Gut health is a very hot topic right now and as sipping kombucha and bone broth all while popping probiotics becomes the norm, the interest in gut health is not likely to die off anytime soon. The positive side of gut health being on trend is the increased awareness around what constitutes good gut health and how can we better take care of our digestive system.  With that being said, let’s dig a little deeper!

What is the role of our digestive system?

The digestive tract includes the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and anus. Other organs which assist in the digestive process include the pancreas, liver and gallbladder.

The main role of the digestive system is to turn the foods we eat into nutrients which the body then uses to function and survive. Once food has been processed, any unused matter is removed as waste. Considering the vital role of our digestive system, its concerning to learn that half of Australian’s complain of some digestive problem in any 12-month period (Gut Foundation Australia). The good news is that digestive complaints are both preventable and treatable and do not have to be a life sentence!

What are some of the common symptoms of poor digestive health?

  • Bloating
  • Excessive wind/flatulence
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Alternating between diarrhoea and constipation
  • Reflux
  • Heartburn
  • Abdominal pain/discomfort
  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

What factors can impact digestive function and lead to symptoms?

There are a number of factors which can trigger digestive symptoms and identify which are true triggers can sometimes be a process of elimination. The most common factors which are usually considered first include:

  • Diet – there are numerous dietary triggers responsible for digestive symptoms and each person has their own individual tolerance to foods. This means certain foods will trigger symptoms in some but not in others. Foods which are well-known to trigger symptoms include If you haven’t heard the term FODMAP, they are short-chain carbohydrates that aren’t absorbed well in the gut which can lead to digestive symptoms. A high-fat diet can also trigger symptoms in those who have trouble absorbing fats and a diet low in carbohydrates can lead to constipation.
  • Food sensitivities and intolerances insensitive people can trigger symptoms. A common one is undiagnosed lactose intolerance.
  • Coeliac Disease – is a condition where the ingestion of gluten by those with coeliac disease, leads the body to mount an attack against the protein in gluten. This reaction usually results in damage to the cells lining the intestine. Coeliac Disease can go undiagnosed for some time.
  • Stress and anxiety – there is an undeniable connection between gut health and mental This is especially considering that our gut and brain share many of the same nerve endings, hormones and neurotransmitters, thus ensuring a permanent link between the gut and brain. An example of this in action is when we are feeling stressed or anxious and enter fight or flight mode, our body will attempt to remove any waste from the body so it can quickly run away from danger.
  • Hormonal imbalances such an endometriosis is commonly linked to digestive symptoms including diarrhoea and bloating.
  • Infections –including a parasite or bacterial infection which lingers in the gut causing digestive havoc.
  • Dysbiosis – an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, our gut bacteria interact with the foods we eat and can trigger symptoms if they are out of balance. This is a common situation people experience after having gastro or food poisoning.

What are the long-term consequences of ignoring digestive system symptoms?

The digestive system plays a vital role in the body so it only makes sense that ignoring poor digestive health long-term can negatively impact health, such as:

  • Quality of life – can be negatively affected, especially if symptoms restrict your ability to socialise, go to work or
  • Poor sleep – if symptoms wake you up during the night, it can impair sleep, which long-term can have a negative impact on both physical and mental
  • Unnecessary diet restriction – if living in fear that specific foods will trigger symptoms and you avoid foods without knowing true dietary triggers, it can lead to an unnecessary restriction of food which can make eating out hard and can result in a poor diet.
  • Nutrient deficiencies – as you have learnt above, the digestive system is responsible for helping us absorb nutrients from the food we eat. If the digestive function is impaired, this can mean you aren’t absorbing as much nutrition from food and long-term this can result in nutrient deficiencies. Common nutrients affected by poor digestive function include iron, Vitamin B12, calcium and Vitamin A.

As research in this area emerges, we are gaining increased awareness in respect to the role of our digestive system and how the health of our gut impacts our overall well-being. It’s important to understand that digestive symptoms aren’t normal and you don’t have to live with them for life. Additionally, due to the complexity of the digestive system and numerous factors which can impact digestive health, it’s important to support the continuance of research in this area. This, in turn, will help to develop greater insight into the triggers of digestive complaints and possible treatments.

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