Gut Health is a hot topic in the world of nutrition at the moment and every year there seems to be a new trend when it comes to health. Detoxes, juicing etc. But if there is one trend that’s worth following then it has to be gut health.
A healthy gut doesn’t just mean healthy bowl movements. There are many more signs of unhealthy gut and even more benefits of a healthy gut.
Our gut is where all our food is processed and nutrient extracted that gets send to our bodies. So paying attention and looking after it is a must.
For a lot of people this subject may seem complicated and difficult to grasp so I asked dietician Lidia de Klerk to answer a few questions to help and explain the importance of gut health
1. What is gut health?
Your gut refers to your gastrointestinal system – more specifically part of the GI tract located in the lower abdominal area. These organs are your stomach, small intestine and colon.
If you have a healthy gut, it would mean that you are free from stomach or intestinal ulcers, bowel abnormalities (e.g. irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease) and abnormal growths in your gut that could develop into cancer.
2. What are the signs of unhealthy gut?
An unhealthy gut can be caused by a range of different conditions. ULCERS
When a person’s immune system is under pressure or when they are constantly exposed to a high stress environment, they have a risk to develop an ulcer. Ulcers can be located at any place in the stomach or in the small intestine. The symptoms of an ulcers range between individuals, but will include abdominal cramps, heartburn and burning sensation when eating acidic food or food with a very warm or very cold temperature. IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME (IBS)
IBS is a chronic digestive gastrointestinal disease where the specific cause is unknown. Symptoms include bloating, flatulence (gassiness), altered stool pattern (constipation, diarrhoea or both) and abdominal pain. It often happens that these patients might go for extensive tests of the gastrointestinal tract and end up with inconclusive results. INFLAMMATORY BOWEL DISEASE (IBD)
IBD is an inflammatory disease and includes Crohn’s Disease and Celiac Disease. In IBD the body creates an inflammatory response and a patient may experience a fever, severe pain or cramping, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. In IBD the lower gastrointestinal tract is often damaged by the severe inflammation and might cause malabsorption and incomplete digestion of nutrients. IBD needs to be treated with medication with a doctor’s supervision. INTESTINAL CANCER AND COLORECTAL CANCER
Signs of cancer in the lower digestive tract can be severe of quite vague. Be aware of these signs and see a doctor if any of these seem to be chronic and unexplained:
• Unintentional weight loss
• Abdominal cramping/ pain
• General weakness/ fatigue
• Blood in the stools or dark/ tarry stools
• A lump in the abdominal area
Tumours in the small intestine and colon can grow slowly or rapidly and will block the flow if intestinal material. It can cause intense pain, nausea and vomiting if a blockage occurs. Any symptoms that seem different than normal can be a warning sign. Rather take action earlier than waiting for it to become a serious problem.
3. What effect does an unhealthy gut have on your wellbeing?
The microbiota (living organisms in the gastrointestinal tract) is vital in the maintenance of a healthy immune system and general human health. The brain and gut has a direct link between each other. The lack of a healthy gut causes an increased risk for disorders like diabetes mellitus, obesity, depression, schizophrenia, autism and anxiety. The microbiota in the gut is responsible for producing and delivering substances that have antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties. As soon as the balance of the microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tracts is disturbed, a person may start to experience symptoms of depression.
4. What are the benefits of a healthy gut?
Just as an unhealthy gut has adverse effects on both physical and emotional wellbeing, a healthy gut has multiple benefits. Your immune system is largely housed in your gut. About 70% of our immune cells are located in our gut. Health problems that seem to have a different origin can actually be caused by an unhealthy gut. If we ensure that our digestive health is cared for, our immune system gets a boost, we have improved detoxification ability, skin health improves, allergy risk decreases, neurological health is improved and our risk for cancer may also be decreased.
5. How to treat an unhealthy gut
• Imbalances in your gut health are often caused by an unhealthy diet. Things to specifically avoid when looking after your gut are high fat and sugary foods, fast foods, refined starches and a high alcohol intake.
• Be careful for the overuse of anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, antacids and certain steroids. These can adversely affect the digestive function of your gut and disturb the bacterial balance.
• Minimize your exposure to toxins like cigarette smoking, drugs and alcohol.
• Stress has a direct effect on gut health. Try to minimize your exposure to stressful situations, especially if these situations are long term.
• Ensure that your intake of probiotics is adequate and supplement with probiotics if your diet and lifestyle are not supportive of a healthy gut or if you are already experiencing symptoms of an unhealthy gut.
6. What foods are best for a healthy gut?
• Follow a fibre rich diet by including:
• A variety of fruit and vegetables
• High fibre/ wholegrain starches
• Legumes like beans, lentils and chickpeas
• Omega-3 rich foods like oily fish, nuts and seeds have anti-inflammatory action and can improve gut function.
• Probiotic rich foods include yoghurt, gherkins/ pickles and sauerkraut. Adding these to your diet on a regular basis can maintain probiotic levels naturally.
• Certain gut abnormalities may be due to deficient enzyme levels and can include lactase (the enzyme that digests lactose – milk sugar) deficiency. A supplement that assists in improving enzyme levels may be beneficial if this is a problem.
• A diet with adequate glutamine intake or a glutamine supplement is also advised to improve gut health. Glutamine is a conditionally essential amino acid found in both plant and animal proteins. It’s often a beneficial supplement when a person has digestive problems. This amino acid directly strengthens the function of cells in the gut and can significantly improve gut health.
Glutamine is found in spinach, cabbage, beets, lentils, beans, peas, tofu, chicken, fish and dairy.
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