The following article was written by Amy Greenburg for the April 2022 issue of Expat Living Singapore.
If you’d like to say goodbye to bloating and other tummy troubles for good, you’ll need to get your gut health in order. Here, gastroenterologists in Singapore share how you can improve your digestive health naturally with certain dietary and lifestyle changes.
What is gut health and why does it matter?
The human intestines have billions of bacteria, some harmful and some helpful. These microorganisms play a vital role in digestion, as well as immune function and brain-gut communication, explains DR CHRISTOPHER KONG SAN CHOON, a senior consultant and gastroenterology and liver specialist at StarMed Specialist Centre.
“Gut health” refers to the balance of these microorganisms that live in our digestive system. An imbalance of microbiota is linked to a range of health issues including diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, inflammatory bowel conditions, autoimmune disorders and asthma, as well as food allergies and intolerances.
This is why sustaining the correct balance of microbiota is fundamental for our physical and mental health, our immunity and overall disease prevention, according to gastroenterologist DR ANDREA RAJNAKOVA of Andrea’s Digestive, Colon, Liver and Gallbladder Clinic.
Everyone’s gut microbiota changes over time, as it’s affected by age, environmental factors and diet. While we can’t control every single factor that influences our digestive tract, we do have control over what we put into our bodies, and the capacity to make healthier lifestyle choices – which means we have some of the power when it comes to influencing the state of our gut.
Not sure where to start? Here are eight things you can do to improve your digestive health naturally.
#1 Eat a diverse range of foods
A diverse microbiota is considered to be a healthy one – and a well-balanced diet that incorporates all food groups can help with that. Dr Andrea recommends:
- eating foods that contain healthy fats, such as olives, avocado oils, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds and fish;
- eating plenty of fruit and vegetables (“the more colourful, the better!”);
- eating a small amount of complex carbohydrates – whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans are great sources of energy, and should be chosen over white bread, white rice, pastries and overly processed foods; and
- consuming calcium-rich foods including kale, cabbage, broccoli, spring greens, bok choy and, of course, milk.
#2 Try a more plant-based diet
Research has shown that there’s a difference between the gut flora of vegetarians and that of meat-eaters, explains Dr Andrea. “Vegetarian or plant-based diets are associated with greater diversity in the gut microbiome and have a greater abundance of bacteria responsible for the long-term processing of fibres.”
While it isn’t necessary to cut out meat sources completely, Dr Andrea says that cutting back on meat consumption – even if it’s simply removing meat from one’s diet just once a week – can be very beneficial.
For this reason, she says it may be worth considering a flexitarian diet – one in which you follow a mostly vegetarian diet, but occasionally consume seafood or meat. This might mean abstaining from meat six days a week to one person, but going meatless only once a week to another.
“I think the flexitarian diet is a good compromise that offers flexibility,” says Dr Andrea. “Having the variety of animal proteins just a few times a week can provide an even better assortment of the different vitamins and minerals that a pure vegetarian diet lacks.”
#3 Stay hydrated with water
Staying hydrated is important to our overall health. And choosing water over sugary drinks and other beverages is key, says Dr Andrea. She suggests drinking at least two litres of water every single day.
“Coffee, tea, freshly squeezed fruit juices and low-fat milk can fit into a healthy diet, but are best consumed in moderation. Also, avoid instant beverages, including ones with sugar and artificial sweeteners like cola, fruit juice, bottled tea, some yoghurt drinks and flavoured milk, and energy drinks because they may cause bacterial imbalance in the gut.”
#4 Increase your intake of probiotics and prebiotics
Probiotics are live microorganisms that can improve or restore the gut flora, explains Dr Andrea. They can be found in fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, tempeh and miso, and fermented dairy products such as yoghurt, kefir and buttermilk.
To boost the beneficial bacteria in your gut, you can also take probiotic dietary supplements, which can help reduce gastrointestinal discomfort, improve immune health and relieve constipation. But, since different types of probiotics may have different effects, it’s best to talk to your doctor about choosing the one that’s right for you.
Prebiotics are also beneficial, as they feed the “good bacteria” in your gut. Examples of prebiotic food sources include onions, garlic, leeks, bananas, barley, oats, asparagus and apples.
Andrea’s Digestive, Colon, Liver and Gallbladder Clinic
#21-11/12 Royal Square at Novena, 101 Irrawaddy Road
6264 2836 | andrea-digestive-clinic.com
#5 Eat enough fibre
In addition to keeping us regular, consuming enough dietary fibre is key to a healthy digestive system. Much like prebiotics, fibre increases the good bacteria in our intestines, which positively affects gut function.
In fact, he calls fibre a “super-food” for aiding digestion and regulating bowel movements, which is important for ridding toxins from the body and reducing gas formation in the intestines.
The benefits of fibre don’t stop there. Dr Kong says that the nutrient helps regulate blood sugar and decrease fat absorption. Additionally, many studies have linked high-fibre diets to decreased risks of heart disease and cancers.
Despite this, recent research shows that 90 percent of people are not eating the daily recommended amount of fibre – 20g for women and 26g for men – and are, therefore, missing out on its benefits.
To incorporate more fibre into your diet, Dr Kong suggests eating more vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Good sources of fibre include nuts, seeds, beans, oats, barley, lentils, apples, pears, broccoli, berries, beets, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, kale and carrots.
#6 Manage stress levels
Stress has a major impact on our brain-gut communication. While some level of stress is useful in helping us to achieve our goals, too much stress can be detrimental to our overall wellbeing, including our gut health, says Dr Kong. In fact, stress actually upsets the balance between the good and bad gut bacteria.
“With excess stress, the intestinal bacteria changes from a well balanced environment to one in which bad bacteria can grow and multiply preferentially,” he says.
Additionally, stress can weaken the physical structure of our intestines – meaning that the bad bacteria can more easily penetrate the protective barriers. This, in turn, causes inflammation, illness and gastrointestinal symptoms – for instance, gastroenteritis (an increased tendency for food poisoning).
Taking the proper steps to reduce stress levels is, therefore, key to getting your gut health back on track. Find the stress-busting techniques that work for you – whether it’s practising yoga, meditating, going for a long walk or even baking!
#7 Exercise regularly
One of the best ways to manage stress, says Dr Kong, is by incorporating exercise into your lifestyle. Physical activity not only releases mood boosting endorphins, but it also increases the diversity of gut bacteria, helps propel food forward through the intestines and improves nutrient absorption. Regular exercise can also help prevent constipation.
#8 Get enough good-quality sleep
The brain-gut axis controls everything from our mood and appetite to our stress and energy levels – and sleep is no different. What goes on in your gut has a direct impact on your sleep, and vice versa, says Dr Kong.
Sleep not only improves the population of good gut microbiota in the intestines, but it also reduces stress, which we know directly affects our digestive tract. Increased stress levels, for instance, can cause gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting or diarrhoea. And, like stress, sleep deprivation affects appetite. When someone is tired, the hormones that control hunger levels are boosted, causing increased appetite and less satiation, and contributing to overeating. Skimping on sleep has also been linked to making poor food choices.
StarMed Specialist Centre
12 Farrer Park Station Road
6322 6333 | starmedspecialist.com