All diseases begin in the gut
THE GUT is a powerhouse within the body as it converts food into energy, delivers valuable nutrients into the bloodstream, manages waste and protects against disease.
In fact, the gut is an intrinsic link to our overall health and wellness. Each of us has significant control over our own gut health, but often people do not take the time to consider it until they are not feeling well.
While it may be easy to overlook, taking proactive steps to promote a healthy gut is one of the best tools we have for preventing disease and optimising our well-being.
Dr Orlando Thomas, medical doctor and functional medicine practitioner at Thomas Medical Centre, said the role of the gut is extensive, with many functions, but its main responsibility is digesting food.
“The gut refers to the entire gastrointestinal tract. It starts at the mouth, travels through the oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, or colon, and ends at the anal canal, or rectum. The mechanics of digestion occur largely in the mouth and the stomach by physically breaking down food into smaller particles,” Dr Thomas said.
“The chemicals used during digestion, including a variety of enzymes, acid and bile, aid in the mechanical breakdown of food and, more importantly, they allow the body to absorb nutrients and expel waste. The nutrients absorbed during digestion fuel every organ in the body and their respective functions,” he added.
Dr Thomas indicated that about 70 per cent, or two-third of our immune system is ruled by the gut. It is home to 60 to 100 trillion bacteria, compared to about 10 trillion cells in the body, and has 100 times the genome of the human body. There are also about 200 to 1,000 species known as microbiome.
The intestinal tract forms a defensive barrier from what we ingest, and it prevents harmful substances from reaching the bloodstream. If this barrier is compromised and those harmful substances are able to get past, inflammation can occur. Inflammation can negatively affect the body in many ways and is associated with the development of chronic conditions, including arthritis, diabetes, kidney disease and colitis, among others.
“You cannot survive without bacteria. There are good bacteria and there are bad bacteria. When the bad bacteria are predominant, this causes illness. The goal is to maintain that balance, because you cannot completely eliminate bad bacteria; you have to live with them,” Dr Thomas said.
Our gastrointestinal tract can also be afflicted by numerous conditions, including gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GERD), gallstones, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and haemorrhoids.
These conditions can come with a wide variety of symptoms, including pain, heartburn, diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, bloating, weight gain or loss, and fatigue, depending on the patient and his or her specific disease.
“A normal gut has healthy cells, normal blood flow, and a healthy mucus layer. A leaky gut or damaged gut allows for bacteria to get into your blood stream and is the root cause of many illnesses,” he said.
Some major causes of leaky gut include food allergy or sensitivity, intolerance or stress, infection, psychosis, systematic disease, impaired digestion, toxins and medications.
“Emotional stress can also affect gut bacteria. Scientists refer to the ‘gut-brain axis’, a pathway through which signals from the gut can affect neurotransmitters in the brain, and vice versa. Research is still early, but a person’s microbiome and mental state appear to be able to influence each other to some extent,” he said.
Then, too, there is the role of medications, including over-the-counter painkillers and drugs used to treat acid reflux, diabetes and psychiatric conditions; all have been linked to microbiome changes. But the best-known, gut-altering drugs are antibiotics: though they are prescribed to kill harmful bacteria, they can also wipe out bacteria of all kinds,” Dr Thomas added.
He recommends seeing a doctor whenever you experience any symptom that affects your daily life, disrupts your digestion and/or causes any sudden or ongoing pain in the abdomen.