Find out the causes and symptoms of an unhealthy gut here.
Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates famously said: “All disease begins in the gut.” And while you can’t attribute 100 per cent of all illnesses to your intestines, it’s true that many diseases do stem from poor gut health. But just why does gut health have so much influence on the rest of the body?
According to Dr Gwee Kok Ann, medical director and consultant gastroenterologist at Gleneagles Hospital, “the gut serves both as a channel of nutrients and as a barrier to entry of harmful germs and toxins. The substances that we absorb support growth in children and regeneration in adults, and influence the functioning of all the cells of the body.” As such, a diseased gut will lead to a loss or lack of essential substances including vitamins, irons and proteins. In some cases, an unhealthy gut could even trigger your immune system to produce an inflammatory response.
“Symptoms that may indicate an unhealthy gut are diarrhoea, vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss and anaemia,” says Dr Gwee. “Of all these, I would say that unexpected weight loss and iron deficiency anaemia can be potential indications of a severe disease of the gut.” A combination of diarrhoea and weight loss could signal malabsorption where your gut is unable to sufficiently absorb key nutrients to maintain health. Malabsorption can be caused by intestinal parasites, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), Celiac disease, and – surprisingly – damage to the intestine caused by painkillers. Dr Gwee explains more about each condition below.
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
Simply put, SIBO occurs when there’s too much bacteria in your small intestine. SIBO may develop in those who have poorly controlled diabetes (as this affects the normal intestinal function), take strong acid-reducing medications continuously for over six months (this allows for more bacteria to pass through the stomach and into the intestines or consume a lot of raw food which are more likely to contain bacteria or parasites. SIBO is often a secondary disease so it’s important to prevent or reduce your risk of getting it by treating the root problem.
Celiac disease is a condition where the body develops a reaction to gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Though Celiac disease was previously thought to be rare in Asians, recent research – including a study that Dr Gwee conducted among his patients with irritable bowel syndrome – shows that reacting to gluten may be more common than doctors think. “The reasons for this increase include an increasingly hygienic environment, frequent use of antibiotics, acid-blockers and painkillers,” says Dr Gwee. He adds that it is also possible that consuming larger amounts of bread containing wheat and rye and frequently drinking barley drinks could also be driving this increase in gluten sensitivity.
Damage to the small intestine caused by painkillers
Nowadays, it’s so common to eat a painkiller to treat common ailments like headaches or period cramps. But this innocent pill-popping has its consequences. “A common situation that I encounter among my patients with an unhealthy gut is the use of the NSAID class of painkillers. Many patients do not realise that drugs such as ibuprofen and aspirin can cause damage to the intestinal lining, which is a reason for the leaky gut,” says Dr Gwee.
“Unfortunately, many people think that these drugs are safe just because they are FDA-approved for over-the-counter sale. Worse still is when they think that infrequent use will not cause harm, but in reality, even a single dose can give rise to ulcers in the stomach or the intestine.” If you really have to take a painkiller, Dr Gwee suggests trying one from the COX-2 inhibitor class instead. These are newer types of NSAID that block pain without inhibiting COX-1, an enzyme that helps with the production of the protective stomach lining. Loading up on probiotics while using painkillers can also offer some protection. (Psst, check out these tips on using painkillers safely.)