July 10, 2008
The Gut Instinct That Can Keep You Healthy
By SARAH HOWDEN
Addressing the problem of a digestive issue shouldn't be seen as tabooIT IS one of the nation's biggest killers and accounts for one in eight deaths in the UK, the same number of all hospital admissions and one in four main operations. Yet, it remains a taboo subject to talk about, let alone seek treatment.
Discussing illness can be embarrassing at the best of times, but when the condition involves bowel habits, many people simply resort to humour or avoidance - even in the face of Government statistics that show an increase to around 12 per cent of UK deaths from digestive illnesses, including colon cancer, liver disease, pancreatitis and diverticular disease.
Next week has been declared National Gut Week - the annual health campaign now in its tenth year which aims to raise awareness of digestive health and highlight the fact that good health begins on the inside.
"Digestive illnesses are a big killer and bowl cancer remains a huge killer for men and women," says Dr Richard Williams, chairman of the Lothian local medical committee and a Leith-based GP. "We are all aware of the big killers, such as lung cancer and heart disease, and people address these. Gut problems are often not thought about, and when they are people are often reluctant to talk about the gut."
According to Dr Williams, it is people's lack of understanding that is often to blame for potentially fatal digestive diseases that can occur later in life.
He adds: "It's very complex and there are organs attached on to the gut too. People don't understand it and it's probably another reason why they ignore the signals that all is not well."
The gut is responsible for processing the food we eat and absorbing the nutrients, vitamins and minerals required for the body to function properly and stay healthy. It sounds simple enough, but everyday factors such as stress, poor diet, illness, certain drugs and even the natural ageing process can have a detrimental effect on the gut.
The gut is also the largest organ of the immune system - full of bacteria which help protect the body from disease by priming the immune cells to recognise invaders.
This fact, according to fellow doctor Dan Rutherford of Croftwell Consulting, and also NetDoctor's original medical consultant, means we need to nurture our gut just as we look after our teeth or skin.
He says: "It has a very sophisticated immune system which is almost separate to the rest of the body and almost has its own brain and way of dealing with things."
"The gut is probably the single biggest organ which gives people the most trouble. It does an incredible job without any supervision. Colon cancer is still the most common cause of death among Scots. We have a national screening test which does save lives, but a lot of people examined during the pilot studies of this were shown already to have symptoms.
"So one of the most important thing is to be aware of any changes in the gut - especially over the age of 45."
But watch a few television adverts and it seems perfectly normal to have constipation, diarrhoea, heartburn and indigestion. As both doctors stress, however, these are all indications of digestive systems struggling to cope - and we ignore them at our peril.
Dr Rutherford adds: "Often it is nothing more than a little extra acid and there are some great drugs that get rid of such symptoms. But they are symptoms, and if they persist for a couple of days people should consult their GPs. It may well be nothing - it may also be something. If caught fast they're one of the most treatable illnesses."
Dr Williams agrees. "Gut-related symptoms are very common. Most of them aren't serious, but they could be symptoms of something more serious," he says. "You should always get them checked out, but the problem is that many people are reluctant to talk about the gut so they put it off. One of the concerns we have is that they leave it too late and by the time they do come along it's a lot more serious."
Diseases of the digestive tract are much more complex than constipation and diarrhoea. The most common complaints are irritable bowel syndrome, which is estimated to affect a third of people in Britain; inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's or ulcerative colitis, which affect 150,000 people in the UK, and coeliac disease, which affects one in every 100.
Thankfully, many of them are preventable. "It's linked with lifestyle factors and smoking, diet and drinking, so it is something we can change," says Dr Williams. "Eat more high fibre, fruit and vegetables, cut down on alcohol and visit your GP if there is any change in the bowel pattern."
Edinburgh nutritionist and food expert Nell Nelson backs this up. She says: "Many of my clients come to see me with symptoms of bloating, sore stomach, constipation, diarrhoea and feeling tired, which can all be caused by an unhappy gut. Many of their symptoms are caused by lifestyle and they only have to make a few changes to start to feel better.
"Junk food, dairy, fried foods and wheat can all secrete mucus, which slows down transit time in the gut and prevents minerals and vitamins being absorbed. This has knock-on effects on the rest of the body. Cut back on these foods, increase fibre and vegetables and fruits and they can help your intestines by removing toxins."
She advocates adding probiotic yoghurt to smoothies, fruit and cereal, as the friendly bacteria helps break down foods in the intestines.
"Probiotic yoghurt is especially important if you have been taking antibiotics, which kill off good and bad bacteria in the gut," she says. "Stress affects the digestion, so go for a short walk or swim to help de-stress and stimulate digestion. Relax and enjoy your meals and don't forget to chew well and don't eat immediately before bed."
Nutritionist Nell Nelson, of St Stephen Street, offers a variety of services and personal nutritional consultations at Neal's Yard Remedies in Hanover Street, 0131- 226 3223, [email protected]
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