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
What are some of the common digestive disorders that
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
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
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
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
•Unhealthy diets that are high in fat and calories, and low in
•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
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
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
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
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.