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