Are you experiencing some tummy trouble? If the answer is 'yes', it may be worth finding out a little about how your digestive system works in order to understand what could be going wrong.
The digestive system
The digestive system is a complex collection of organs and processes, which not only allow us to fuel our bodies and keep them free of toxins (through the absorption of nutrients and the elimination of waste), but also has a major role to play in our general health and well-being.
For example, you might be surprised to learn that the most important part of our immune system is in our gut, which houses what is believed to be the largest collection of immune cells in the body. In fact, 70% of all antibody-producing cells are located in what is called Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue.
Poor digestion and digestive disorders therefore have the potential to significantly impact on both your health and your quality of life.
The term “digestive disorder” is very broad and encompasses a wide range of conditions. For example, chronic constipation, Candida (thrush or yeast infections), Leaky Gut Syndrome, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), dysbiosis (imbalance of gut flora) and coeliac disease are all common problems. You might be surprised to learn that there are actually more than 25 different conditions that relate to the digestive system, affecting millions of people across the world.
The prevalence of digestive orders (particularly in the Western world) has increased significantly over recent years. Some may not last long and could be symptomatic of other things – such as acute constipation and diarrhoea. However, others are long-lasting, even debilitating, and may require medical assistance, support and lifestyle changes to help manage them (or hopefully fix them).
Given their diverse nature, these disorders naturally also lead to a wide range of symptoms, which vary between conditions, as well as between individuals and in terms of levels of severity. Stomach ache, wind, halitosis (chronic bad breath), indigestion, reflux, diarrhoea, constipation, bloating and food sensitivity are just some of the more common symptoms.
The fact that these symptoms are so broad and vague often means that the underlying digestive disorder goes undiagnosed (or is perhaps misdiagnosed) and therefore goes untreated. Failure to treat, or at least actively manage, these conditions has the potential to lead to further health complications later on.
If you are feeling frustrated that your tummy troubles have been persisting for a long time, without improvement and without a definitive diagnosis from a medical professional (who should always be your first port of call if concerned), why not take control of your own health?
Of course, expert advice can be extremely helpful (and is often necessary in the early stages of treatment). However, if no definitive clinical diagnosis is forthcoming, you are not seeing improvement despite a diagnosis, or you are simply seeking to manage your digestive disorder on a daily basis following diagnosis, the more information you have the better.
It is up to you to take proactive steps to learn about, understand and manage your digestive disorder to the extent reasonably possible. Not only will this give you a sense of empowerment (as you will be taking positive action to improve your digestion and therefore your health and quality of life), but you are also best placed to follow your symptoms and listen to your body.
There are a number of practical things you can do day-to-day, to help you on the road to better digestive health. For example:
- keeping a food diary (to track those foods which might be leading to, or at least aggravating, any symptoms)
- trying an elimination diet (for the same reason)
- topping up on your levels of good bacteria (whether by including fermented probiotic foods in your diet or, if you want to be sure of the levels of bacteria and their ability to colonise your digestive tract for the long-term, by taking high quality multi-strain probiotic supplements)
- choosing foods or food supplements that are rich in digestive enzymes, such as green leafy plants, fruit and vegetables (to help take the strain off your digestive tract and your body's own reserve of enzymes)
- choosing foods or food supplements that are high in quality dietary fibre (avoid breakfast cereals and other foods which claim to have "added fibre" - this tends to be extracted bran - a waste product that is actually an irritant to the gut. Always ensure that your fibre is derived from the whole grain or from another whole plant source)
- drinking more pure water (hydration is key to a well-functioning colon, particularly when upping your intake of fibre)
- keeping active (exercise promotes peristalsis, the mechanism by which food waste is moved along the digestive tract to ultimately be eliminated. It also supports the body's natural detoxification processes through the lymphatic system).