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Changing Your Lifestyle for a Healthier Digestive System

A healthy and properly functioning gastrointestinal system is essential for overall health and well-being. Researchers found the gut flora imbalance can impact the immune system and contribute to immune disorders, infections, obesity, heart disease, and even brain health.

Diet and lifestyle affects our health by influencing our gut balance. Hence, a balanced diet and regular exercise can help keep your digestive health intact and benefit your overall wellness. How can you achieve better gut health? It’s easy, but, it’s important to start off with a good attitude first.

Use the Malaysian Food Pyramid as a guide and eat meals that are nutritious and well-balanced. No single food alone can meet your body’s entire nutritional needs for a healthy body. Always practice balance, moderation and variety for all your family meals.

As a rule-of-thumb, you should eat a diet which is:

  • Balanced – include foods from different food groups at every meal
  • Moderately portioned – not too much or too little of any one type of food.
  • Variety – there are many types of food within each food group mix and match them up to produce meals with varying taste, texture and colour).

What else can you do?

Increase your dietary fibre intake. Good sources are: fruits, vegetables, legumes (baked beans, soya beans, peas, dhal), and wholegrain products (e.g. oats, whole wheat bread, brown rice). Fibre-rich foods promote regular bowel movement, which keeps your digestive tract healthy. It will also fill you up faster, giving you the impression that you are full, and thus prevent us from overeating.

Drink at least 8 glasses (2 litres) of water per day. Water helps better absorption of nutrients. Water helps in waste and toxin elimination. Adequate water intake also promotes regular bowel movement because it prevents the stool from becoming dry and hard. So, go ahead and drink more water for a healthier digestive system.

Limit consumption of deep fried food and foods high in fats (e.g. fat from chicken meat, beef). Fatty and oily foods take longer and are harder to digest.

Consume probiotics. There are trillions of good bacteria in our intestines, known as the gut microflora. Sometimes, there may be an imbalance of natural microflora in the intestines when the bad bacteria outnumber the good bacteria. This may cause a person to be more prone to infections.

Avoid this by taking probiotics, which increases the amount of good bacteria in your intestinal tract. These microorganisms help with digestion and offer protection from harmful bacteria, just as the existing “good” bacteria in your body already. They are also effective in decreasing the frequency of regurgitation and help to improve intestinal motion and reduce pain11. They also help to ease some of the symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and diarrhoea by replenishing good gut bacteria10. Fermented soy products (e.g. tempeh, miso soup), cultured milk & drinks as well as yoghurt are good sources of probiotics4.

You also need prebiotics, which are also beneficial to digestive health, helping to stimulate the growth and activity of good bacteria in the digestive system. Sources include raw honey, raw vegetables, apples and bananas5.

Consumption of alcohol not only aggravates existing digestive disorders, it can also irritate the lining of gut which can cause inflammation of the gut lining and severe pain. Alcohol inhibits digestion, causes dehydration, and compromises the functioning of the nervous system8. Excessive alcohol intake can also result in bleeding and injury on the lining of the small intestine.

Smoking contributes to many common disorders of the digestive system7 (e.g. heartburn, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcers, and some liver diseases.

If you need help curbing tobacco or alcohol addiction, you can enrol yourself in government sponsored programmes available at public hospitals and clinics. Similarly, you can visit your doctor to get advice and possibly medication, to help you get off the bad habits

Try these medically-approved smoking cessation methods:

  • Nicotine skin patches
  • Nicotine gum
  • Lozenges
  • Prescribed medication

Consuming caffeine in large amounts may aggravate existing digestive symptoms. Caffeine creates a laxative effect, stimulating the wave-like movements of the gastrointestinal tract required to empty the contents. It can be helpful to constipation sufferers, but it can also contribute to extremely loose stools. Caffeine in excessive amounts can damage the lining of the intestines, and in sensitive individuals increase the possibility of gastritis. Reduce or even eliminate caffeinated drinks to avoid aggravating existing digestive health problems.

What else you can do?

Keep up a healthy lifestyle by carrying out some form of physical activity such as brisk walking or playing sports at least 3 times a week. Maintain a healthy body weight, as an unhealthy body mass index (BMI) of under 18.5 or over 25 may negatively affect your overall digestive health. Along with healthy eating and sleeping habits, exercise can revitalise and improve your body and mental state. The importance of exercise must not be underestimated by any means, and you should change the way you live your life and start an exercise regime immediately.

Regular exercise may influence our weight and overall health by altering our gut flora. Physical activity also helps maintain regular bowel movement and relieves constipation. A brief 10-minute walk 20-30 minutes after a meal can help aid digestion. If you are planning a more rigorous exercise, wait a couple of hours more to avoid heartburn or indigestion.

Obesity has serious health consequences, including:

  • increased risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and pulmonary hypertension
  • sleep apnea (shallow breathing during sleep)
  • cancers
  • increased risk for mortality

Therefore, it is important to maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise. Find out your body mass index (BMI) to see whether you have a healthy weight. You can use the many BMI calculators available online or measure it manually using this equation:

Once you have your value, look where you fall on the table below:

If you are in the overweight or obese range, you need to start changing your dietary and lifestyle habits immediately.

Last but not least, chronic exposure to stress may lead to the development of a variety of gastrointestinal diseases such as: GERD, peptic ulcer disease, IBD, IBS and food allergies

Here are 5 easy tips to manage stress:

  • Talk and express your feelings and thoughts with a loved one
  • Get 8-9 hours of sleep every day
  • Take time out (i.e. listen to music, go for a vacation, do yoga, adopt a hobby)
  • Exercise can be a good way to ‘release’ some of that stress
  • Help other people, be a volunteer to the less fortunate

Remember, a healthy gut environment is the key to optimal health, and eating a healthy diet, exercising as well as a few other good habits are the best approaches. Take care of your gut and your gut will take care of you!

Don’t forget to get enough of sleep in the midst your busy lifestyle. Try to sleep for at least 8 hours every night and take time out when things get to overwhelming! Insufficient rest coupled with stress might result in poor digestive system.

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