With 1 in 3 people suffering from a digestive problem, now has never been a better time to look after your gut. We take a look at what you can do to get your nine-metre marvel back into shape!
Considering the majority of the body's immune system is the gut, keeping yourself healthy means keeping your tummy healthy.
Well, that's according to Maxton Pitcher, consultant gastroenterologist at London's St Mark's Hospital.
He explains that maintaining a proper diet, healthy lifestyle and good sleeping patterns will all help keep that nine-metre-long digestive system, healthy. So let's give a little love to that most underrated of bodily organs: the gut.
Understanding the Gut
It's worth thinking of the gut as the engine of our bodies: the better the food we put into it, the better it runs. But everyday factors like poor diet, stress, illness and ageing can all affect the gut negatively, leading to problems such as constipation, diarrhoea, bloating and wind, says Dr Pitcher.
"Think what happens when you get an attack of nerves before an exam, a driving test, a date, or when you're upset," he says.
"Those acute positive or negative stresses cause the stomach to churn with butterflies, which in turn causes us to rush to the toilet - an example of the 'brain-gut axis' in operation.
"The external environment and our daily perception of it very much dictate how our gut behaves, which is why we have the expressions 'gut feeling' or 'gut reaction'."
More than 25 different health conditions relate to the digestive system - ranging from the acute and chronic to the mild and temporary. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), for example, commonly relates to an emotional or stress-led disturbance of the large bowel and affects approximately 15% of the Australian population, according to the Irritable Bowel Information and Support Association of Australia (IBIS) [www.ibis-australia.org]. Piles, on the other hand, are a painful but usually temporary condition affecting the rectum.
Eating Well: Why it counts
As the primary function of the gut is to process and absorb nutrients from food, keeping it in good shape entails eating well.
And that means eating a varied diet that takes in fibre, from five to ten portions of fresh fruit and veg a day, says Dr Pitcher.
"Changes in our diet can alter the composition of the bacteria in our gut, making us more vulnerable to functional gut symptoms such as diarrhoea or bloating, and other factors that can damage the lining of the gut in the early stages of disease processes," he says.
Replacing your white bread, rice and pasta with wholegrain ones instead will increase your daily fibre intake and give you the minerals and antioxidants you need - without you even noticing much of a dietary change!
"Yoghurts can also improve the barrier function of the gut wall and stimulate its immune system of defence," says Dr Pitcher.
Another top tip to good gut health is to eat your food slowly. Slow lunches and dinners mean you give your gut a better chance to digest the food, as the process of chewing physically releases enzymes which aid digestion.
A Healthy Lifestyle Helps
Sleepless nights and stressful days can affect your bowel function, appetite and body weight, so aim for at least 8 hours of shut-eye a night, advises Dr Pitcher.
Once you're up, make a habit of 'going regularly'. By encouraging your bowels to move once a day, you're keeping your digestive tract on track.
"If you put off going to the toilet, you could find yourself with constipation," warns Dr Pitcher.
Smoking can also affect the digestive system, contributing to common disorders like heartburn and peptic ulcers. It could also increase the risk of gallstones and Crohn's Disease, which causes inflammation of the gut. If you'd like to quit smoking but need help, try visiting your GP or pharmacist for advice or visit www.quitnow.info.au
The Question of Fluids
Keeping hydrated means that your stools are softer and easier to pass, so you should aim for 8-10 glasses of fluids a day, says Dr Pitcher.
But that doesn't mean beer or wine! Alcohol can irritate the lining of the stomach, which in turn can affect your digestive system - so be aware of how much you're drinking a day. According to Government guidelines, women should drink no more than 2 units a day and men 3-4 units.
Exercise for a Healthy Gut
A brisk 15-minute walk to work or a daily swim could really help improve your gut health - as it'll get your digestive juices flowing in all the right directions, says personal trainer Sophie Christy.
"Carrying excess weight around the midriff can really affect the digestive system, as the extra weight can put pressure on the stomach, squashing food, mixed with stomach acid, back into the gullet."
To avoid common gut-related problems such as heartburn, constipation and piles, all you have to do is get your heart pumping a few days a week.