A HEALTHY gut contributes to a strong immune system, heart health, brain health, improved mood, healthy sleep and effective digestion.
Dr Chung Yun Chien uses pop singer Selena Gomez’s condition – systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) which causes her body’s immune system to attack her own joints, skin and kidneys – as an interesting example when it comes to talking to his patients about autoimmune disorders, some of which affect the digestive system.
The gastroenterology and hepatology, internal medicine expert from Sunway Medical Centre is naturally a strong advocate for good gut health. It is thought that an unhealthy gut may increase systemic inflammation and alter the proper functioning of the immune system.
“Numerous studies in the past two decades have demonstrated links between gut health and the immune system, mood, mental health, autoimmune diseases, endocrine disorders, skin conditions and cancer, ” he shares.
“In the past, we may have thought that our digestive system was pretty simple – food goes in, waste comes out. But there are a lot of things going on in the gut which modern medicine is discovering.
“The gut microbiome plays a vital role in one’s overall health. Each person has about 300 to 500 different species of bacteria in their digestive tract. While some microorganisms are harmful to our health, many are incredibly beneficial and even necessary to a healthy body.”
The pitfalls of modern living such as high stress levels, insufficient sleep, processed food and antibiotics often result in a variety of problems, which could easily be related to an unhealthy gut – upset stomach, unintentional weight changes, sleep disturbances, chronic fatigue and skin irritations such as eczema.
The digestive system is made up of the gastrointestinal tract which consists of hollow organs such as the oesophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, and solid organs like the liver, pancreas and gall bladder.
Our bodies need nutrients from food and drinks to conduct daily functions and stay healthy. Proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water are essential nutrients which help our digestive system to break down into parts small enough for the body to use for growth and cell repair.
“When people think of gut health, they usually focus on the stomach. However, the liver, pancreas and gall bladder also play an important part, ” says Dr Chung, whose niche involves the liver. He has advanced training in hepatology and liver transplants.
About your liver
The liver makes the digestive juice called bile, which helps to digest fats and some vitamins. Bile ducts carry the bile from the liver to the gall bladder for storage and it is then used to digest fats whenever we consume fatty foods.
Liver problems can be caused by several factors including infection (parasites or viruses that spread through the blood or semen, or contaminated food, and result in illnesses such as Hepatitis A, B and C), chronic alcohol abuse, obesity and even the consumption of certain over the counter medications, traditional complementary medicines and herbal compounds.
There are also many liver-related problems that are inherited. Genetic causes of liver disease are when one inherits abnormal genes from one’s parents which can result in build-up of substances in the liver. For example, hemochromatosis occurs when there is a build-up of iron, and Wilson’s disease due to a build-up of copper.
Meanwhile, fat accumulation in the liver can result in the more commonly known (metabolic-associated) fatty liver disease, and affects patients with metabolic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or a high BMI.
Auto immune diseases can also affect the liver such as autoimmune hepatitis, primary biliary cholangitis and primary sclerosing cholangitis. Then there’s also liver cancer, bile duct cancer and liver adenoma (benign growth).
Over time, damage to the liver may lead to scarring of the organ and this, in turn, can cause liver failure, a life-threatening condition. “But if we are able to identify the root cause to the problem, early treatment can allow the liver to heal, ” says Dr Chung.
Signs and symptoms
One of the major issues with digestive ailments is that symptoms don’t show up until the later stages of a disease. For the liver, Dr Chung suggests being cautious if you notice any of the following:
> Yellowish discoloration of the skin and eyes which could point to jaundice (high bilirubin content).
> Itchy skin and dark-coloured urine (high bilirubin content).
> Abdominal pain and swelling because of the build-up of fluid within the abdomen.
> Pale stool colour (presence of fats in stool).
> Chronic fatigue, vomiting and loss of appetite.
> Tendency to bruise easily (when the liver is not performing at its best, coagulation diminishes).
“The best way to protect yourself is by getting regular medical checkups or health screenings. Many of the patients I have seen discovered that they had problems through medical screening. Prior to that, they were asymptomatic and going through their daily lives with no issues. But during a checkup they found things like elevated liver enzymes or Hepatitis C or B virus in them for years without even realising it!” says Dr Chung.
He advises anyone over the age of 50 to go for annual checkups, especially if one has a family history of digestive issues. A full health screening package usually includes liver function and hepatitis viral examination.
“A healthy gut contributes to a strong immune system, heart and brain health, improved mood, and effective digestion. It may help to prevent some cancers and autoimmune diseases. With simple changes to your lifestyle, you can have good gut health, and improve your overall well-being, ” says Dr Chung.
What you can do
Dr Chung shares some tips that one can adopt in their current lifestyle:
> Watch your alcohol consumption: “The liver has to work very hard whenever we consume alcohol. So drink in moderation and know your limits!”
> Practise good hygiene: “Wash your hands before preparing and consuming food, and ensure it is cooked well. For those who are getting tattoos or body piercings, be mindful about the cleanliness of tools used.”
> Get vaccinated: Protect yourself against diseases such as Hepatitis B and A.
> Seek medical advise before taking medication: “People are taking prescription and non-prescription drugs rampantly these days and may even mix with alcohol, or herbal supplements and complementary medicine without understanding the chemistry on how they work.”
> Wear protective gear: “Those who have exposure to industrial aerosol sprays such as insecticides, fungicides and paints should always protect themselves with masks and proper protective gear (both for ingestion and to protect your skin).”
> Maintain a healthy weight: Choose a good diet and stay fit.
In a nutshell, one should eat well, sleep enough and stay healthy.