Intestinal health encompasses the functioning of all the organs of the digestive system, and it has a huge impact on many aspects of our overall health and wellbeing.

Neuraxpharm provides natural alternatives to promote intestinal health and once your healthcare professional has determined your specific needs, they can advise the product that best adapts to your needs and condition.

Find out how to keep your digestive system in good order and what happens when it is thrown out of balance.

What is intestinal health?

Intestinal health is an umbrella term describing conditions related to the gastrointestinal (GI, or digestive) tract, and the effect these can have on overall wellbeing. The digestive tract starts at the mouth and ends at the rectum, and includes all the organs of the digestive system, such as the oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine.

Intestinal health problems include everyday digestive complaints such as constipation and diarrhoea as well as conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

What is good intestinal health?

Intestinal health is often referred to as ‘gut health’, which is a term used to describe the condition of the digestive tract. The gut has a significant influence on the health of the rest of the body because it is home to trillions of microorganisms (including bacteria and other life forms) that play a key role in keeping digestion, immune function, weight regulation, and even mood and emotions in balance.

This clever and complex ecosystem is also called the gut ‘microbiome’. It’s vital that the microbiome is healthy and well balanced to maintain digestive health as well as a strong immune system, stable body weight, and positive mental wellbeing.

A healthy gut microbiome will:

  • Help the body to absorb nutrients
  • Break down food and aid digestion
  • Support and train the immune system
  • Allow good bacteria to multiply easily and keep harmful bacteria in check to maintain equilibrium
  • Positively influence mental and emotional health
  • Support brain development and functioning, such as memory and attention

The gut–brain axis

Scientists refer to the body having two brains: one in the head and one in the intestine. They both develop from the same kind of tissue at conception, then one part turns into the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the other into the enteric nervous system (the gut).

The two are controlled by the same hormones and neurotransmitters; they are connected through the vagus nerve and are in constant communication with each other. This unique connection is known as the ‘gut–brain axis’ and is often used to explain the feeling of ‘butterflies in the stomach’ when someone is feeling nervous or anxious, revealing how closely stress is linked to gut health.

One of the most important neurotransmitters in the regulation and control of mood is serotonin, often referred to as the ‘happiness hormone’. The gut produces about 95% of the serotonin in the body, and changes in serotonin levels affect the gut as well as the brain.

Causes of poor intestinal health

Poor intestinal health often starts with common complaints, such as constipation, diarrhoea, gas, bloating and heartburn. These symptoms usually come and go, and are generally nothing too serious, although they can still cause a great deal of discomfort and interruption to daily life.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common condition in which the colon muscle contracts more often than normal, causing abdominal pain and cramps. Other IBS symptoms include a change in bowel habits, gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea.

In more serious cases, poor intestinal health can lead to chronic conditions and diseases that affect the digestive tract.

Things to look out for

When gut bacteria are out of balance, it can have a wide-ranging effect on the health of the body and mind.

The following signs could act as indicators that intestinal health isn’t functioning as well as it should. Any of these signs could suggest a need to pay closer attention to gut health:

  • Changes in bowel habits: Constipation and diarrhoea are often the first obvious symptoms of bad intestinal health.
  • Stomach upsets: Gas, bloating, and heartburn are all clear indicators that the gut’s health is out of balance.
  • Bad breath: An imbalance in the gut’s bacteria can cause a metallic taste in the mouth, and bad breath.
  • Tiredness: Toxins and waste can build up when beneficial gut bacteria levels are low, leading to tiredness and sluggishness.
  • Sleep problems: Most of our serotonin (a hormone that affects mood and sleep) is produced by gut bacteria, so sleep quality can take a dive when the gut is ‘out of sync’.
  • Mental health problems: A decrease in serotonin production by the microbiome, as well as general changes to the makeup of the microbiome, can be linked to mood swings and low mood.
  • Weight changes: The gut helps to absorb nutrients, regulate blood sugar, and store fat, which can all have a bearing on body weight.
  • Skin problems: A 2018 study concluded that the gut microbiome influences the skin. By adjusting beneficial bacteria, scientists discovered benefits for inflammatory skin disorders like acne vulgaris, atopic eczema and rosacea.

Some symptoms act as a warning sign that there may be a more serious health issue to address. If any of the following symptoms are noticed, a doctor should be consulted as soon as possible:

  • Bleeding from the bowel
  • Mucus or blood in the faeces
  • A change in bowel habits that persists for four weeks or longer
  • Unintentional and/or sudden weight loss
  • Extreme tiredness

Who might be susceptible?

People who are overweight and have a diet that is too high in processed foods (which are often high in fat and added salt and sugar) and trans fats (artificially created fats used in manufactured foods) are at greater risk of digestive health problems.

Smokers are also at greater risk. This is because smoking can weaken the muscle that controls the lower end of the oesophagus, which means acid from the stomach can travel back up in the wrong direction. This is known as reflux, and it can cause heartburn, bad breath, and bloating.

Stress is also associated with changes in gut bacteria due to the ongoing communication between the brain and the gut via the gut–brain axis. This means that people who suffer from stress can be more susceptible to pain, bloating, and other digestive discomfort.

What can we do to maintain good intestinal health?

While many everyday digestive problems, such as heartburn and constipation, can be treated fairly easily with over-the-counter medication, it’s worth taking proactive measures to prevent problems.

We are all born with varying degrees of inherited gut health; however, research shows that lifestyle plays a bigger part, so following basic healthy living rules will have a positive knock-on effect on intestinal health.

As a general rule, eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly to maintain a healthy weight, looking after mental wellbeing, not smoking, and reducing alcohol consumption will all make a difference to the balance of the bacteria in the gut.

Treatment and medication

Maintaining a healthy weight

Put simply, when someone is overweight, the extra weight they carry can put strain on their stomach and cause heartburn. As the gut plays a key role in weight regulation and storing fat, its delicate balance can easily be challenged when people do not maintain a healthy weight.

Eating habits

It’s not just what we eat, but how we eat it that counts. Follow these simple steps to help avoid getting indigestion and heartburn:

  • Don’t eat on the move. Try to sit at a table when eating meals, rather than eating on the sofa or at a desk.
  • Take plenty of time. Chew each mouthful properly and put the knife and fork down in between mouthfuls.
  • Don’t skip meals, and eat at regular times each day.
  • Try to leave a couple of hours after eating before going to bed so that food has time to digest.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day.

Lifestyle

Lifestyle factors can have a huge impact on the way the gut functions, starting with mental wellbeing. Stress and anxiety can throw the gut’s fine balance out of sync and affect the speed of digestion. When digestion is slowed down, bloating, constipation, and stomach pain can be a problem – whereas if digestion speeds up, it can cause diarrhoea. Psychological disorders like anxiety and depression are commonly experienced alongside IBS.

Taking steps to reduce stress – such as exercising regularly and taking time to do enjoyable things – and keeping mealtimes relaxed will help to maintain a well-balanced gut.

Giving up smoking (as explained in the ‘Who might be susceptible?’ section) and reducing alcohol consumption are two other vital lifestyle factors that affect gut health.

While moderate alcohol consumption isn’t a cause for concern, it can increase the stomach’s acid production and lead to heartburn.

Diet

What we eat can have a big impact on our intestinal health, and one of the biggest factors is eating a diet that is rich in fibre. It’s a good idea to eat around 30 grams of fibre each day to help digestion and prevent constipation. Fibre can come from a range of sources, including fruit and vegetables, wholemeal bread, brown rice, oats, and beans.

Cutting back on fatty foods such as takeaways, and fried foods like chips and fried breakfasts, will also help, as these foods are harder to digest and can lead to stomach-ache, indigestion, and heartburn. Aim to grill or roast meat and fish instead of frying it.

These healthy food habits will also have a big impact on the balance of the intestinal microbiome, and consequently on general health and wellbeing. Research shows, for example, that a high-fat diet adversely reduces beneficial gut bacteria, and dramatically changing diet (for example, to one that is strictly animal- or plant-based) can alter the balance of the gut in just 24 hours.

Probiotic foods and their effect on gut health receive a lot of attention. This is because they contain probiotics – the ‘good’ bacteria that are found naturally in the gut. It is thought that these help to maintain and restore the natural balance of bacteria in the intestine.

Probiotics occur naturally in some foods, including yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir (a fermented milk drink), kombucha, tempeh (a soy product), and miso.

A range of probiotic supplements is also available, and these can be an effective way of increasing the beneficial bacteria needed to maintain gut health. If someone is considering taking probiotics, they should do some research first; not all probiotics are the same, and different strains of bacteria will be appropriate for different needs.

Scientific studies

When it comes to research into gut health and the microbiome, there is still a lot to discover. Some areas that scientists are keen to explore include the comparison of natural probiotics with probiotic supplements and whether the latter can be used to prevent certain digestive illnesses.

A landmark study published in 2021 was the largest of its kind and uncovered strong links between a person’s diet, the microbes in their gut and their overall health. It found that diets high in certain plant-based foods encourage the presence of gut microbes that are associated with a lower risk of developing obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Researchers like APC Microbiome in Ireland are also looking to understand more about the interactions between diet and the microbiome. They are exploring gut health in infants and older people as it is thought that these ‘extremes of life’ are significant stages for gut health during which the microbiome is in a state of flux.

Referenced sources

  1.  Autism advice and guidance. National Autistic Website. Accessed December 7, 2020
  2. Autism research work. National Autistic Website. Accessed December 7, 2020
  3. What is the global prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? Medcape.com. Accessed December 7, 2020
  4. Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder Among Children Aged 8 Years — Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 Sites, United States, 2016. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2020.
  5. Lee R, Corley M et al. A modified ketogenic gluten-free diet with MCT improves behavior in children with autism spectrum disorder. Published online 2018 Feb 5. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2018.02.006.
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