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 you digestive health is not only empowering to know for your day to day comfort, but can reduce your overall risk for lifestyle diseases.
This article discusses how the digestive system works, the role fibre and probiotics in promoting digestive health and day to day guidelines to keep your tummy happy.
An Overview of the Gut
Gastro- intestinal tract (GIT) or also called the 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 defense for your body. It is not a surprise that most of your bodies immune system is located in close proximity to this barrier that allows nutrient to enter the body from the outside world. This mayor defense 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 has to 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. The diagram above illustrates the tole of digestion of each and every organ in the digestive system.
Two types of nerves help to control the action of the digestive system. Extrinsic (outside) nerves comes to the digestive organs from the central nervous system (Bran and spinal cord) and they trigger the release of chemicals acetylcholine and adrenaline. Adrenalin causes blood flow to leave the gut, relaxes the muscle of the stomach and intestine. Where Acetylcholine causes the muscles to contract with more force and increases the speed of which food is propelled though the digestive tract.
Intrinsic (inside) nerves, which make up a very dense network embedded in the walls of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon, are triggered to act when the walls of the hollow digestive organs are stretched by food. In this regard they are rather like the strings of a musical instrument, which will play different notes depending on their tension. The varying tension levels of the intrinsic nerves trigger similarly varying reactions. Instead of sounding different notes they release many different substances, and either speed up or delay the movement of food and the production of juices by the digestive organs. As you can guess, 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
Fiber is carbohydrates that your body doesn’t have enzymes to digest so it simply passes though 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 it’s sweeping action though your digestive system also sweeps 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 byproducts 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 to your colon to move the waste quicker out of your system by contracting the muscles of the colon. this is how fibre acts to keep you regular.
The many benefits of fibre include:
1 Lowering cholesterol levels
2 Weight-loss by adding bulk to meal and promoting satiety.
3 Improving digestion
4 Reducing diabetes risk
5 Reducing risk of heart disease
6 Reducing constipation
7 Reducing the risk of inflammation of the intestines.
8 Maintaining steady control of blood sugar
There is two types of fibre in the diet soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre dissolves in water and a good example is Agar Agar a gelatin like thickening agent used in Japanese dishes. Also Psyllium husk and oats are a good source of soluble fibre. insoluble fibre is the husks of seeds and the peels of fruits. this does not dissolve in water. Too high an intake of insoluble fibre can actually cause constipation by clogging up the digestive tract. Examples of this is the fibre in All-Bran, coconut and digestive bran. It is best to increase you fibre intake tough food sources rather than adding all bran to food. As various fibre have different health benefits and mixing the sources will give the best health benefits.
It’s best that you get the fiber you need each day from foods in your diet rather than supplements. Most people need between 20 and 35 grams of fiber each day. Some good fiber-rich food choices are:
1 Whole-grain breads, cereals, and pastas
2 Fruits and vegetables
3 Brown rice
4 Dried beans
Getting fiber is great, but don’t suddenly jump on the fiber bandwagon and ramp up your intake all at once. Take it slowly, and gradually increase your fiber each day to prevent side effects like diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, and gas.
Benefits of probiotics
Probiotics like mentioned above is the the good bacteria (pro-biotics) that lives in harmony (symbiosis) with your colon. If this good relationship exists because your colon provides them with a suitable habitat and food. In return there is a beneficial interaction that probiotics break down indigestible fibre and release nutrients that help in the health of colon cells. The good bacteria also competes with bad bacteria. If there is more good bacteria in you colon than bad bacteria then 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 senses 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. 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 various strains (types) of bacteria that can be considered Pro-biotic. Probiotics can have various applications to resolve or prevents conditions. See the table below for various strains that studies suggest their applications for certain conditions.
Genus, species, strain
|Infant diarrhea||Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG L.
|Inflammatory bowel conditions||Multistrain 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
|Atopic dermatitis||L. rhamnosus GG B. lactis|
|Lactose intolerance||Most strainsL. bulgaricus
|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
|Irritable Bowel Syndrome||L. plantarum 299v B. infantis 35264|
The 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 individual 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 fiber from whole foods, such as 5 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 friend foods.
- Have a meat free day at least one a week. restrict red meat intake to once a week and select meat cuts to lean options.
- Increase intake of water to 8 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.