The gastrointestinal tract is integral to the function of every other organ and organ system of the body. It is responsible for the digestion, absorption and assimilation of nutrients without which the body would cease to function. Traditionally, it was considered that poor or sluggish digestion led to poor vitality and diminished health. Poor digestion is believed to exert a wide range of effects on other systems of the body, and contribute to conditions such as the skin disorders (acne psoriasis and dermatitis), allergies (asthma, hayfever & sinusitis), nervous system complaints (depression and insomnia, due to poor amino acid and co-factor absorption and assimilation), and endocrine disorders (thyroid disease and diabetes) amongst others.
A healthy gastrointestinal tract is therefore viewed as one of the most important factors needed to obtain and maintain optimal health and vitality.
Healthy digestion begins in the mouth and ends in the colon, so if problems arise in the upper digestive tract, they are likely to have a follow-on affect in the lower digestive system.
Food choices are therefore really important, because poor dietary practices will impact widely on the health of the whole body, as well as having a direct impact on the function of the gastrointestinal tract.
The popularity of herbal medicines in gastrointestinal health reflects the reputation gained by their effectiveness over many years of traditional use.
For example, irritable bowel syndrome is thought to affect about 12% of the world’s population*. Quality of life can be quite seriously affected by ongoing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and symptoms always seem to vary from person to person.
Healthy gut flora, encouraged by the appropriate use of probiotics, is vital for efficient digestive health and the maintenance of an effective immune system.
Irritable bowel syndrome is characterised by intermittent symptoms of diarrhoea and constipation, often accompanied by spasms of debilitating pain. Stress is thought be a triggering factor, as well as problem foods.
Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, gastroesaphageal reflux disease, diverticular disease and peptic ulcer disease are some of the chronic disease states we see as a result of poor digestive function.
Haemorrhoids are a painful reflection of poor gastrointestinal function, as well as poor venous return. Engorged blood vessels within the lower bowel become fragile, leading to rupture, pain and inflammation.
Adequate dietary fibre will stabilize the transit time of the passage of food through the digestive tract, and encourage the normal passage of waste. Drinking six to eight cups of water a day supports the action of any fibre supplement.
Haemorrhoids can be caused by poor food choices, straining on the toilet, pregnancy or childbirth, or sitting for long periods of time and may include the symptoms of anal pain especially with sitting, pain during stool movements and lumps near the anus.
Anal fissures are tears in the anal canal and are invariably very painful. Another herb comes to the rescue here. A topical haemorrhoid gel from the aloe vera plant, applied to the affected areas, simply binds to bacteria and supports natural healing. Aloe vera has been used for cooling the skin after burns, and now has shown activity in lubricating passing stools, relieving pain and healing damaged areas.
To summarise and incorporate some of this information into your daily life, check out these simply ten top bowel health tips to help keep your gastrointestinal tract in tip-top shape:
1. Aim to go for a comfortable walk each day.
2. Drink at least six cups of fluid a day i.e. herbal tea, water.
3. If you need to go, then go and don’t delay unnecessarily.
4. Include “raw foods”, fibre and roughage in your diet like pears and prunes.
5. Check with your healthcare practitioner that any prescribed medicines you may be taking aren’t causing bowel problems.
6. Add full-strength Greek yoghurt into your diet each day.
7. Apple cider vinegar and fermented foods like sauerkraut support gut bacteria, so consider these too!
8. If you do need a laxative, seek advice from your caring healthcare practitioner.
9. Bowel actions are just that, and don’t involve reading a book, crosswords or mobile phones!
10. Never eat “in a hurry” and chew food adequately and slowly.
Ref: Halvorson HA, Schlett CD, Riddle MS. Post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome – a meta-analysis. Am.J.Gastroenterol 2006; 101:1894-9