A healthy gastrointestinal (GI) system assists with the digestion and absorption of nutrients and fluids It also plays a vital role in the functioning of our immune system, mood and mental wellbeing and overall health. Many factors such as your family and genetic history also affect your gastrointestinal health. When your GI system functions well it helps your body to process energy from foods eaten, clear toxins and fight against disease.
Digestion is important as your body needs nutrients (carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins, minerals and water) from the foods and liquids consumed in order to function properly. These nutrients are used for important processes in the body, including production of energy, growth and repair of cells.
The digestive system is made up of the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract or digestive tract), liver, pancreas and gallbladder. The GI tract consists of hollow organs that are connected to each other from your mouth to your anus. These organs include your mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and anus.
Keeping your digestive system healthy will ensure that the processes in your body run smoothly. Drinking enough water helps food flow more easily through your digestive system. Drinking low amounts of water can often lead to constipation and dehydration. Including fiber in your diet (soluble and insoluble) will help with regular bowel movements and may lower your risk for certain chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes.
Temporary conditions that affect the digestive system include constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, hemorrhoids, gastroenteritis (stomach flu), ulcers and gallstones. If these conditions are experienced frequently, it is best to contact your doctor as it could be a sign of a serious disorder.
Common gastrointestinal diseases include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), lactose intolerance, diverticulosis and diverticulitis, cancer anywhere in the GI Tract, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis) and celiac disease. If you have any of these conditions and haven't yet seen a dietician it is well worth making an appointment to learn more about how dietary changes can help symptoms and improve quality of life.
This is a common digestive problem where the body is unable to digest lactose which is a type of sugar found in milk and dairy products. Lactase is the enzyme that assists with the digestion of lactose. Some people do not make enough lactase, therefore they cannot digest lactose well. This is referred to as lactose intolerance. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include flatulence, diarrhea, bloating, stomach cramps and feeling sick. Lactose intolerance is not the same as milk or dairy allergy. Food allergies are caused when your immune system reacts to a certain type of food. There is no cure for lactose intolerance but reducing or avoiding lactose containing products will help to control symptoms. Supplemental lactase can help to break down lactose.
GERD occurs when stomach acid frequently flows back into the esophagus which can irritate the lining. Common symptoms of GERD include heartburn after eating, chest pain, difficulty swallowing, regurgitation of food (sour liquid) and a sensation of a lump in the throat. The following foods may trigger or worsen the symptoms of GERD: high fat foods, caffeine, chocolate, onions, peppermint, carbonated beverages, alcohol, citrus, spicy foods and tomato products. Not all of the above foods can trigger symptoms, as it differs from each individual. It is also important to consider the time when foods are consumed as certain foods can cause reflux 3-4 hours before bedtime and can be harmless if eaten earlier in the day.
This is an infection that occurs in your stomach and is a common cause of peptic ulcers (stomach ulcers) which is a sore on the lining of the stomach or small intestine. Signs and symptoms of H. pylori infection include a burning pain in the stomach, nausea, loss of appetite, bloating, unintentional weight loss, frequent burping and stomach pain that worsens on an empty stomach. Treatment of this infection is with antibiotics.
This is a hypothetical condition based on the concept of increased intestinal permeability (how easily substances pass through the intestinal wall). This occurs in a few gastrointestinal diseases causing the flow of toxins in your bloodstream which may trigger an inflammatory response. Symptoms include diarrhea, burning feeling in the gut, bloating and low energy.
pH (the potential of Hydrogen) is a measure of how alkaline or acidic a substance is. It is an important measure as it affects how substances interact with each other and with our bodies. pH has a range of 0-14. A pH greater than 7 means the substance is alkaline and a pH less than 7 means the substance is acidic. When the pH is exactly 7, it indicates that the substance is neutral. Our bodies work best at a slightly alkaline pH (blood pH 7.3). The stomach requires a very acidic pH of 1.5 - 2.5 to maintain digestive health. The pH of the stomach is vital for the digestion of many nutrients and acts as a defense against harmful bacteria and viruses. A lack of hydrochloric acid (acid in stomach that determines the pH) affects the digestion of iron, folate, B12 and protein. Helicobacter pylori is often associated with a lack of stomach acid, therefore creating an alkaline environment and encouraging bacterial overgrowth.
Digestive enzymes are proteins that your body produces to break down food, absorb nutrients and assist with digestion. The main digestive enzymes are made in the pancreas and include amylase (breaks down complex carbohydrates), lipase (breaks down fats), protease (breaks down proteins). Other common enzymes are made in the small intestine and include lactase (breaks down lactose) and sucrase (breaks down sucrose). Digestive enzyme insufficiency is when there are not enough digestive enzymes or the body does not release enough enzymes to break down food. Some disorders such as chronic pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis, gastrointestinal surgeries and pancreatic cancer can lead to pancreatic enzyme insufficiency. These patients need to take prescription digestive enzymes such as pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) which includes amylase, lipase and protease to help break down carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Higher doses of digestive enzymes (e.g. Creon) scripted by doctors are different to digestive enzyme products available on VitaGene. It is important to note that probiotics support the work enzymes do and do not have the ability to break down food matter.
FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. These are all short chain carbohydrates that the small intestine has difficulty digesting. Some people experience symptoms such as cramping, diarrhea, constipation, bloating and flatulence. This diet is aimed at people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). It helps to identify which foods are problematic and which foods reduce symptoms. It works by eliminating certain foods that are high FODMAP for two to six weeks (depending on what your practitioner recommends) and slowly reintroducing them to see which ones cause symptoms. Once these foods that are problematic are identified, they can be avoided or limited. High FODMAP foods include dairy and wheat based products, beans, lentils, vegetables such as asparagus, onions and garlic and fruits such as apples, cherries, peaches and pears. Low FODMAP foods include eggs, meat, certain cheeses such as brie, cheddar, feta, almond milk, grains such as rice, quinoa and oats, vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and fruits such as grapes, blueberries and oranges. It is always recommended to consult with your dietitian before starting a low FODMAP diet.
Fiber is a nutrient that comes from plants but your body cannot digest or absorb fiber like it does with other nutrients. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and other body fluids, where it forms a gel-like material as it passes through your colon feeding it good gut bacteria. Food sources of soluble fiber include: oat bran, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley and psyllium. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in fluids but absorbs them and combines with other materials to form stool which is softer and bulkier. This type of fiber can help benefit those who suffer from constipation. Food sources of insoluble fiber include: whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, nuts, beans and vegetables (cauliflower, green beans, sweetcorn).
Probiotics are live microorganisms that have beneficial effects on an individual’s health and body. Probiotics may restore the composition of the gut microbiome and promote beneficial effects leading to prevention of gut inflammation and other intestinal diseases.
Probiotics assist with keeping your body healthy by supporting your immune system and controlling inflammation. Certain types of good bacteria found in probiotics help with digestion of food, reducing bad levels of bacteria in the body, production of vitamins, breakdown and absorption of medications and supporting the cells that line your gut.
Prebiotics are specialized fiber from plants that help to nourish the good bacteria already present in the colon. Prebiotics act as fertilizer, while probiotics function by introducing new bacteria into the gut.
Probiotic foods include miso soup, tempeh, apple cider vinegar, yogurt, raw cheese, kefir, sauerkraut and brine-cured olives.
Probiotic supplements contain specific strains which can be matched to a condition or purpose. Probiotics containing more than one strain of bacteria are known as multi-strain supplements or poly-strain/polybiotics.
Prebiotics foods include onions, leeks, radishes, carrots, flax and chia seeds, tomatoes, bananas, asparagus, garlic and yams.
The most common forms are Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS). FOS can be extracted from plants or synthesized while GOS is synthetic. Inulin is a type of FOS used as a prebiotic supplement.
These are products that contain both prebiotics and probiotics. As probiotics need prebiotics to survive, it is important to take the right amount of both. The main objective of combining pre- and probiotics is to achieve stronger positive results working synergistically rather than each individual component on its own.
Probiotics are identified by their specific strain. This includes the genus, species and subspecies (if applicable) and an alphanumeric strain designation. The most common strains often used in probiotic products are Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia, and Bacillus.
Bifidobacterium bifidum lives in the large intestine and vagina where it adheres to the walls and prevents bad bacteria from colonizing. It also produces substances that lower the pH of their environment, therefore preventing growth of bad bacteria.
Bifidobacterium breve competes against harmful bacteria due to the large variety of molecules it can digest. It also inhibits growth of Escherichia coli (E. coli.) present in the intestines and candida albicans in the vagina. It is known to decrease the occurrence of gas, diarrhea and bowel disorders.
Bifidobacterium infantis is beneficial for both adults and children. It helps to prevent growth of harmful bacteria and assists with production of vitamin B. It also provides relief of symptoms associated with IBS and ulcerative colitis.
Bifidobacterium longum stimulates the immune system and promotes microbial balance. It also aids in the absorption of B vitamins. This strain may help to prevent or reduce allergic reactions, allergies, inflammation associated with Crohn’s disease or colitis. It has also been found to lower the pH of the intestine to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. Studies have found that this strain is beneficial in supporting management of stress and anxiety.
Lactobacillus acidophilus lives in the mouth, intestines and vagina. In the intestines, it maintains integrity of the wall and aids in nutrient absorption. In the vagina and urinary system, it adheres to the walls where it can fight infection. This strain also helps to synthesize vitamin K and many antimicrobial substances.
Lactobacillus casei lives in the mouth and intestines and has anti-inflammatory effects on the GI and assists with relieving antibiotic associated diarrhea. It produces lactic acid which lowers the pH of the gut, therefore preventing growth of harmful bacteria.
Lactobacillus helveticus lives in the intestines and is known to have microbial activities against pathogens and helps to reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance by breaking down lactose. It also assists with preventing and reducing diarrhea and may help with lowering cholesterol and blood pressure and improves calcium absorption. Studies have found that this strain is beneficial for management of anxiety and stress.
Lactobacillus reuteri helps to maintain a healthy immune system and is associated with support against candida and urinary tract infections. This strain also helps to relieve colic in infants.
Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG is known for combating antibiotic associated diarrhea and traveler's diarrhea. It helps to fight infections in the gut and urinary tract. This strain also assists with dairy digestion and lactose intolerance.
Saccharomyces boulardii is effective in reducing acute diarrhea in children and adults. It also provides protection against antibiotics and traveler’s diarrhea and promotes immune health.
Streptococcus thermophilis is known as a starter strain for making yogurt and cheese. It ferments lactose that turns into lactic acid which is effective at preventing lactose intolerance. It also assists with keeping the microflora of the intestines balanced.
Generally probiotics should be taken 30 minutes before a meal on an empty stomach. This prevents probiotic bacteria from being destroyed as less stomach acid is present. However certain probiotics can be taken anytime depending on the capsule technology to ensure no degradation of the probiotic bacteria.
There are four important factors to consider when choosing a probiotic:
- The probiotic must contain enough bacteria to make a difference to the balance of gut bacteria.
- The bacteria must be able to survive the journey through the acidic environment of the stomach to make it into the gut.
- There should be a mix of different bacteria in the probiotic as strain specific bacteria are relevant for certain conditions.
- The probiotic should be taken regularly, since probiotic bacteria do not permanently colonise the gut.
The number of CFU’s (colony-forming units) a person needs will depend on their purpose for taking probiotics. While most studies show that 10-20 million CFU are adequate for probiotic benefits, larger CFUs may be more suitable for individuals requiring significant support (e.g Clostridium difficile) and/or seeking relief from certain health conditions such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease and pouchitis etc.
Activated charcoal is commonly used to treat certain types of drug overdose and poisoning. This nutrient works by binding to the drug or toxin in the stomach so that the body cannot absorb it. It has also been known to relieve gas and bloating but further studies need to be done to confirm this. Activated charcoal also interacts with Paracetamol and other drugs, therefore reducing its efficacy. The half life of charcoal is usually around an hour. If you are taking any medicine, do not take within 2 hours of the activated charcoal supplement. Always consult your practitioner before using this nutrient as long term use can cause diarrhea and vomiting.
Aloe is a cactus-like plant that produces a clear gel and yellow latex. Aloe vera has been promoted for the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders such as ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Aloe vera latex (taken orally) is commonly used in the treatment of constipation as it was found to improve bowel frequency, consistency of stools and laxative dependence. Oral use of aloe latex should be used with caution if taken for several days and can cause kidney problems, therefore always consult with your practitioner before using this nutrient.
Bentonite clay (montmorillonite clay or calcium bentonite clay) is an absorbent clay formed after volcanic ash ages. This nutrient helps to promote digestion by removing digestive distress causing chemicals and heavy metals from the gut. It is also known to neutralize bacteria and destroy viruses in the gut, provide relief from nausea, vomiting, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome.
Celery is a low calorie vegetable with a high water content (95%) and a large amount of soluble and insoluble fiber. It is important for digestive health and function as it helps to keep your bowel movements regular, therefore reducing constipation. The antioxidants in celery may also protect the stomach lining and reduce the risk of gastric ulcers. Animal studies have found that celery extract may be beneficial for protecting digestive mucosa and guard against gastric ulcers. The compounds in celery, apiuman and pectin based polysaccharides have been proven to decrease the risk of stomach ulcers.
Colostrum is the first form of breastmilk produced after giving birth. It is nutrient rich and loaded with antibodies and antioxidants and plays a crucial role to build a newborn's immune system. In human studies, bovine colostrum has been effective in inflammatory bowel disease and infectious diarrhea. Colostrum is also known to assist with gastrointestinal issues such as gas, bloating, constipation and fatigue due to its positive effect on balancing intestinal permeability (measure of the ease of flow of substances through the intestinal wall) which in turn also assists with prevention of leaky gut symptoms.
Curcumin is an active component in turmeric, has powerful anti-inflammatory effects and is a very strong antioxidant. Studies have shown that curcumin has beneficial effects on the gut microbiota by favouring the growth of beneficial bacteria strains and has been shown to be effective in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcerative colitis. Curcumin has a low bioavailability due to its water insolubility, therefore it is important to consume a good quality supplement in the form that is better absorbed.
Ginger is a tropical flowering plant and is classified as a member of the Zingiberaceae family. Ginger’s root or rhizomes is the part used as a spice. Gingerol, a natural component of ginger root, encourages efficient digestion by improving gastric motility (the rate at which food exits the stomach and moves along the digestive process. By encouraging stomach emptying, this can also relieve symptoms of nausea. Ginger also helps to relieve bloating and gas by reducing fermentation, constipation and intestinal gas.
Glutamine (L-glutamine) is an amino acid that positively affects gut health by supporting the gut microbiome, gut mucosal wall integrity and modulating inflammatory responses. Supplementation with glutamine during severe metabolic stress (trauma, sepsis, infections), intense exercise, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, HIV or AIDS and chronic gastrointestinal disorders (Crohn’s disease, eosinophilic esophagitis and inflammatory bowel disease) has been shown to be beneficial as glutamine stores are depleted with these conditions. Glutamine has also been found to reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by helping to protect the mucous membrane of the esophagus and intestines.
Grape seed extract (GSE) is extracted from Vitis vinifera seeds and is rich in polyphenols (substances that are found in many plants and have antioxidant activity). Studies have found that these polyphenols increase non-pathogenic bacteria in the gut which contributes to the improvement of gut function and inflammatory bowel syndrome symptoms.
Licorice is a common name of the plant Glycyrrrhiza glabra. It is commonly used to treat gastrointestinal diseases by providing holistic digestive health benefits. Licorice root has been known to soothe inflamed and injured mucous membranes in the digestive tract by increasing mucin (a substance that protects the lining against stomach acid) and other harmful substances. According to studies, flavonoids in licorice may inhibit the growth of Helicobacter pylori. Chewable deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) has also been shown to be effective in the healing of stomach and duodenal ulcers and an effective therapy for GERD.
Magnesium is an essential mineral found in the body. It is present in many foods (wholegrains, dark, leafy vegetables, legumes and nuts) and also as a dietary supplement. Magnesium serves as a cofactor in more than 300 enzymatic reactions. Studies have found that magnesium deficiency can alter the bacteria colonies in the gut and contributes to digestive issues. This occurs due to bacterial overgrowth that happens when there is too little stomach acid. Magnesium aids in production of stomach acid that reduces bad bacteria in the gut. Magnesium also assists in the digestive process by helping to produce enzymes in your saliva and pancreas which break food down into smaller particles to be absorbed as nutrients. Constipation (three or fewer bowel movements per week) is also a common condition that can result from magnesium deficiency.
Mastic gum is a unique resin that comes from the Mastic tree. Mastic gum can be taken in capsule form, tincture, powder, oil or chewed like a gum. It has been known to help relieve abdominal pain and discomfort. Other gastrointestinal benefits include decreased production of inflammatory cytokines and it is traditionally used for mild indigestion and heartburn. Studies have found that mastic gum has bactericidal (destroys bacteria) activity on Helicobacter pylori.
Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is an organic form of sulfur which can improve various metabolic diseases when used as a dietary supplement. This nutrient has been found to assist in the rebuilding of the lining of the digestive tract and lower inflammatory responses associated with allergic responses to certain foods. It is also known to help treat leaky gut syndrome as it helps to prevent particles from leaching out through small junction openings in the gut.
Milk thistle is a flowering plant that gets its name from the milky white sap that comes from the leaves when they are crushed. Milk thistle contains a compound known as silymarin which has protective activities against oxidative stress on various organs, including the gastrointestinal tract. This nutrient may also assist with improving symptoms associated with indigestion such as bloating and gas.
N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is a precursor of L-cysteine and a powerful antioxidant. Studies have shown that supplementation with NAC increases glutathione levels in the body. Studies have also found that NAC reduces intestinal inflammation and enhances intestinal health by improving mucosal function and protection of cells from cellular damage.
Nucleotides are the building blocks of our deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). DNA is an organic chemical that contains genetic information and instructions for protein synthesis. Nucleotides are also involved in all processes within the cell such as protein synthesis, DNA repair and mitochondrial (energy) function. Studies have shown that nucleotides may enhance gut repair and reformation of gut bacteria.
Wild oregano is known for its antioxidant properties and immune system support. Oregano oil, extracted from the leaves of the plant contains a high concentration of active ingredients called phenols that have antimicrobial and antioxidant qualities. Two key ingredients in the oils are Thymol (reduces inflammation and tissue damage) and Carvacrol (fights bacteria, inhibits fungi and biofilms). Oregano oil is a valuable tool in gut health as it has broad spectrum antimicrobial capabilities. Imbalances and pathogens that oregano oil can help with include candida or other fungal infections, Helicobacter pylori, bacterial infections (Staphylococcus aureus), bacterial overgrowths (SIBO) and parasitic infections. Oregano oil is a smooth muscle relaxant, promoting relaxed digestion and a healthy gut and it is also known to help with diarrhea.
Zeolite is a mineral that forms when a volcano erupts and the ash and molten rock touch sea water. It assists with healthy digestion as the silicate (salt derived from silicic acid) found within zeolite helps to manage diarrhea and minimize absorption of ammonia (waste compound) by your system. This nutrient is also known to promote good nutrient absorption. Studies have found that zeolite assists with increasing the integrity of the intestinal wall.
Zonulin is a protein that increases the permeability of tight junctions (intercellular barrier between epithelial cells) between cells of the wall of the digestive tract. Zonulin is mainly produced by the liver and may also play a protective role preventing gut barrier defects such as leaky gut syndrome.