A healthy gut is critical to overall health and an unhealthy gut can contribute to a wide range of diseases or disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease.

Deterioration in gut health has also been associated with increased risk of non-communicable diseases such as obesity (yes, it’s now considered a disease), diabetes and even cancer.

Components of the digestive system

The digestive system is made up of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the liver, pancreas and gallbladder. The hollow organs that make up the GI tract include the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum and anus.

Bacteria in the GI tract (gut flora or microbiome) are also considered integral components of the system because they assist with digestion and other functions of the gut.

From chewing to bowel emptying, all these different components work together to complete the elaborate task of digesting foods (solid or liquids) that we consume each day.

The digestive system is the first thing that comes into contact with the foods we eat. It converts the food we eat into their simplest forms.

Though the components of the system are tough and resilient, years of abuse and bad lifestyle habits can take its toll.

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Fat and oil, spoils

The more high-fat food you eat, the more bile and lipase your body needs to digest them. If you eat too much, you may overwhelm the capacity of your liver as well as pancreas to synthesise sufficient bile and lipase to help digest the fat.

If the liver and pancreas cannot keep up, this causes indigestion. Overworking the liver and pancreas over time can also lead to fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and diabetes.

Salt to taste

Salt (sodium chloride) is essential for maintaining fluid balance within your cells, contracting muscles and transmitting nerve impulses.

The body also needs salt to maintain proper stomach acidic levels (pH) and also produce digestive acids. Salt also plays a critical role in helping the digestive system absorb nutrients.

Eating too much however, can increase the risk of gastric ulcer, stomach cancer and high blood pressure.

Too little, and you will not able to produce enough acid to break down and absorb food, which then leads to indigestion.

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You’re too sweet

As part of the digestive system, the pancreas releases insulin to maintain healthy blood sugar balance.

However, excessive sugar results in either too much insulin being released, or not enough. This can lead to either hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) or hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar).

The liver also uses the sugar fructose (also called as fruit sugar) to make fat. Too much refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup causes fatty build-up that can lead to liver disease.

Bad gut bacteria also use sugar as food to multiply and this causes different problems.

Messing up gut microbiome

Good bacteria in the gut helps to fight off pathogenic invaders, digest nutrients and drugs, create important nutrients, maintain the integrity of the gut, and is also associated with the smooth functioning of the immune system.

A disruption in the normal gut microbiome puts gut health at risk by exposing it to infection and harmful invaders.

Some factors that lead to the imbalance of gut microbiome include poor dietary habits, an unhealthy environment (pollution) and also the improper use of antibiotics.

Besides the food you consume, eating habits can also affect your gut health.

As parents, practice these good dietary habits and educate your children about the gut and good dietary habits:

• Chew food properly before swallowing and do not eat too fast. Eating too fast can cause indigestion.

• Do not skip meals; skipping meals increases your tendency to overeat at the next meal while eating regular meals each day helps digestion.

• Do not overeat or resort to eating as therapy for emotional distress. Overeating can lead to indigestion, heartburn and acid reflux.

• Go easy with the snacking and choose healthier snacking options (e.g. fruits, nuts).

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• Avoid eating late at night, close to your bedtime. When you lie down for bed too soon after eating, you can get heartburn and acid reflux.

• Eat more fibre-rich foods and food that contain prebiotics to encourage growth of good gut bacteria and improve bowel movement.

You can also consume probiotics (from sources such as tempeh, kimchi, yoghurt and cultured-milk drinks), which replenish the gut with beneficial bacteria.

Strike a balance

Eating too much of any one food is not ideal because no one type of food has all the nutrients to maintain your gut and overall health.

In principle, you should eat a balanced meal that is moderately portioned and has a variety of foods from each food group as suggested in the Malaysian Food Pyramid (MFP).

Your family can achieve better gut health by being mindful of what you eat and practising a healthier lifestyle together.


Dr Mahenderan Appukutty is a nutritionist and Council Member of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia. This article is courtesy of the Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting programme in collaboration with expert partners. For further information, please e-mail starhealth@thestar.com.my or visit www.mypositiveparenting.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.