Digestive health can change over your lifetime, depending how healthy your overall habits are, your age, and your genetic make-up.
Understanding how to maintain your digestive health is not only empowering to know for your day to day comfort, but can reduce your overall risk for lifestyle diseases.
An overview of the gut
The gastrointestinal tract (GIT) or digestive system is a series of hollow organs joined in a long, twisting tube from the mouth to the anus. This tubes lining is called the mucosa and forms the biggest barrier of defence for your body. Most of your body’s immune system is located in close proximity to this barrier that allows nutrients to enter the body from the outside world. This mayor defence system of the body is called the gut associated lymphatic tissue (GALT) because of this close relationship between your gut and your immune system it is not surprising that problems with your digestion often effects your whole body.
Food in the form that it is eaten (digested) is not suitable for use to the body for nourishment, it must be broken down into smaller molecules that can be absorbed by the intestinal lining (mucosa) and transported to the blood stream to transport as nourishment to all cells in the body.
Two types of nerves help to control the action of the digestive system. Extrinsic (outside) nerves come to the digestive organs from the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and trigger the release of chemicals acetylcholine and adrenaline. Adrenalin causes blood flow to leave the gut, and relaxes the muscles of the stomach and intestine. Acetylcholine causes the muscles to contract with more force and increases the speed at which food is propelled though the digestive tract.
Intrinsic (inside) nerves, which make up a very dense network embedded in the walls of the oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon, are triggered to act when the walls of the hollow digestive organs are stretched by food. The varying tension levels of the intrinsic nerves trigger varying reactions, release many different substances, and either speed up or delay the movement of food and the production of juices by the digestive organs. The key roles of these extrinsic and intrinsic nerves in the GI tract help explain why stress has such a powerful effect on the digestive tract, and thus IBS.
Benefits of fibre
Fibre is carbohydrates that your body doesn’t have enzymes to digest so it simply passes through your system. It acts like a broom sweeping your intestines and colon clean as it passes out. Furthermore, it acts as food (prebiotic) to healthy bacteria (probiotics) in your colon. These probiotics (good bacteria) compete with pathogenic bacteria to keep them at bay. Fibre with its sweeping action though your digestive system clears away pathogenic bacteria before they are able to latch on to your digestive tract. This is a preventative method by which fibre protects your digestive system from long-term exposure to harmful substances, toxic by-products of meat, and bacteria that can cause infection and cancer of the digestive tract.
Fibre also keeps the muscles of your colon strong by providing much needed exercise during the outward motion of waste. By adding bulk and softness to waste it signals your colon to move the waste out of your system faster by contracting the muscles of the colon. This is how fibre acts to keep you regular.
The many benefits of fibre include:
- Lowering cholesterol levels
- Weight-loss by adding bulk to meal and promoting satiety
- Improving digestion
- Reducing diabetes risk
- Reducing risk of heart disease
- Reducing constipation
- Reducing the risk of inflammation of the intestines
- Maintaining steady control of blood sugar
There are two types of fibre in the diet, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre dissolves in water. Insoluble fibre, like seed husks and the peels of fruits, do not dissolve in water. Too high an intake of insoluble fibre can cause constipation by clogging up the digestive tract. It is best to increase your fibre intake tough food sources rather than adding all bran to food. As various fibre has different health benefits and mixing the sources will give the best health benefits.
It’s best that you get the fibre you need each day from foods in your diet rather than supplements. Most people need 20-35g of fibre each day. Some good fibre-rich food choices are:
- Whole-grain breads, cereals, and pastas
- Fruits and vegetables
- Brown rice
- Dried beans
Getting fibre is great, but don’t suddenly jump on the fibre bandwagon and ramp up your intake all at once. Take it slowly, and gradually increase your fibre each day to prevent side effects like diarrhoea, abdominal pain, bloating, and gas.
Benefits of probiotics
Probiotics is the good bacteria (pro-biotics) that lives in harmony (symbiosis) with your colon. This good relationship exists because your colon provides them with a suitable habitat and food. In return there is a beneficial interaction; probiotics break down indigestible fibre and release nutrients that help in the health of colon cells. Good bacteria also compete with bad bacteria. If there is more good bacteria in you colon than bad bacteria, the good bacteria is able to suppress the bad bacteria from attacking your body.
It is found that bad (pathogenic) bacteria in healthy individuals are easily suppressed by good bacteria (pro-biotic) and will remain dormant in a healthy individual. When this changes, for instance after anti-biotic treatment changes the balance of dominance or in disease where there is a high level of stress hormones circulating, the dormant bad bacteria sense the opportunity and become more vigilante in attacking the host system. Bacteria can interact with the immune system by attaching to the intestinal mucosa and activating the GALT. Thus, the balance of intestinal flora in your gut influences immune responses of your biggest site for immune cells, the gut associated lymphatic system (GALS). Thus, the health of your gut plays an integral part of your general health. As research increases the gut is being implicated with various diseases of an auto-immune nature.
There are various strains (types) of bacteria that can be considered pro-biotic. Probiotics can have various applications to resolve or prevent conditions. See the table below for various strains that studies suggest their applications for certain conditions.
|INDICATION||GENUS, SPECIES, STRAIN|
|Infant diarrhoea||Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG L. casei DN-114001 L. reuteri|
|Inflammatory bowel conditions||Multi-strain probiotic containing three Bifidobacterium strains, four lactobacillus strains, and Streptococcus thermophilus (VSL#3) Escherichia coli Nissle|
|Anti-biotic-associated diarrhoea||Saccharomyces boulardii L. rhamnosus GG L. casei DN-114011 L. acidophilus CL1285 plus L. casei L. bulgaricus|
|Gut transit time||Bifidobacterium animalis DN-173 010|
|Keeping healthy||L. reuteri ATCC 55730, L. casei DN-114001|
|Atopic dermatitis||L. rhamnosus GG B. lactis|
|Lactose intolerance||Most strains L. bulgaricus and/or S. thermophilus|
|Colic in infants||L. reuteri ATCC 55730|
|Immune support||B. lactis HN019 B. lactis Bb12 L. casei DN-114001 L. rhamnosus GG L. plantarum L. acidophilus B. lactis L. johnsonii|
|Vaginal applications||L. rhamnosus GR1 plus L. reuteri RC14, L. acidophilus|
|Irritable Bowel Syndrome||L. plantarum 299v B. infantis 35264|
Global nutritional recommendations to improve digestive health
The World Gastro-enterology Organisation recommends the following 10 guidelines to improve digestive health:
- Maintain a healthy BMI of between 18-25. Epidemiological studies have found that obese individuals experience more digestive disorders like colon cancer, irritable bowel, and inflammatory bowel diseases.
- Eat smaller and more frequent meals without increasing overall calorie intake: 4-5 smaller meals rather than 2-3 large meals per day.
- Include fibre from whole foods, such as five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and increase daily consumption of whole grains and/or legumes.
- Increase intake of fish to 3-5 times per week.
- Limit the intake of higher fat, greasy, and fried foods.
- Have a meat free day at least one a week. Restrict red meat intake to once a week and select lean meat cuts.
- Increase intake of water to eight cups a day. Limit your intake of caffeinated and sugary drinks.
- Take adequate time for eating and chew food slowly and well.
- Include 20 minutes of exercise in your daily routine
- Consume fermented dairy products, especially probiotics with proven benefits to digestive health.