Written by guest contributor Dr. Sapna Makhija. Dr. Makhija earned her undergraduate education at the University of British Columbia, followed by a medical degree from the University of Saskatchewan. She has also completed an Internal Medicine residency and further specialization in Gastroenterology at the University of Calgary. Her leadership and academic pursuits involved serving as chief resident, as well as partaking in a number of research projects. She currently is working as a Gastroenterologist and is the Co-founder of GI Health Centre in Burlington, Ontario.
Our gut breaks down the foods we consume which is then carried as nutrients throughout our body. The breakdown of food to nutrients can only occur and be done effectively with a healthy digestive system. There are healthy bacterias and immune cells used to fight infectious agents through the body. Using the nerves and hormones, the gut communicates with the brain in order to maintain your health.
The gut microbiome has gained traction within scientific research due to its importance of keeping our body healthy. The microbiome is the microorganisms that are residing in the gastrointestinal tract. Our body contains approximately one hundred trillion microbiota in the gut microbiome. Your body’s microbiome weigh’s approximately 5lbs (2lbs heavier than the human brain). Research has shown that our microbiome is linked to various chronic diseases. The microbiome is vital to maintain mood disorders, curb obesity and improve immune system function as these are linked to having a variety of bacteria in your gut. The human microbiome genome affects our individual genome. We do not have control over the genetics we inherit, but humans can attempt to alter their microbiome and transform their health trajectory.
At the onset of COVID-19, researchers identified the virus as a respiratory disease. As time went on, studies found many individuals experienced diarrhea as the first symptom, leading to a delayed diagnosis of COVID-19. As the COVID symptoms worsened so did the gastrointestinal symptoms.
A recent study suggests that your gut health can affect how your body responds to COVID-19 infection. Researchers identified a pattern when it came to the gut microbiota in COVID-19 infected patients: they had more inflammatory microbes and less anti-inflammatory ones. Also, the more severe the COVID-19 infection, the more pronounced difference between the inflammatory and anti inflammatory microbes. The changes in these gut microbiota were also linked to some blood markers and changes in inflammatory protein messengers (cytokines). They also followed these patients for 30 days after recovery from COVID-19 and identified that these gut microbiota changes persisted until then in many of the COVID-19 patients. This was an association study and further research is needed to identify the true impact of gut health on COVID-19 infection.
How to improve our gut health
- Eating a variety of plant based foods: a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes and seeds
- Consuming adequate fibre: fibre helps the good microbiota in our gut thrive. Guidelines suggest 25g/day in women and 38g/day in men.
- Exercise: A small study found women who exercised 3 hours/ week had an increase in “good gut microbiota” when compared to sedentary women
- Limit ultra-processed foods
- Stress management: A small study shows even 2 hours of stress can negatively impact your microbiome
- Consume fermented foods: its shown to benefit the microbiome
March was Colon Cancer Awareness Month. In Canada colon cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in Canada. It is expected that 1 in 14 men and 1 in 18 women will develop colorectal cancer (CRC) in their lifetime. CRC nearly accounts for 12% of all new cancer diagnosis. There are both non modifiable risk factors (Age, male gender, family history) and modifiable risk factors (smoking, heavy alcohol intake, obesity) that can increase your chances of getting CRC.
The majority of CRC cases arise from polyps, which are benign tumours that develop from normal colonic mucosa. Over time, these polyps may develop into CRC. CRC can be curable if it is found during the early stages; this is why it is important to follow screening guidelines. The key is to find these polyps at an early stage, before they develop into cancer. Current Canadian guidelines suggest screening should start at age 50 in ASYMPTOMATIC individuals. If there’s a family history of colon cancer, or if someone is experiencing symptoms prior to 50 years of age, they may require a colonoscopy earlier. That’s why it’s very important to know your family history (at least amongst your immediate family)
Many patients have no symptoms when diagnosed, but some symptoms worth investigating are: new iron deficiency anemia, a persistent change in bowel habits, persistent abdominal discomfort, blood in the stool, or unexplained weight loss
Currently in Canada the options for screening include:
1) FIT Test — a stool test that detects blood present within the stool that may not be visible to the naked eye.
2) A Colonoscopy — this gives doctors a direct view of the colon to identify and remove the potentially precancerous polyps
If someone has symptoms, a colonoscopy should be done. If they are low risk and just being screened, a FIT test is sufficient and then if positive, a colonoscopy is arranged. If you are over the age of 50 and have not had either of these tests, please talk to your doctor!!