When last did you give a thought to your digestive health? For that matter, do you fully understand the term or why it’s so important to your overall wellbeing?

 “There is a real lack of education regarding digestive health,” says Allison Vienings, Executive Director of the Self-Medication Manufacturers Association of South Africa (SMASA), an independent organisation committed to promoting responsible self-care and self-medication to the South African public. “Many South Africans ignore the symptoms related to an unhealthy digestive system, such as stomach pain, stomach cramps, bloating, and diarrhoea, as they simply don’t understand the importance of good digestive health.[1]”

 Why is digestive health so important?

 Nutrients such as antioxidants, amino acids, minerals, fats and vitamins, which perform key functions in the body, are absorbed via the digestive tract. And the body’s waste is removed the same way. For these reasons, overall good health often starts with good digestive health.[2]

 Unfortunately, digestive health can be affected by factors such as stress, poor food choices, illness, antiboitics, and lack of sleep, all of which can cause an imbalance in the digestive tract. This is turn results in digestive disorders[3].

 “Millions of people around the world suffer from common digestive disorders. These not only affect quality of life, but can also have significant health implications over the long term,” says Vienings.

 These disorders include:

  • Reflux: Heartburn is a common symptom of this condition and if experienced frequently (two or more times a week), can be an indicator of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Over time, GERD can cause damage to the oesophagus and lead to oesophageal cancer[4]
  • Peptic Ulcers: Unexplained stomach pain can be the result of ulcers, which left untreated, can cause internal bleeding and create a hole in the small intestine or stomach wall, leading to infection[5]. 
  • Gallstones: These consist primarily of cholesterol and bile salts and can cause pain in the upper right abdomen, between the shoulder blades, or under the right shoulder[6].
  • Lactose Intolerance: Sufferers are unable to digest lactose, the main sugar in milk. Symptoms, which include cramping, bloating, nausea, diarrhoea, and gas, usually occur up to two hours after consuming a dairy product[7].
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the most common inflammatory bowel diseases. Symptoms include abdominal pain and diarrhoea, and can also include rectal bleeding, anemia, and weight loss[8].
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): The causes of IBS are unknown. Symptoms include constipation, abdominal cramps and diarrhoea[9].
  • Celiac Disease: Sufferers are unable to eat gluten without sparking an attack on their small intestine. Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, vomiting and constipation[10].
  • Constipation: A healthy bowel movement frequency can range from three times a day to three times a week. Going a week or more without one, warrants a visit to your GP[11].

Treating digestive disorders

 “While digestive disorders can have a huge impact on your life, treating them can be as easy as implementing lifestyle changes, avoiding certain foods, or taking over-the-counter remedies, such as probiotics[12]” says Vienings. “Probiotics help maintain the balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria in our digestive system, which is crucial for optimal health, and help boost the immune system.[13]”

 Other self-care options include identifying and treating food allergies, avoiding foods and beverages that trigger digestive problems[14], replenishing minerals, vitamins and nutrients that are deficient in the body[15], and following a balanced diet.

 Concludes Vienings, “While self-care has a valuable role to play in the treatment of digestive disorders and diseases, these are serious issues and it is vital that they are diagnosed and treated correctly. If you’re experiencing ongoing digestive problems, make sure you schedule an appointment with your doctor to get to the root of the problem.”

















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