Learn more about how you can maintain good digestive health.
MALAYSIA - How often do you hear complaints about heartburn, a bloated stomach, or constipation? These are fairly common gripes that you would no doubt have heard about, or perhaps even complained about yourself.
Although these conditions are quite common, have you ever wondered why this is so?
It is a fact that digestive disorders and diseases are becoming more prevalent. These disorders and diseases range from slight discomfort (eg. bloated stomach) to deadly diseases (eg. colon cancer, liver cancer, peptic ulcer, etc.)
What does that tell you? Your digestive health is important. It is not something that you should take lightly as it could have a negative impact on the quality of your life, and also be potentially fatal. The good news is that many digestive ailments are often preventable with simple dietary and lifestyle changes.
Quality of life
Good digestive health allows you to enjoy a good quality of life. Gastrointestinal complaints like constipation, diarrhoea or gastritis, can be disruptive to life. A person with poor digestive health may be subject to dietary restrictions, require medication and investigative procedures, or even surgery.
So, how can you attain better digestive health? Some simple steps to prevent the onset of problems associated with your digestive health include:
1. Increasing your fibre intake
Fibre is critical for the health of your digestive system. According to the Malaysian Food Pyramid, you should consume at least three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruits every day. This will help promote regular bowel movement and keep your digestive tract healthy.
A good source of fibre comes from legumes, which is a class of vegetables that includes beans, peas and chickpeas. Legumes are typically low in fat and contain no cholesterol. They are also high in minerals like folate, potassium, iron, and magnesium.
Other examples of foods that are rich in fibre include fresh fruits, fresh vegetables (avoid over-cooking them), cereals, nuts, beans and whole grain breads.
2. Reducing your consumption of fatty and oily foods
Both fat and oil are difficult to digest, and they are also energy-dense, increasing your caloric intake significantly.
While protein is essential to a healthy diet, excessive fat is not. When choosing meat, select lean meat such as chuck or blade of beef, beef shoulder, beef tenderloin, lamb sirloin, lamb leg or skinless poultry.
Try to avoid deep-fried foods. When you need to use oil, try to use it as sparingly as possible.
Better modes of preparing food include roasting, grilling or steaming.
3. Eating at a set time every day and not overeating
Try to eat according to schedule as much as possible; that means not skipping meals and avoiding late-night meals. You can also avoid the discomfort of indigestion by making sure you do not overeat; a simple way to do this is to eat small and frequent meals.
The key to good digestive health is eating varied, well-balanced meals in moderate portions. The Malaysian Food Pyramid is a simple and practical tool to help you understand how much food is recommended every day from each of the five food groups.
You should adhere to the principles of:
> Balance - Consume foods from all the food groups daily. You should consume foods from the bottom of the food pyramid adequately, while those at higher levels should be eaten in a proportionately smaller quantity. Each food group serves different functions, and you need to get the right combination in order to maintain your health at the optimal level.
> Moderation - Follow the recommended number of servings to avoid overeating, which may lead to overweight and obesity. Each time you serve a plate of rice to your child, be mindful of the serving size so that you do not serve too much (or too little).
> Variety - Ensure that you serve a mix of foods from each level of the pyramid, as no single food can give you all the nutrients that you need.
4. Drinking plenty of water
Your body is made up of approximately 60 per cent water. Drinking sufficient water helps to "lubricate" your intestines and aids in the digestion of food. It also prevents and alleviates chronic constipation by facilitating the flow of food though the intestines.
If you do not drink enough, your intestines will absorb water from your stools, resulting in hard stools and constipation.
Water also helps your kidneys to remove waste such as urea and uric acid, and maintain acid-base balance. Without sufficient water, kidney damage can occur.
Dehydration occurs when the body eliminates more water than it absorbs, for example, when you exercise, especially in hot weather. To prevent dehydration, drink at least eight glasses of water daily. You can add some flavour to your drinking water by putting in some lime, lemon, or cucumber slices for a refreshing twist.
5. Consuming probiotics
Probiotics are microorganisms such as bacteria, that are beneficial to your digestive health.
While the idea of taking live bacteria might seem a little strange, our bodies are in fact, teeming with a wide variety of microorganisms.
Your digestive system houses more than 500 varieties of bacteria, which help keep the intestines in good working order, and also assist with the digestive process.
Taken regularly, probiotics will help keep you healthy by maintaining your gut microflora balance. Sources of probiotics include yoghurt and cultured milk.
6. Living a healthy lifestyle
Other than maintaining healthy eating habits, physical activity is also important.
You are advised to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week. You can take a brisk walk for 15 minutes in the morning before going to work, and another 15 minutes of exercise when you get home.
Having a light exercise routine can help the body and digestive system function optimally. If you are a reasonably fit individual, you may opt for a more strenuous exercise routine that encompasses aerobic exercises like brisk walking, cycling or swimming.
It is of utmost importance that you stop smoking and consuming alcohol excessively for the benefit of your health.
7. Stress management
Stress levels can have a direct effect on your digestive health. Depending on how your body reacts, stress may result in symptoms ranging from discomfort to the exacerbation of diseases such as peptic ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis.
Stress has been linked with headaches, dyspepsia, back pain and insomnia. It can impair your immune system, rendering you susceptible to illness.
Find ways to incorporate activities that help you to relax and reduce stress into your daily routine. One can learn how to manage stress by:
> Identifying the cause.
> Finding ways to reduce it.
> Learning healthy ways of managing stress or minimising its effects.
Some simple methods to manage stress include exercising, talking with a confidant about your problems, and relaxing your mind and body by meditation.
8. Going for regular screening
Going to see your doctor may not be the first thing on your mind, but having regular health check-ups is important. This helps to detect diseases early, and may prevent disastrous disease outcomes later.
Early screening for non-communicable diseases like diabetes mellitus, coronary artery diseases and cancers is very important.
Preventive medicine is different from curative medicine, for when a person has an established disease, the outcome is generally poorer.
Hence, do schedule regular check-ups with your doctor for health maintenance. You should go for regular health screenings, even if you feel perfectly healthy.
The steps outlined above are easy and simple. It's never too late to get started. You can assure yourself of better digestive health, and possibly also prevent digestive disorders at the same time.
So why wait? Start today. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is easy if you follow the above-mentioned recommendations.
Dr K.C. Wong is a consultant physician (Internal Medicine) and member of Digestive Health Advisory Board. The author is not associated with and does not endorse any brands or products.