I truly became cognizant of health and wellness when I was 22 years old. In October of 1982, I saw a world-class triathlete by the name of Julie Moss stagger to the finish line in the 1982 Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. I had never witnessed, such determination, drive and a will to succeed. She would not be denied. She changed my world forever.
So, I began to exercise, eat right and supplement. However, it wasn’t until 20 years later (yes – 20 years!) that I discovered the foundation for health and wellness – digestive health! I have had numerous well respected health professionals tell me that health begins in the gut. Over the past decade I have learned so much about the importance of digestive health. I was completely ignorant of the following:
Digestive ailments affect 40% of the US population and account for more hospitalizations than any other health problem. Until recently it was thought that unless a medical problem or symptoms existed, that the digestive system was functioning normally. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is complex and can be affected by many internal and external factors. Digestive changes are the starting point for a host of serious conditions and diseases, including Colon Cancer, whose frequency is third most in the US. Often the beginning stages of these ailments go unnoticed.
I was also unaware that one in five Americans are thought to meet the clinical criteria for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Millions more continuously or occasionally experience IBS symptoms including abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation. Only recently has this syndrome received the attention it deserves. Effective programs have been formulated to work on the sources of the problem and manage the symptoms.
Understanding Your Digestive System
The bottom line is that the human digestive system is a very neglected part of our bodies. The digestive system is a complex series of organs and glands that processes food, as well as alcohol, bacteria and viruses, among other compounds. In order to use the food we eat, the body has to break the food down into smaller molecules that it can process. Most of the digestive organs (like the stomach and intestines) are tube-like and contain the food as it makes its way through the body. The digestive system, also known as the GI tract, is essentially a long, twisting tube that runs from the mouth to the anus. It also includes other organs, such as the liver and pancreas, that produce or store digestive matter. The inside of this tube is coated with a thin layer of mucous. Covering this mucous and imbedded in it are millions and millions of bacteria. From the time we are born to the time we die these bacteria live, grow, carryout their metabolism, and excrete beneficial and non-beneficial compounds into the gut.
When we are in good health, the number of “good bacteria” outnumber the number of “bad bacteria”. This means the population of bacteria that lives in our gut is said to be in balance. We feel great and we are able to resist disease and infection because our immune system, which is stimulated by intestinal bacteria, is functioning well. Besides digestion and absorption, interaction with the body`s immune system is perhaps one of the most important roles that intestinal bacteria play.
With that said, when you feel great and your intestinal tract is in balance, a whole host of opportunities open up, including creating a foundation or starting point for exercise. In fact, if you want a healthy digestive system, you need to exercise regularly. Exercise helps you achieve the obvious, which is maintaining optimal weight. However, exercise also stimulates the digestive tract as well as helps to decrease indigestion. If you are overweight, you are more likely to have digestive problems. Exercise will help you lose weight which will, in turn, improve digestive health.
Probiotics and Enzymes for Digestive Health
Maintaining balance in your digestive tract can be a challenge, especially with processed foods being so prevalent in today’s world, Therefore, in an effort to sustain a long-term exercise program to maintain an ideal weight and ultimately digestive health, I always recommend supplementing with probiotics and digestive enzymes.
Probiotics: There are a plethora of foods that contain probiotic bacteria many of which can be found in health food stores nationwide. Yogurt is perhaps the best known food that contains probiotics. Kefir, fermented vegetables, and some cheeses are examples of other probiotic foods. The good bacteria contained in probiotic foods will help establish or maintain a population of “beneficial” bacteria in the gut that will keep the gut in balance. There are also many probiotic supplements on the market. These probiotic supplements contain a different balance of good bacteria for both the large and small intestines. They include probiotics such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. These micro-organisms are found in large numbers in the normal healthy intestine. However, you should consult your health professional on the different strains that are available, potency, etc., as all probiotics are not created equal.
Digestive Enzymes: Digestive enzymes are proteins that your body uses to break down the food we eat into useful nutrients and waste products. You can only get the full benefit of food and nutritional supplements if your body has enough enzymes to properly digest and absorb the nutrients. However, many digestive enzymes are found only in raw foods. We live in an age of processed foods so most of us eat little, if any, raw food. Additional digestive enzymes are produced by the body, but this process becomes less efficient with age. A lack of digestive enzymes can contribute to a myriad of illnesses including many digestive maladies. Many people supplement with digestive enzymes to increase digestive enzyme levels in the body which dramatically improves digestive health.
Achieving and maintaining a healthy digestive system can be easily accomplished and ultimately will fuel good exercise habits. If you establish a solid regimen of food and supplements and incorporate strategic exercise, you will not only realize great digestive health but also maintain it. Always remember, if your gut is healthy, you will be well on your way to optimal health.