Every year, approximately half of the Australian population experience some form of digestive problem. In fact, Australia has one of the highest incidence rates of chronic diseases of the digestive system, including colorectal cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases.
Taking care of your gastric health can help you to reduce your risk of developing serious diseases, as well as preventing uncomfortable symptoms such as stomach pain and bloating.
What is Gastric Health?
Gastric health refers to the health of our gut or digestive system. This system – known as the gastrointestinal tract – consists of seven of our body’s vital organs:
- Large intestine
- Small intestine
- Gall bladder
Why is Gastric Health Important?
A healthy gut is critical for maintaining our overall health and wellbeing. If our gastric health is poor, this can lead to a number of uncomfortable and painful symptoms, including:
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
Health conditions arising from poor gut health can range from the relatively common Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) to stomach ulcers and even gastric cancer.
How Can I Improve My Gastric Health?
There are many simple ways you can improve the health of your digestive system and maintain a healthy gut function. Here are some examples:
Eat a healthy diet
Reducing your intake of processed foods and sugar can help to maintain digestive balance. For optimum gut health, aim to eat a varied diet that includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Get enough fibre
Fibre helps our bodies get rid of waste. If this waste isn’t removed from our systems easily, it can lead to a build-up of harmful bacteria in the gut. Focus on consuming fibre-rich foods, such as fruit, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains.
Drink plenty of water
Keeping your water levels up will help your gastric system to function effectively. Adequate water in the system ensures that waste products pass smoothly through the digestive tract, preventing bad bacteria from building up in the gut.
Reduce stress levels
Studies have shown that stress can increase levels of harmful bacteria in our guts, as well as impacting our immunity. Engaging in stress-relief techniques to keep your stress levels in check can have a positive effect on your gastric health.
The Importance of Balance in the Gastric System
In order to function in a healthy way, our gastric system requires a balance between aggressive factors, such as stomach acid, and protective factors, such as mucus. Both these factors play an essential role in the health of our gastric system.
The Role of Aggressive Factors
Aggressive factors in our gastric system include stomach acid and the digestive enzyme, pepsin. While we often hear aboutthe problems associated with an excess of stomach acid, the presence of this acid is vital for proper digestion to occur.
Stomach acid (primarily hydrochloric acid) has two essential roles in the digestive process:
- It triggers the release of pepsin, a digestive enzyme that breaks down proteins into smaller peptides.
- It sterilises food particles before they enter the gastrointestinal tract.
Without this acid, our bodies would not be able to break down the food that enters the gastric system, which can have a devastating effect on our health.
The Role of Protective Factors
The gastrointestinal tract is covered by a thin layer of mucus, around 1.5mm thick. This mucus layer acts a protective barrier, preventing harmful bacteria, pathogens and free radicals from passing through the lining. These elements can cause significant damage to the gut in a number of ways, including oxidation of the cells, inflammation and infection.
Our defensive mucus layer helps to neutralise the acid in the gut, ensuring that pH levels remain at an optimal level for effective digestion to take place.
Maintaining a Healthy Gut Balance
As you can see, a healthy gastric system relies on both aggressive and protective factors working together to promote gut health and sustain optimal digestive function.
This means having sufficient levels of stomach acid to sterilise food and trigger pepsin release, and having a fully-functioning mucus layer to protect our gut from damage and disease.
However, many over-the-counter antacids or prescription acid blockers focus solely on reducing the amount of stomach acid in our bodies. This can cause a range of serious problems to both our guts and our overall health, as too little stomach acid prevents our gastric system from working properly.
So, what should we be focusing on when aiming to improve our gastric health?
Given the vital importance of the gastrointestinal mucus layer, it is clear that maintaining an optimal level of this protective mucus is central to a healthy gastric system.
Rather than trying to disrupt the balance by reducing stomach acid, we should focus instead on increasing our gastric system’s production of mucus, in order to ensure our gut is healthy and protected.
Just as with many areas of our health, it’s all about balance.
Role of mucus layers in gut infection and inflammation,Gunnar C. Hansson, Curr Opin Microbiol. 2012 Feb; 15(1): 57–62. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3716454/)