped immensely - she claims it has been life changing. Both lentils and rice can be good sources of magnesium, so perhaps that is something to consider.
posted by en el aire at 12:49 AM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

The amount of magnesium in vegetables and grains can depend on the soil they are grown in. It could be that the Indian soil is less depleted of minerals than ours in the US. I've been to India and you can even tell that the meat there tastes different (not sure if you are a meat eater) because the animals have been fed with local plants and grains that are different from in the US.

So, nthing magnesium supplements. You might not be able to replicate it with foods alone.

Also, if the bacteria in the food in India are different from the bacteria here, you could have had an effect on your gut bacteria there. You can try to replicate this with bacterial supplements. There are a lot for sale on e.g. iherb.com. You can just choose the top rated, they're usually good. Might not get the same result, but it could be something to experiment with.
posted by kellybird at 1:22 AM on September 24, 2012

Constipation can be a (little-known) side-effect of gluten intolerance. And it can make your GI system feel like it's just shut down completely. Even if you were eating a lot of flatbread in India, the rest of the Indian diet is pretty gluten-free, and that could have helped your system loosen up a bit. You could try eating gluten-free for two weeks at home and see if that makes a difference. It would be a bit of work to eat like that, but less work, I would think, than learning how to cook full Indian meals all the time.
posted by colfax at 2:12 AM on September 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

My first thought was along BusyBusyBusy's idea of the water. Even though you're not supposed to drink the water in a lot of other countries, it certainly works its way into the food you eat.

Also, any particular reason you think it's the food that caused this? Presumably you were in an entirely different environment doing things you don't normally do, so maybe it's the water, maybe it's the exercise (did you walk a lot?), maybe sun exposure, maybe the humidity, who knows.

Where else have you traveled? Have you experience these effects in, say, Latin America?
posted by losvedir at 2:25 AM on September 24, 2012

Capsicum (red pepper) is a powerful circulatory stimulant; one thing you might try if you aren't already is get some high BTU (50K to 90K) Capsicum frutescens powder and put it in empty double-O gelatin caps. Try one or two after a meal and see if that doesn't wake up your insides.
posted by rmmcclay at 3:10 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

My first thought was the ghee, like infini. Are you getting enough fat in your diet?
posted by goo at 3:56 AM on September 24, 2012

Lentils...seriously...better yet, spicy lentils. I noticed the same thing when I started eating them at least a few times/week. I like red lentils and the french green ones the best, but I think any lentils would do the trick.
posted by fromageball at 4:03 AM on September 24, 2012

Any food spiced with chilies will do this, promise. Mexican, thai, indian, etc. Its an irritant to the digestive track and stimulates your body to move it out. Bonus side effect: spicy food causes greater shedding of intestinal cells leading to lower rates of colon cancer. Win win.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 4:56 AM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Haha, as a former Hyderabadi, this is a very interesting question for me. As others have said, its the effect of the lentil + chilli-heavy cuisine prevalent there. Andhra Pradesh is the capital of chilli cultivation in India and it finds its way into nearly every dish there (except desserts thankfully)
posted by epiphinite at 5:10 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wanted to vote for dairy as the culprit but a lot of Indian sweets are based on paneer (milk product). You probably also ate a bunch of yogurt-based sauces. So there goes THAT theory!

I do eat a lot of spicy food and rarely have problems with constipation. Causation? Maybe.

Others have suggested adding some heat to your diet. If that works, the good news is that decent Indian food is pretty easy to prepare at home. India is pretty diverse in culinary matters, but the food of the south tends to be pretty hot. Check out Madhur Jaffrey or Julie Sahni's books. Also try Mexican.
posted by Currer Belfry at 5:42 AM on September 24, 2012

I would also recommend Manjula's Kitchen on YouTube and her website for great and easy Indian cooking in case you want to do it yourself.
posted by THAT William Mize at 5:58 AM on September 24, 2012

Could it be that you don't get as much ( if any) resistant starch back home?
posted by insomniax at 6:35 AM on September 24, 2012

Beware: ghee is extremely caloric and fattening.
posted by discopolo at 6:40 AM on September 24, 2012

Also, have you tried increasing how much you exercise? Running can be helpful for that.
posted by discopolo at 6:42 AM on September 24, 2012

I'd say its probably the spices and lentils (or bacteria). But I do occasionally find that eating Indian curries and Dhal in the UK can give me a bit more 'movement' the morning after.

I think a good control experiment would be to try eating at an Indian restaurant at home for a few days in a row and see if it has a similar effect. Are there Indian restaurants where you live?
posted by mary8nne at 6:48 AM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I hate to say this, but the actual reason is the bacteria that was in the food combined with the horrific amounts of it in public places. I've traveled to Asia with medical personnel, and there is unanimous consensus on the cause. For Americans, Asia is a cesspool. What you were going through was barely healthy, potentially dangerous.

If you went to Kenya, you would have the same result. Curry in Switzerland, no effects.
posted by Kruger5 at 7:07 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with busybusybusy and Kruger5. My family is from Hyderabad but we’ve been living in Canada for almost 40 years. None of us normally suffers from constipation, but every time any of us go back to Hyderabad (which is fairly frequently), things get “looser”. It’s just a known thing that you can’t avoid. I’m sure the large amount of vegetables, lentils, and spicy food you were eating all contributed but: we cook and eat Hyderabadi food on the regular in Canada and it doesn’t have any GI effect. I would say it’s probably the bacteria.
posted by yawper at 7:41 AM on September 24, 2012

I think it's the spices.
posted by Dansaman at 8:05 AM on September 24, 2012

On a related note you can get very comprehensive stool testing and they will send you a report of what sorts of gut flora you've got and what it might mean. It's possible you've had all or some of this done through your doctor as your original post seems like you've devoted some time to this problem, but just thought I'd mention it.

[Note I am not endorsing Metametrix, just happened to see them mentioned as doing this in a WIRED article recently.]
posted by Wretch729 at 8:53 AM on September 24, 2012

Thanks friends. A lot of great information here, and a lot of things to try (apart from bacterial self-inoculation).
posted by bingoes at 4:17 PM on September 24, 2012

As an added datapoint, this thread inspired me to make spicy Indian lentils for my lunches this week. I did not alter my usual hydration or flaxseed, and I'd swear I saw improvement (only time and more n will tell). So it's totally worthwhile to give spicy dal for lunches a shot for a week, and see if that helps!
posted by ldthomps at 7:40 PM on September 28, 2012

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