With a pesky virus floating around, paying attention to gut health has never been more important.
Gut health is essential to our body’s function – and so learning how to improve it goes a long way. But first of all, what exactly is it?
What Is Gut Health?
The gut refers to the gastrointestinal system, a group of organs that consists of the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, intestines, colon and rectum. Meanwhile, gut health is the “state of effective digestion and absorption of food, resulting in gastrointestinal well-being and an absence of illness”, according to Dr. Melvin Look, a Consultant Gastrointestinal Surgeon and Director of PanAsia Surgery Group.
Why Is It So Important?
Your gut is [like] your second brain. If it’s out of sync, you may experience issues like diarrhoea, stomachache, gastric flu and so on. – Ivena Clarissa, a Senior Psychologist at National University Hospital
Gastrointestinal diseases, such as inflammation or cancers, can be serious and life-threatening if left untreated. Gastrointestinal cancers remain the fourth most common cancer in the world. A common symptom of this disease? Prolonged and persistent stomachaches – something that is often neglected. “This is why early-stage stomach cancer is often so hard to detect,” says Dr. Look.
Even so, less critical problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can cause symptoms like abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhoea, all of which can affect one’s quality of life. Key to our overall health is the microbiota found in our gut, combined with the gut barrier, both of which regulate the immune system and thus have an impact on allergy responses. Dr. Look notes that a healthy gut “should [have] normal and stable microbiota, the ecological community of microorganisms that live in the intestines” to boost one’s immune system.
What Causes Poor Gut Health?
Anything that affects the gut microbiota can lead to poor gut health. One common example? Antibiotics. An excessive consumption of these medicines can alter the diversity of good bacteria that’s needed for a healthy gut.
Unbalanced diets high in carbohydrates or fat can also affect the gut’s defence system and allow infections, inflammation, allergy and diseases to set in.
Some common symptoms to look out for are abdominal pain, heartburn, bloating, flatulence (accumulation of gas), odd bowel movements and the unhealthy look of one’s stools. There are also tests, such as the Hydrogen Breath Test, that can be done to assess if you have gut trouble. Speak to your doctor about any concerns you may have.
Road to a Healthier Gut
“[Adopt] a healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables and foods high in fibre content. Try to avoid excessive red meat, tobacco and alcohol,” says Dr. Look. Managing your stress level is key to gut health, too. Stress eating, according to NUH Senior Psychologist Ivena Clarissa, can lead to gastrointestinal problems. “[When one stress eats], the stomach lining becomes irritated, causing gas and indigestion (think bloating, belching, nausea) which in turn can cause acid reflux.” That condition is recognised by a burning sensation in one’s chest or stomach.
Dr. Look adds that regular exercise and meditative methods help to reduce stress levels. “[Consuming] probiotics or probiotic supplements can also help to improve gut health.” Indeed, fermented beverages like kombucha and kefir have been around for centuries due to their probiotic goodness. Raw potato juice, too, can help to soothe the tummy, ease inflammation and promote digestion.
Nonetheless, getting periodic screenings like endoscopies (as advised by your doctor) will help to detect potential life-threatening diseases early.
Dr. Maria Tang of the International Medical Clinic (IMC) shares how to relieve this uncomfortable feeling of being too full. (This can be a result of swallowing air when you eat and drink too fast, or eating “gassy” foods like beans, broccoli and cabbage.) “Try some simple lifestyle changes: eat slowly, try not to overeat, avoid carbonated drinks and fatty foods, add probiotics to your diet, or temporarily cut back on high fibre foods that produce too much gas,” says Dr. Tang.
However, it is important to consult your doctor if the bloating is accompanied by persistent and severe abdominal pain, blood in stools, unexplained weight loss, diarrhoea and vomiting, worsening heartburn or chest discomfort, fatigue and loss of appetite, or if you have a smaller appetite.
By Willaine G. Tan + some text adapted from The Finder Issue 291 (September 2017) + Medical advice courtesy of Dr. Melvin Look from PanAsia Surgery Group and Dr. Maria Tang from International Medical Clinic / Images: 123RF.com
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