“You are what you eat” is truer than you may think, as recent research connects digestive health to overall wellbeing, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The reason is that your gut is populated with bacteria, fungi and viruses called the microbiome. A healthy microbiome leads to better immune function. However, the reverse is true of those gut microbes.
“Studies suggest that they may play roles in obesity, type 2 diabetes, IBS, and colon cancer,” the NIH says. “They might also affect how the immune system functions. This can affect how your body fights illness and disease.”
So, how do you contribute to better gut function and improve your health? Here are a few ways.
Eat fresh veggies
The fiber from fresh vegetables and whole grains aid digestion and feed a healthy microbiome, says Melanie Green, MD, a gastroenterologist with TriHealth Digestive Institute.
Most Americans get 12-15 grams of fiber per day, about half the recommended amount. Tracking what you eat can help, as well as making a smoothie in the morning, Dr. Green says. Start with a base such as spinach or kale, and blend in fruit – such as an apple or berries – for sweetness.
“Starting my day that way makes me think about vegetables more, and it’s an easy way to get them in,” she says. “I find that, during the day, I make better choices if I start with a healthy breakfast.”
Even a light amount of daily exercise populates the gut with good bacteria and protects the intestine, according to a 2017 article in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. Exercise also combats constipation.
“If constipation is an issue with my patients, I recommend they drink plenty of fluids and exercise,” Dr. Green says. “Even things like tai chi and acupuncture are recommended to help with those things. The data isn’t really robust for it, but it’s probably not going to hurt.”
Manage your mental health
Poor mental health can also be connected to gastrointestinal (GI) conditions.
“The gut microbiota is a part of the stress response system,” according to a 2018 study in Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience. “A healthy microbiota helps the host to cope with stress, whereas an abnormal microbiota reduces the resistance and increases the susceptibility to stress-related disorders.”
Dr. Green has seen this especially in patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
“We do see a good number of IBS patients who also have a diagnosis of anxiety, depression and stress,” Dr. Green says. “There’s a really strong brain-gut connection, where emotional stress can manifest as GI symptoms.”
Get a colonoscopy
Early screening with a colonoscopy is recommended, Dr. Green says. For patients who are African American, the colonoscopy is recommended at age 45. The average population should begin screening at age 50, but if you have a family history of colon cancer or large polyps, you may need to begin colon cancer screening earlier.
“Colon cancer is the cancer we can actually prevent in most patients when we take out polyps and growths in the colon,” she says. “I prevent cancer every day.”
If you have rectal bleeding, low blood counts and low iron levels, or unexpected weight loss, you should see a gastroenterologist. Additionally, if you have a strong family history of colon cancer, you should consider screening for genetic disorders that are sometimes related to other cancers in addition to colon cancer.
Luckily, Dr. Green says, colonoscopies are not as bad as people think.
“We give sedation for the colonoscopy, and most people sleep through it,” she says. “I’ve had patients who have put off having colonoscopies for years, and when they finally get one, they wake up afterward and ask me, ‘Are you going to get started yet?’”
If you have a family history of colon cancer or want to have better digestive health, TriHealth Digestive Institute’s team of gastroenterologists, surgeons, radiologists and oncologists are committed to offering relief from a range of digestive health issues to patients throughout Cincinnati.