Do you think you have perfect digestion? Can you eat most foods without feeling bloated, crampy, or achey? Is going to the toilet once a day good or bad?
Read below to find out what the signs of a healthy digestive system are, and what you can do to achieve this.
Everyone is talking about gut health, consuming fermented foods, and buying probiotics. But what does good gut health look like and how do we know we are doing the right thing to keep our gut happy?
Hippocrates said this more than 2,000 years ago, but we’re only now coming to understand how right he was. Research has revealed that gut health is critical to overall health and that an unhealthy gut contributes to a wide range of diseases including diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
First things first, what is the role of the digestive system? To put it simply, your digestive system breaks down food and liquids into their chemical components (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) for your body to absorb as nutrients to be used for energy and building or repairing cells.
A healthy digestive system is one where the gastrointestinal tract can produce digestive enzymes, includes beneficial gut bacteria, efficiently absorb nutrients, prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria, and eliminate toxins and unwanted substances. A healthy gastrointestinal system processes food (a healthy individual usually digests food in 24-45 hours) and eliminates waste material from the body efficiently, and functioning can be observed in the amount of time it takes to digest food as well as the appearance of stool; regular and frequent bowel movements indicate a healthy gastrointestinal system. The consistency, color, and frequency of stool reflect many aspects of health, including diet, hydration, use of medications, and presence of medical conditions. According to the Bristol Stool Chart, a healthy stool ranges between type 3-4, this is ‘like a sausage, with cracks on the surface or smooth and easy to pass’.
The large intestine is the main component of the colon and contains the highest number of bacteria which can survive and repopulate by anaerobically digesting our food. The gut microbiota improves the host’s ability to extract and store energy from the diet, exert beneficial effects on bile salt, lipoprotein, and cholesterol metabolism.
Microbiota in healthy adults can be categorised into three dominant phyla: Bacteroides, Firmicutes, and Actinobacteria; High Firmicutes and low Bacteroides represent a healthy, diverse microbiome. This usually correlates with a plant-based diet. However, alterations within the microbiome composition can significantly affect our health and wellbeing; diets low in fermentable fibres, dietary toxins like gluten that cause leaky gut, chronic stress, and infections.
Antibiotic use can change gut microflora increasing in the overgrowth of harmful microorganisms, clostridium difficile being the most common. Gut microbes are considered a contributing factor to body weight regulation and related disorders, by influencing metabolic and immune host functions. Consuming a diet high in carbohydrates and fats from processed foods and lower dietary fibre can also increase the risk of inflammatory conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBS/IBD) and Crohn’s disease. Other disorders that alerted microbiome can affect include Parkinson’s disease and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), to name some.
Imbalances in the composition of gut microbiota have been associated with insulin resistance and body weight gain. Obesity is associated with an increase in Firmicutes and a reduction in Bacteroidetes; microbiota supplemented with Firmicutes showed a lower level of functional diversity than Bacteroidetes-dominant microbiota. As a result, obesity is associated with a higher number of Firmicutes and this leads to an overall decrease in metabolic diversity.
A study conducted by Kenyon et al., (2018) compared the gut microbiome between healthy individuals and unhealthy individuals, particularly focusing on four conditions; inflammatory bowel disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, obesity, and cancer. Results showed the control group (healthy individuals) had higher levels of Firmicutes to Bacteroides compared to the IBS, obesity, and CFS groups. The diversity score was significantly lower in cancer and CFS patients in contrast to the control group. Although not as diverse, IBS and obesity were also reduced.
Signs of poor gut health include low energy, fatigue, interrupted or restless sleep, dark circles under the eyes, blotchy skin, abdominal pain, high gas levels, and bloating.
A Nutritionist or Functional Medicine Practitioner can help restore a healthy digestive system by taking a comprehensive health history, getting any lab tests necessary (comprehensive stool test, intestinal permeability screening, food intolerance, etc), and guide you through a treatment plan. This can include removing all food toxins from your diet, maximising digestive capacity using supplemental acid and enzymes, encouraging the consumption of fermentable fibres, fermented foods, treating intestinal pathogens, and managing stress.
A healthier digestive system means a healthier you!
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Morten, K., Staines-Urias, E. and Kenyon, J. (2018). Potential clinical usefulness of gut microbiome testing in a variety of clinical conditions. Human Microbiome Journal, 10, pp.6-10.
Sanz, Y., Santacruz, A. and De Palma, G. (2008). Insights into the Roles of Gut Microbes in Obesity. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Infectious Diseases, 2008, pp.1-9.
www.emea.illumina.com. (2018). 16S rRNA Sequencing | Identify strains that may not be found using other methods. [online] Available at: https://emea.illumina.com/areas-of-interest/microbiology/microbial-sequencing-methods/16s-rrna-sequencing.html [Accessed 29 Oct. 2018].