gut health

About the gastrointestinal tract (gut)1

The gut stretches from the mouth to the anus, and includes the:

  • Mouth
  • Pharynx
  • Oesophagus
  • Stomach
  • Small intestine
  • Large intestine (colon)
  • Rectum and anus


To understand conditions of the gut, an understanding of how it works is required:

  • The primary function of the GUT is digestion. This is the processing of the foods and liquids that we consume to obtain and absorb the nutrients that we need, which are then used as energy and building blocks by our cells.
  • Enzymes, hormones and good gut bacteria (gut flora) all play a role in the digestive process, whereby food and liquid are moved through the gut by a movement called peristalsis (wave-like muscle contractions)
  • Valves (sphincters) within the gut ensure that food moves in one direction
  • Waste products of the digestive process are excreted through the anus in the form of stool

The digestive system3

The digestive system consists of the gut and the digestive organs – the liver, the gallbladder and the pancreas.



  • These involve the gut and the digestive organs
  • The condition can be infectious (caused by micro-organisms) or non-infectious in nature

Infectious conditions

  • Most common cause of gut disease
  • Triggered by viruses, bacteria or parasites
  • Leads to gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the gut
  • Involves the stomach and the small intestine
  • Symptoms include diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal pain
  • Dehydration is the main danger
  • Most cases are self-limited
  • In babies, patients with impaired immune systems, pregnant women and the elderly, it can however be potentially serious
  • Rehydration and infection control measures are pivotal in the management of gut infections
  • In some cases, antibiotics, anti-diarrheal, and/or absorbent medication may be indicated

Non-infectious conditions
3, 5, 6

Common digestive conditions of the gut include:


  • Bowel movements that are infrequent or congested, which is often caused by a lack of fibre and/or water in the diet.
  • Most common symptoms are Infrequent and hard bowel movements
  • Dietary changes, laxatives or prescription medication may be needed

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD):

  • Stomach acid reflux caused by weakened valves between the stomach and the oesophagus, which allows acid to move from the stomach into the oesophagus
  • Heartburn is the most common symptom
  • Treatment involves antacid medication and dietary changes

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS):

  • Functional bowel disorder of the large intestine (colon) of which the exact cause is yet unknown, however, stress and food sensitivity may contribute
  • Most common symptoms are abdominal pain, constipation and/or diarrhoea
  • Dietary changes and friendly bacteria (probiotics) can help with the management of IBS

Crohn’s disease:

  • An Inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) that mostly affects the part of the gut connecting the small intestine with the large intestine
  • The exact cause has not been determined, but family history and genetics may play a role
  • Most common symptoms are abdominal pain, diarrhoea, rectal bleeding, weight loss and fever
  • It is usually treated symptomatically, but in some cases medication to suppress the immune system may be required

Ulcerative colitis:

  • This is similar to Crohn’s disease, however, it solely affects the large intestine
  • The body’s own immune system attacks the lining of the colon, causing sores and ulcers
  • Abdominal cramps, diarrhoea and bloody stool is experienced
  • Treatment includes dietary changes and medication to suppress the inflammation


  • These are hard deposits that form in the gallbladder when excess cholesterol, waste in bile or the gallbladder itself are not emptied properly
  • Sharp pain in the upper right abdomen, nausea and vomiting result
  • Medication is prescribed to dissolve the gallstones and in some cases, surgery may be required

Coeliac disease:

  • This is sensitivity to gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), which triggers a reaction from the immune system, whereby it attacks the villi (absorbing protrusions) in the small intestine, leading to malabsorption
  • Most common symptoms are abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, vomiting, weight loss and anaemia
  • Excluding gluten from the diet is necessary
Bread group

Anal fissures

  • Tears in the lining of the anus caused by constipation, hard and strenuous bowel movements, and/or diarrhoea
  • Most common symptoms are pain and bleeding after bowel movements
  • Medication to relieve pain, anal sphincter muscle relaxants and a diet rich in fibre are recommended. In some cases, surgery may be required


  • Inflammation of the blood vessels in the rectum and the anus due to strenuous bowel movements, constipation and/or diarrhoea
  • Painful or itchy lumps around the anus and blood in the stool ensue
  • Introducing more fibre into the diet, creams, or suppositories can assist in relieving pain or itching. In some cases, surgery may be required


  • Pouches form in weak areas of the gut lining, particularly in the colon, and become inflamed and/or infected
  • The exact cause is not yet known, but a lack of fibre in the diet and obesity are risk factors.
  • Abdominal pain and fever follow
  • A diet rich in fibre and antibiotics are prescribed. In some cases, surgery may be required

Keeping the gut healthy7

  • Drink at least 8 glasses of water per day
  • Include fibre in the diet
  • Take a probiotic
  • Exercise
  • Avoid the overuse of antibiotics
  • Avoid sugars and refined carbohydrates

When to consult your doctor8

Visit your doctor when you have:

  • Persistent abdominal or rectal pain and fever
  • Blood or pus in the stool
  • Diarrhoea that persists for more than 2 days
  • Vomiting in combination with diarrhoea that prevents fluid intake
  • Signs of dehydration
  1. Griffin P. Rodgers, M.D, Your Digestive System & How it Works, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
  2. Ahmed Zayed, The Function and Importance of The Gastrointestinal Tract, Consumer Health Digest
  3. Digestive Diseases, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
  4. Biomerieux-diagnostics, Gastrointestinal infections
  5. Beth W. Orenstein, Common Digestive Conditions, Digestive Health
  6. Christian Nordqvist, What to Know About Constipation, Medical News Today
  7. Edward Group DC, Tips to Help You Restore and Maintain Your Gut Health, March 28, 2016
  8. William Blahd, MD, When to Call a Doctor About Digestive Problems, WebMD, September 06, 2016

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