Digestive Health   



Digestive Health

 
The effects of our increasingly lavish lifestyles and experience-driven culture seem to be catching up with us. Overindulging in calorie-rich food, increasingly sedentary lifestyles and increased levels of stress are main contributors to our deteriorating state of health.

Digestive system diseases are recognized as the sixth principal cause of death.

Unfortunately, we seldom give a second thought to our digestive system, or our gut. The word gut, which originates from old English, refers to narrow passages or waterways, which explains its association to the various canals and passages within our body.

In truth, our digestive system encompasses a much wider range of organs. When we eat, the food travels through the alimentary canal (the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, the small and large intestines) and the digestive system’s “accessory” organs such as the liver, pancreas and gallbladder.

The digestive system is central in ensuring that the food we eat is broken down, digested and absorbed to provide our body with sufficient energy. It is important to ensure that the entire system is in good shape, in order to achieve optimal digestive health. Not surprisingly, our digestive health also closely affects the general health and well-being of our body.

The average person consumes about 1kg of food a day. This means we eat about 365kg of food each year! Despite the huge amount of food we stuff into our guts, the importance of digestive health remains under-appreciated.

Ironically, we only start paying attention to digestive health when our digestive system malfunctions. For example, when we have constipation or diarrhoea, suddenly all we can think about is what we should eat, when we should eat and how we should eat. If we had thought about all these factors in the first place, we may have been able to avoid these disorders.

Core-relations: The digestive system is central in ensuring that the food we eat is broken down, digested and absorbed to provide our body with sufficient energy. Not surprisingly, our digestive health also closely affects the general health and well-being of our body.

What are some of the common digestive disorders that afflict worldwide?

What many folks don’t realize is that digestive problems are wide-ranging because they encompass a number of organs within our system. The less serious digestive problems can cause discomfort or disrupt your daily routine. Examples of these include gastritis, acid reflux, stomach ache, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

Disorders like diarrhoea, constipation and blood in stools can also be symptomatic of more serious illnesses, so it is always important to consult a medical professional if you or someone you know is experiencing such symptoms.

The more serious digestive illnesses can even result in death if not treated on time, such as stomach and colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer amongst Malaysian men and women. About 10.6% or one in 10 women are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and this is certainly alarming.

However, digestive disorders and diseases are largely preventable. Like other Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) such as diabetes or hypertension, digestive diseases are also greatly influenced by our diet and eating habits as well as lifestyle.

In the case of colon cancer, does it present any warning signs or symptoms? Is there any way we can prevent it?

The truth is, colon cancer usually presents symptoms only in the later stages. Those symptoms include altered bowel habits (either diarrhoea or constipation) for a prolonged period of time, severe abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, vomiting blood or passing of black stools, which indicates possible internal bleeding. However, the presentation of these symptoms usually means that the cancer is in its late stages and has possibly spread to other parts of the body. Therefore, detecting colon cancer before it starts is crucial.

Colon cancer usually begins as a polyp, which is a small lump on the surface of the colon. While most polyps are benign, over time, at least one type can turn malignant and be a precursor for colon cancer. The best way to detect polyps is by going for regular health screenings.

One of the most comprehensive health screening methods is colonoscopy; however, there are also other methods such as the faecal occult blood test, sigmodoiscopy or double contrast barium enema.
Many people feel squeamish about doing a colonoscopy, but there’s actually no need to feel so, as it’s usually performed under sedation and sometimes with general anaesthesia.

What is the general perception or attitude among peoples regarding digestive health diseases?

Unlike heart disease, digestive diseases raise very little concern. Generally, digestive diseases develop over a period of time, so most people remain complacent towards it.

Most patients I have encountered, both in the government and private sector, are not aware that they need to go for health screenings in order to diagnose and prevent colorectal cancer.

I guess the media also plays a part in raising awareness, which is why events like the World Digestive Health Day are important, as it gives us the opportunity to highlight these issues.

Who are those at high risk for colon cancer?

Those who are at high risk of colon cancer include:
•Those with a family history (parents or siblings who have been diagnosed with colon cancer or polyps).
•Men and women aged 50 years and above.
•Personal medical history, such as individuals who have had other cancers.
•Unhealthy diets that are high in fat and calories, and low in fiber.
•Unhealthy lifestyle habits such as excessive alcohol consumption, lack of exercise and heavy smoking.

Because of the lack of symptoms for colon cancer, most of the patients I see are those who already have cancer. If the cancer has already spread to the entire colon, we have to remove the colon and the patient will have to undergo chemotherapy.

A polyp usually takes about 10 years to turn cancerous, so if you can detect polyps early, there is a high chance that you will be able to prevent colon cancer.

As a general rule of thumb, if your father or close family relative was diagnosed with colon cancer at 50 years, you need to start going for screening 10 years earlier, at 40 years old.

The study suggests that the adoption of Westernised diets and lifestyles, including high consumption of animal foods, may have contributed to the rapid rise in colon cancer incidence.

Speaking of food, we love our food! Are there any tips on how we can choose the right kind of food, especially when dining out?

Whether dining out or eating at home, it is important to pick your food wisely. A general guide when eating out is to choose foods that are steamed, roasted, boiled or grilled, as they contain less oil and fat.

It is possible to request for healthier food preparation when eating out, for example, less oil, less sugar or less salt. When you have dessert, try to go for fresh fruits instead of cakes or other sweet treats that are high in calories.

When you talk about digestive health, it is important to consume more fiber-rich foods, like fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole-grains. Fiber promotes regular bowel movement, which keeps our digestive tract healthy.

In a nutshell, ensure that you eat a balanced and varied diet in moderation. No single food can meet your body’s entire nutritional needs.

How about probiotics? Can it improve digestive health?

There are trillions of good and bad bacteria in our intestines, known as the gut microflora. Good bacteria can boost the immune system, help with digestion, ward of allergies and offer protection from harmful bacteria. Usually, an imbalance of the microflora where the bad bacteria outnumbers the good, will cause an individual to be more infection-prone.

The World Gastroenterology Organisation (WGO) recognises probiotics as “live microbes that have been shown in controlled human studies to impart a health benefit”. Essentially, probiotics increases the amount of good bacteria in your intestinal tract.

We can add probiotics to our diet through nutritional supplements, or foods such as cultured milk drinks, yoghurt, fermented and unfermented milk, soy drinks and some juices. We also need prebiotics, which are beneficial to digestive health and helps to stimulate the growth and activity of good bacteria in the digestive system.

So, what can we do to become more aware and proactive about our digestive health?

Well, this year, we have launched a nationwide pledge, Guard Your Gut. The objective of this pledge is to urge peoples to be more proactive about their digestive health by highlighting just three simple steps that they can take to have better digestive health

The three steps are a summary of what we have been talking about so far, and that is: to practice healthy dietary and eating habits; a healthy lifestyle; and early detection through regular health screenings. 

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Happy reading,
Evelyn


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