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Your Digestive System: The Importance of a Healthy Gut

Did you know we have two brains? Seems unbelievable but it’s true. We have our brain in our head and we also have a brain in our gut. What is even more amazing is that both brains communicate with each other and the discovery of this is helping the medical fraternity to understand the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way we feel and think. Scientists are now calling the brain in our gut the enteric nervous system (ENS). In a nutshell, a healthy gut feeds a healthy brain and a healthy brain boosts a healthy gut so gut health is of the utmost importance.

We often take a healthy digestive system for granted, but many of us have experienced abdominal discomfort when the microbiome of our stomach and intestines becomes imbalanced. There has been a marked increase in gut-related health problems in South Africa in the last three decades, mostly because of the continued adoption of unhealthy western diets. Estimates suggest that 1 in 25 deaths are related to the gut, and colorectal cancer is one of the most common types of cancer affecting both local women and men.

Let’s take a look at what you can do to keep the engine of your body running efficiently.

What’s the big fuss with my gut anyway?

There is a direct correlation between gut health and the prevalence of allergies, asthma, colon cancer, constipation, diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 2 diabetes. Other ailments such as candida, heart disease and kidney disease have also been linked to gut health. Leaky gut is another serious disorder where the lining of the digestive system is unable to prevent food particles, toxins and bacteria from entering the blood stream.

As strange as it sounds, our digestive system, consisting of the stomach and intestines (and that we casually refer to as the gut), is filled with trillions of bacteria. Rather than making us ill or being cause for concern, these bacteria actually aid in the process of our bodies breaking down food so that it can be absorbed to make our cells function. Without them, we’d be horribly sick, and many times when your stomach is giving you trouble, it’s because these good bacteria are not functioning as they should be. The idea, therefore, is to protect and cultivate these good bacteria, which keep you healthy.

Taking care of your digestive system will increase your energy levels, boost your immune system, and aid you into old age. Speak to your doctor about ways to cultivate a healthy gut, some of which we cover in this article.

Water, the universal solvent

If you ever needed convincing, now’s the time. Water flushes toxins out of the gut while also protecting the linings of the digestive system, without getting rid of the good bacteria, so it’s imperative to drink enough of it each day: about 3.7 litres for men and 2.7 litres for women. Some of this may be in the form of teas and coffees but aim for no more than 20%. Another 20% will come from food, so about 60% of your intake should be pure water.

Wholewheat is a treat! White is not alright!

Scoffing down a white bread chip roll may be fine if you’re 22, but it’s quite a different matter at 55, and there is very strong evidence that fibre (noticeably lacking in chip rolls) is an essential ingredient for a healthy gut. Think of it this way: despite the fact that it seems counterintuitive, cleaning your face with a facial scrub, although it is abrasive, actually exfoliates the skin and refreshes it by removing dead skin cells. When fibre passes through the body, it does not fully break down, so it effectively ‘scrapes’ the rubbish off the lining of the gut without disturbing the healthy bacteria.

With bread being such a staple of South African diets and making up a significant portion of what we eat, it’s important that a better quality of bread is eaten. At the very least, brown bread is better than white, although wholewheat is the best. Low GI (glycaemic index) has the added benefit of making you feel full for longer, which keeps the temptation to overeat at bay.

But it’s not just bread. Wholewheat pasta, wraps and rolls, and brown rice all have a lot more fibre in them than the refined white starches. Weet-Bix, All-Bran and even porridges like oats are loaded with water-soluble fibre.

Anti-, pre- and pro-biotics

The interplay of these 3 elements are key to digestive system health. Antibiotics, of course, are the medication that your doctor will give you if you are sick with a bacterial infection. They do not work for viral infections such as cold and flu, but they kill the bacteria in your system from infections such as gastroenteritis. Unfortunately, they can also kill those so-called ‘good’ bacteria in your system, which will prevent your gut from processing food properly. This is when your doctor will usually prescribe a probiotic, to restore these good bacteria in your gut.

However, these are artificially ingested probiotics, and as prevention is better than cure, it’s always good to take them in naturally. There are 2 ways to do this: AIDING and ADDING. First, you can aid the microbes in your microbiome by treating them to the foods they like, which are specialised fibres that induce the growth of healthy bacteria (these are called PREbiotics); and second, you can add to them by putting more living microbes into your system (these are called PRObiotics).

Foods rich in prebiotics include sweet potatoes, quinoa, dandelion greens, barley, leeks, cabbage, Jerusalem artichokes, chia seeds, konjac root, banana, oats, chicory root, asparagus, yams, berries, carrots, coconut and coconut flour, flax seed, apples, garlic, onions, jicama root, cocoa, wheat bran and radishes. Foods rich in probiotics include yoghurt, tempeh, kimchi, kombucha, miso, pickles, kefir, sauerkraut, lactobacillus milk, and Gouda, mozzarella, cheddar and cottage cheese.

So is it all about what you eat?

As the saying goes, we are what we eat, so the short answer is yes. A diet rich in fibre, with fruit and vegetables, fermented foods, and lots of water, will in most cases give you a very healthy gut, which will make you feel great.

However, you may have specific ailments that could be aggravated by any of these foods. When your stomach is giving you hassles, it’s always best to make an appointment to see a gastroenterologist.

For more information please contact:

Dr Lina Cunha
Specialist Gastroenterologist
MD-UEM, Poitiers University, France
Maputo Private Hospital
Tel: +258 214 88600
Email: linhacunha@gmail.com or info@lenmed.co.za

Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.