Published on Discovery Channel health, 26 July 2002
It may not be the sexiest topic in the world but September 2-8 is Gut Week. Promoted by the Digestive Disorders Foundation, the idea is to get people thinking about their guts. Why? Because they’re behind 1 in 10 doctor visits and 1 in 12 deaths.
Whereas some topics, such as breast cancer, have entered the public consciousness, people remain remarkably ignorant about their intestines. And, despite it being a particularly hardy part of the body, the gut is becoming more important in a modern society that eats badly, irregularly and on the move.
Not only that, but the trend of food-group diets and what doctors and dieticians have recognised as a “gut obsession” in some people – colonic irrigation being a good example of how far they will go – means that intestines are becoming an increasingly important aspect of our general health.
Keeping it to yourself
The problem is that we tend to be embarrassed about our guts, according to Catherine Collins, chief dietician and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association “Many people just put it down to the spiciness of a curry they had recently – and it may be that -but if the symptoms continue for a while they really need to see someone,” she says.
There is a prudish aspect to intestinal problems. Large numbers of people are appalled at having wind, Ms Collins tells us, even though that is a perfectly normal result of food digestion. “Bloating when you eat is also natural – it’s a sign the bowel is working well.”
But this embarrassment causes many to keep their bowel problems to themselves to the extent that, when something is wrong, they don’t seek help or they do it too late. Bowel cancer is a prime example. “Early detection can mean a cure,” Mark Lister, chief executive of the Digestive Disorders Foundation, explained. “If it is detected early enough, it is usually treatable.” But wait too long and it will spread.
The desire to keep our bodily functions to ourselves has also sparked a potentially dangerous diet and self-diagnosis market. Both Catherine Collins and colleague Jacky Bernett, a consultant dietician, are concerned about modern diets, the trend to take large amounts of supplements and “quacks” who label themselves “leading nutritionists” despite having no proper knowledge or qualifications.
For example, while people may recommend large daily doses of vitamin C, the body can’t really use more than 200 milligrams a day. Any extra can cause problems, such as increasing the excretion of uric acid, which can cause kidney stones in some people. And when combined with some people’s somewhat strange urge to take large doses of magnesium, extra vitamin C can have serious consequences, explains Ms Collins.
“We had one woman who’d had diarrhoea for 18 months. It was so bad that she’d become dehydrated and one day just collapsed. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong, so they were going to open her up to find out what was going on.”
Fortunately, one day before surgery a chance conversation revealed the woman had been continually taking several supplements that her herbalist had recommended. She came off them and her diarrhoea cleared up immediately. “The odd thing was that she was really annoyed with us because we’d gone against what her herbalist has told her,” Ms Collins said.
A little bit of everything
Diets can also cause problems. For example some people are choosing to cut out wheat altogether, even though they are not allergic to it. But, by not eating foods such as bread, they are also missing out on certain minerals.
Ms Collins says we are notoriously poor at getting our daily intake of calcium, which can be found in bread. And, more seriously, if we choose to cut out milk as well, we can put ourselves at risk of increased blood pressure and osteoporosis.
The solution to all this and a healthy happy bowel is good old common sense. Yes, your mother was right, a balanced diet is crucial – everything in moderation. So what should we be doing? Improving our diets, eating more fruit and vegetables and increasing our exercise levels.
But how do you know if there is something wrong? Well, if it’s just a few days of trouble, then that’s probably just part of life. But if you have consistent pain or blood in your faeces or after wiping, or if there is an obvious change in your bowel movements, it’s a good idea to go see a doctor. The likelihood is that it’s nothing and you’ll be referred to a dietician who will help you sort out your eating habits. But it could also be something more serious.
Either way, seeing an expert will make you feel better. And yes, your GP has dealt with it all before. The gut is such a vital part of the body that many doctors call it “the second brain”. It continues to work even when the mind has given up. The idea, though, is to sort out any problems before that happens.