Bowel cancer – and digestive issues in general – have run rampant throughout my family. On face value it looks as though we’ve been blessed with yet another genetic predisposition. Whilst this may still be true, the prevalence of bowel cancer in Australia makes me wonder if we’re much different to the rest of the population when it comes to this shitty disease.

Around 80 Aussie’s die per week at the hands of bowel cancer, and given rates of lifestyle diseases (such as obesity and diabetes) are on the rise, I wouldn’t hesitate to assume that this figure is rising also. It shows that organisations such as Bowel Cancer Australia are going to need huge support going forward. There’s no better time than now to continue the conversation, with today (June 21st) being #RedAppleDay, and June being Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.

The following content exploring supplementation for digestive health was originally published at www.vitaminking.com.au and rehashed for this blog. I have also added some further notes on nutrition at the end.

The Link Between Gut Health and Wellbeing

“All disease begins in the gut” – Hippocrates

Whilst cliché, it’s perhaps for good reason that a large proportion of gut health articles start with this famous quote (above) by ‘the founder of medicine’. It shows that we’ve long known about the relationship between gut health and overall health.

Whilst Hippocrates might be wrong in saying “all disease”, modern science is providing us with a deeper understanding of just how intrinsic this relationship is.

There is a growing base of evidence linking digestive health with everything from hormonal regulation to mental health. It is no wonder then, that adverse gut health can lead to fatigue, poor mood, gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort, and even bowel cancer [1].

A well-balanced diet and good lifestyle choices are the foundation of good digestive health. However, several supplements can improve gut flora, reduce gut transit time and help alleviate the symptoms of poor digestion, leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, inflammatory bowel disease, and some forms of diarrhoea.

Probiotics

The gut microbiota is home to trillions of microbes from an estimated 1000 different species [2]. The “good” or “helpful” bacteria are referred to as probiotics. These strains are involved in many biological processes including aiding digestion and reducing inflammation.

You would be forgiven for thinking that ingesting a probiotic product containing billions of bacteria would be sufficient to improve your overall health and wellbeing. The figure sounds large, perhaps because it is. However, billions of bacteria coming from two strains is a drop in the ocean compared to what is in your gut. Hence why taking probiotics to recolonise the gut microbiota is often compared to planting a single species of shrub to combat deforestation.

That being said, different strains can provide specific benefits to the host (you). For example, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium may help alleviate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) [3].

Probiotics may also become increasingly important following a bout of antibiotics, specifically by alleviating symptoms such as diarrhoea. It may be prudent to take them during a course, and for the two weeks following.

Fibre

The health benefits of dietary fibre are perhaps as well-known as any nutrient or non-nutritive ingredient. As early as the 1920s, J.H. Kellogg had published several papers on the benefits of bran (dietary fibre was not yet isolated), which included increasing stool weight, promoting laxation, and preventing disease [4]. Meaning we have more to thank him for than improving our childhood with corn flakes.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we are now well aware that dietary fibre improves gut transit time, and reduces the risk of lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes, colon cancer, and cardiovascular disease [5, 6].

More recently, scientific interest has been directed towards types of fibre that improve the gut microbiota. These types of fibre are known as prebiotics.

Prebiotics

Not to be confused with probiotics (microorganisms), prebiotics are defined as “a selectively fermented ingredient that allows specific changes, both in the composition and/or activity in the gastrointestinal microflora, that confer benefits” [7]. This generally means any non-digestible ingredient that helps good bacteria grow, or assists them in providing a benefit to the host (you).

Whilst evidence for the benefits of prebiotics is relatively thin on the ground compared to dietary fibre, it is believed that by improving microbial activity, prebiotics may: reduce the unwanted symptoms of antibiotics use; reduce inflammation and symptoms associated with inflammatory bowel disease; exert protective effects to colon cancer; enhance the bioavailability and uptake of minerals; and lower some risk factors for cardiovascular disease and obesity [4].

Beyond Supplementation

There may be something to be said for research on fecal transplants and “poop pills” showing greater benefits than the aforementioned supplements (seriously, if you haven’t heard of it please google it). However, that conversation best wait for more research and a separate piece of content.

Nevertheless, what’s more important than common supplements and the option of sticking someone else’s faeces in your body, is of course the food you eat.

Opting for more plant based foods (that are high in dietary fibre and prebiotics) over animal products and refined carbohydrate, will go a long way in improving digestive health and reducing risk of colorectal cancer.

 

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  1. De Preter, V., et al., The impact of pre- and/or probiotics on human colonic metabolism: does it affect human health? Mol Nutr Food Res, 2011. 55(1): p. 46-57.
  2. Guinane, C.M. and P.D. Cotter, Role of the gut microbiota in health and chronic gastrointestinal disease: understanding a hidden metabolic organ. Therap Adv Gastroenterol, 2013. 6(4): p. 295-308.
  3. Fan, Y.J., et al., A probiotic treatment containing Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Enterococcus improves IBS symptoms in an open label trial. J Zhejiang Univ Sci B, 2006. 7(12): p. 987-91.
  4. Slavin, J., Fiber and prebiotics: mechanisms and health benefits. Nutrients, 2013. 5(4): p. 1417-35.
  5. Slavin, J.L., Position of the American Dietetic Association: health implications of dietary fiber. J Am Diet Assoc, 2008. 108(10): p. 1716-31.
  6. Hopping, B.N., et al., Dietary fiber, magnesium, and glycemic load alter risk of type 2 diabetes in a multiethnic cohort in Hawaii. J Nutr, 2010. 140(1): p. 68-74.
  7. Gibson, G.R., et al., Dietary modulation of the human colonic microbiota: updating the concept of prebiotics. Nutr Res Rev, 2004. 17(2): p. 259-75.