BY DR. SAPNA MAKHIJA
When we consume food, our gut breaks it down to be transferred as nutrients throughout the body. Many functions within the gut that make this process happen can only be done effectively with a healthy digestive system. Our gut consists of beneficial bacteria and immune cells used to fight infectious agents in our body. To maintain your health and well-being, the gut communicates with the brain through nerves and hormones. Due to the importance of keeping us healthy, the gut microbiome has gained importance amongst scientific researchers in the past decades. The microbiome refers to the microorganisms that are residing in the gastrointestinal tract. The human body contains approximately one hundred trillion microbiota in the gut microbiome. Studies show that our microbiome links to various chronic diseases. Maintaining mood disorders, curbing obesity, and improving immune system function are linked to multiple beneficial bacteria in your gut. Our microbiomes weigh approximately 5lbs (2lbs heavier than the human brain). The human microbiome genome affects our individual genome. We do not have control over the genetics we inherit, but humans can alter their microbiome and transform their health trajectory.
At the start of COVID-19, researchers linked the virus to respiratory disease. Ongoing research 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 gut microbiota pattern in COVID-19 infected patients: they had more inflammatory microbes and less anti-inflammatory ones. When the COVID-19 infection is more severe, the more pronounced the difference between the inflammatory and anti-inflammatory microbes. These gut microbiota changes were also linked to some blood markers and inflammatory protein messengers’ changes (cytokines). They also followed these patients for 30 days after recovery from COVID-19. They have 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 determine the real 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 fiber: fiber 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: It has been shown to benefit the microbiome.
March is colon cancer awareness month. Worldwide, colorectal cancer is one of the top three cancers diagnosed among both men and women. In South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan, the incidence is lower, but the trends are going upwards in recent years. Some data reports increased rates of colorectal cancer amongst South Asians in Canada compared to those in India. However, the rates were still lower than native-born Canadians. The risk for colorectal cancer increases amongst immigrants by 5-7% every 5 years with a time of settlement.
Colon cancer is curable if identified in the early stages. The goal of organized colorectal cancer screening programs is to identify and remove polyps and prevent colorectal cancer. Current recommendations for average-risk colon cancer screenings start at age 50. This age could be earlier depending on family history of colon cancer or hereditary syndromes, personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, or you are having persistent bowel symptoms. Evidence points towards a lower likelihood of screening amongst South Asian populations. One observation showed those with lower socioeconomic status had a lower chance of getting screened.
Current screening tests used in Canada’s average-risk populations include a fecal immunochemical (FIT) test or a colonoscopy. If over 50 and you have not had either of the above tests, speak with your doctor about this. It could potentially save your life.
About Dr. Sapna Makhija
Upon receiving her medical degree from the University of Saskatchewan,
Dr. Makhija’s post-graduate education includes completing an Internal Medicine residency and further specialization in Gastroenterology at the University of Calgary.
She has published journal articles in gastroenterology and has written a textbook chapter. After residency, Dr. Makhija completed a fellowship in Clinical Nutrition and Obesity at the University of Toronto and has published in nutritional assessment. Dr. Makhija completed the qualification to become a Diplomat of The American Board of Obesity Medicine to further expand her growing practice.
Dr. Makhija currently works as a Gastroenterologist and is the Co-founder of GI Health Centre in Burlington, Ontario.