From mouth to bathroom, the journey our food takes involves many critical processes, and a healthy gut plays a key role in overall health and well-being. Making the right choices about what you put into your digestive tract can help us to stay healthy.
The gastrointestinal (GI), tract is about 30 feet long and works to break food and drink down into small nutrient molecules for easy absorption into the bloodstream. These molecules are essential for cellular energy production, growth, repair and the myriad of chemical processes occurring in our bodies.
With such a long GI highway, it’s common to run into bumps in the road and around 4 in 10 people are affected by digestive diseases.
GI tract conditions
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs when stomach acid and/or contents come back up into the Oesophagus (swallowing tube) or throat. This causes uncomfortable symptoms of heartburn and indigestion or even voice hoarseness and cough.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is the name given to a constellation of symptoms including pain in the abdomen and changes in bowel habits. People with IBS may have constipation, diarrhoea, or both. There may also be associated digestive problems, like bloating, nausea and gas.
Coeliac Diseaseis a form of allergy to gluten which causes inflammation and damage to the small intestine resulting in an inability to absorb nutrients. Symptoms range from mouth ulcers to diarrhoea, abdominal pain and bloating, but it may be asymptomatic or present as osteoporosis (bone thinning), in later life. Although it affects 1% of the population, around 80% of those with coeliac disease are undiagnosed.
Inflammatory Bowel disease (IBD) includes Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. These conditions can cause significant pain, diarrhoea and bleeding into the stools. It is important that any bleeding from the digestive tract is investigated to ensure the cause is understood and can be treated effectively.
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) and Bacterial Dysbiosis occur when the bacterial microflora lining the intestines becomes disturbed – this can create symptoms of pain, bloating, changes in bowel habit, food intolerance and malabsorption of many micronutrients.
There are many factors that can impact gut health including:
- Your capacity to repair and re-build the intestinal lining: This may be reduced by B vitamin or protein deficiencies and poor ‘methylation’ capacity. Poor repair mechanisms can lead to increased intestinal permeability or ‘leaky gut’.
- How you were born: Those born by caesarean section are more likely to have less favourable gut microflora makeup and may be more prone to allergies and autoimmunity.
- Food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances are different forms of adverse reactions to foods which may contribute towards chronic gut symptoms and malfunction.
- Antibiotic use can lead to altered gut microbiome, SIBO and yeast overgrowth.
- Stress levels alter digestive capacity and function. When in ‘fight or flight’ mode our bodies are not programmed for efficient digestion.
- What you eat: Fibre, good fruit and veg intake and phytonutrients are essential to maintain a happy gut microflora which are needed to maintain a healthy gut.
- Stomach acid production: Loss of acid production with aging or use of prescribed antacids can lead to loss of adequate protein digestion, malabsorption of B12 and iron and increased risk of bacterial overgrowth
The Microbiome, Probiotics and Prebiotics:
There is a complex community of bacteria and other microbes living in the GI tract. These gut flora or microbiota, help with our digestion and there is growing evidence they may influence our health in other ways too including risks of:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Colon cancer
- Immune system function
- The risks of developing immune-mediated conditions such as food allergy, asthma, eczema, skin problems and arthritis
- Mood disorders
- Parkinson’s Disease
Probiotics: Live microbes, similar to those found in the human gut—can improve your gut health. These “friendly bacteria” are referred to as probiotics. Probiotics are available in dietary supplements and in fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and miso.
Prebiotics: We can help to encourage the natural growth of friendly bacteria by eating foods rich in pre-biotics. These include foods containing fibre such as inulin or Fructo-Oligo-Saccharides (FOS):
- Bitter greens: Chicory and dandelion roots
- Alliums: Garlic, leeks and onions
- Asparagus and Jerusalem Artichokes
- Bananas and apples
- Whole grains
- Flax seeds (also a great source of Omega 3 fatty acids)
What you eat can help or hurt your digestive system and influence how you feel.
Most people do not eat enough fibre and gradually increasing dietary fibre will usually prevent any bloating or excess gas. For those with bacterial overgrowth, large amounts of fibre may cause pain due to excessive fermentation in the upper gut. A low FODMAP diet or therapy to reduce the excessive bacterial growth may be beneficial in these conditions.
Try to include a ‘rainbow’ of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts throughout the day to provide a healthy mix of different fibres and nutrients to your diet. The more fibre and whole foods you eat, the fuller you feel and the less likely you are to snack on junk food.