Supporting Digestive Health on World Digestive Health Day
World Digestive Health Day is celebrated on 29th May every year and was launched 19 years ago in 2004 to mark the 45th anniversary of the creation of the World Gastroenterology Organisation.
Each year, The World Gastroenterology Organisation selects a ‘theme’ for World Digestive Health Day, with the theme for 2023 being “Your Digestive Health: A Healthy Gut From the Start”.
This year’s theme advocates the importance of a healthy diet, to help promote optimal GI function, and microbiome health, with the bigger idea of promoting a healthy lifestyle overall and improving our understanding of the importance of a healthy GI tract.
Why should we care about our gut health?
Aside from impacting your physical health, your gut can also have an impact on your mental health. The intricate mechanisms of this are not yet fully understood, but through something named the ‘gut-brain axis’, our microbiomes communicate with our central nervous system through the enteric nervous system (also known as the ‘second brain’) that covers our gastrointestinal tract. This seems to work two ways – from the gut to the brain, and then the brain back down to the gut.
With this, it is believed that our mental state can alter our gut health; if there is stress in the brain, this can transpire to stress in the gut as well, so keeping your gut happy and your mind stress-free is optimal for both your mental and physical health!
Additionally, good digestive health allows the body to break down food and absorb nutrients to keep the body healthy. Individuals with healthy digestive systems are less likely to experience gut-related problems like constipation, heartburn, bloating, indigestion or more serious digestive conditions.
So what is the GI tract?
The gastrointestinal (GI) tract, also known as the digestive system or digestive tract, is the long hollow tube that connects the mouth to the anus and is responsible for the digestion, absorption, and the elimination of food in the body, as well as the maintenance of nutrient balance and health overall. It is comprised of several organs that work together to digest our food, the major organs of which are the mouth, where digestion starts, oesophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, rectum, and anus, where elimination occurs.
Why is the GI tract important?
There are a number of factors that the GI tract helps maintain, for example:
1. Digestion and Elimination
The GI tract primarily processes and digests the food we eat, breaking it down into smaller and simpler forms that can be more easily absorbed into the body. It also eliminates any waste products and toxins through bowel movements, helping to ensure efficient removal of anything that can’t be digested, to maintain a healthy balance.
2. Nutrient Absorption
As mentioned, the GI tract breaks down food into smaller molecules through mechanical and chemical digestion. This enables the body to more readily absorb the essential nutrients in the food, e.g. our macros and micros, which are necessary for energy production, growth, repair, and various metabolic processes, too.
3. Gut Microbiome
As our gut comprises part of our GI tract, it homes trillions of beneficial bacteria, viruses, and fungi that make up what’s called the gut microbiome. These microorganisms aid in digestion, produce certain vitamins (such as vitamin K and some B vitamins), and play a crucial role in immune function, metabolism, and even mental health – you can read more about the connection between our brain and our gut here!
4. Immune Function
What a lot of people tend not to realise, is that our GI tract is closely connected to the immune system. It acts as a physical barrier against harmful bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens, preventing their entry into the bloodstream. Additionally, the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) present in the GI tract helps regulate immune responses and promotes tolerance to harmless substances, improving our immune function.
5. Hormone Regulation
Various hormones that regulate appetite, metabolism, and other physiological processes are produced in the GI tract. For example, the hormone ghrelin stimulates hunger, while leptin signals satiety. Hormones such as insulin and glucagon, which are critical for blood sugar regulation, are also produced in the GI tract.
6. Brain-Gut Connection
The GI tract communicates bidirectionally with the brain through the gut-brain axis, which involves neural, hormonal, and immune signalling. This connection influences mood, emotions, and cognitive function, meaning that any disturbances in the gut can affect mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and stress. This is often why individuals with particularly bad anxiety also suffer from digestive problems like IBS/
7. Disease Prevention
A healthy GI tract is crucial for preventing various digestive disorders, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and colorectal cancer. Maintaining proper digestion, nutrient absorption, and a balanced gut microbiome can help to reduce the risk of these conditions.
In some ways, the GI tract plays the most pivotal role in our overall health – if you look after it, it will, for the most part, look after you back. Maintaining a healthy GI tract through a balanced diet, regular exercise, adequate hydration, and proper hygiene is crucial for overall well-being.