A healthy digestive system is the key to healthy digestion and nutrient absorption. Nutrients such as vitamins, amino acids and dietary fibres are absorbed, digested and converted into other metabolites by intestinal microbes. So maintaining a healthy gut microbiome (or flora) is critical for optimal health.
Typically, there are both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ microbiota (or bacteria), and it is essential to maintain a healthy balance between the two.
If the gut cannot adequately digest food, the body will not absorb the necessary nutrients. This can result in the body becoming nutritionally compromised, despite having a nutritionally balanced diet.
The digestive system is also interrelated with various other systems, such as the nervous system, and the food we eat directly impacts each system’s effectiveness.
The digestive system breaks down food and drink that is consumed into smaller molecules which the body can then utilise for many purposes, such as:
- Energy production
- Repair of tissues
- Growth (primarily through childhood/adolescence)
- Immune function.
WHAT MAKES UP A HEALTHY DIGESTIVE SYSTEM?
The digestive system is comprised of organs that are in direct contact with food. These organs work together to convert food into energy to feed the entire body. When food is consumed, it passes through a long tube inside the body known as the gastrointestinal tract (GIT), or the alimentary canal.
The GIT’s inner lining (wall of the intestinal tract) is naturally permeable (allows liquids or gasses to pass through) and this is how nutrients from food pass into the bloodstream.
The gut wall cells act as a barrier to prevent harmful substances such as antigens, toxins, and other invaders from entering the bloodstream. These cells also act as a filter to aid in the uptake of nutrients, electrolytes, water and other beneficial substances from the intestines. Digestive system health depends on several factors, including:
- The absence of dysbiosis
- The presence of good gut bacteria
- The inclusion of dietary fibre
- Consumption of prebiotic foods
- Optimal bowel transit time
- Lifestyle factors (including sleep and exercise).
HEALTHY GUT MICROBIOTA
A healthy digestive system is comprised of a healthy balance of beneficial gut bacteria, also known as gut microbiota or the microbiome. An imbalance in gut bacteria is known as “dysbiosis”.
Dysbiosis disrupts interactions between different bacteria (some are dominant or missing) and the host, making a person more susceptible to disease. Dysbiosis may be linked to chronic low-grade inflammation and metabolic disorders, ultimately resulting in metabolic syndrome, obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.
In addition to this, dysbiosis has also been linked to:
- Gastrointestinal tract infections
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
PREBIOTIC FIBRE FOR GUT HEALTH
Dietary fibre is essential for digestive system health. A type of non-digestible dietary fibre known as prebiotic fibre is especially beneficial for gut health. This fibre feeds the good bacteria in the GIT, allowing them to proliferate (increase in number).
Good bacteria are highly beneficial for improving digestive health; therefore, including prebiotic foods within the diet can be helpful. Prebiotics are found in fibrous foods, including:
- Onions, spring onions and shallots
- Cooked then cooled rice (resistant starch)
- Banana (unripe or as green banana flour)
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Fennel bulb
- Green peas.
HOW LIFESTYLE AND DIET IMPACT THE DIGESTIVE SYSTEM
A person’s diet and lifestyle choices can significantly impact overall health (positively or negatively). As the digestive system is in a state of balance between good and bad bacteria, lifestyle factors such as smoking, lack of exercise, stress, and obesity can significantly reduce the digestive system’s ability to achieve critical functions.
Several factors can impact the digestive system, and these include:
- Poor dietary choices (meal timing, meal composition, and eating style)
- Inadequate water intake
- Inadequate dietary fibre intake
- Excessive intake of alcohol and smoking
- Sedentary lifestyles
- Acute or chronic stress
- Bacterial imbalances
- Genetic factors (such as age, gender and race).
However, there are many things that can have a positive effect on gut health. As we’ve seen in this article, it’s important to maintain optimal gastrointestinal function for overall health and reduce the risks of poor digestive health conditions.
Techniques and strategies that can be utilised to improve gut health include (but are not limited to):
- Eating more whole foods
- Adequate fibre intake
- The inclusion of prebiotic foods
- Adequate intake of fluid and limiting caffeine
- Regular exercise
- Not eating too close to sleep/bedtime
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Stress management and incorporating relaxation techniques
- Understanding the implications of smoking and alcohol intake
- Chewing food properly while eating meals.
Maintaining a healthy digestive system helps the body with digestion and nutrient absorption. A healthy gut microbiome (or flora) allows for more absorption of essential vitamins, amino acids and dietary fibre. Combined with keeping a balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, you can improve your overall health and wellbeing.