GUT IN­STINCT

What your toi­let tim­ing can teach you about your fu­ture health

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Body and Soul - - FRONT PAGE -

Alot hap­pens to food in the time be­tween you chew­ing it and its ap­pear­ance out the other end. Ev­ery sin­gle mouth­ful has to make its way through your stom­ach and round the seven me­an­der­ing me­tres of tub­ing that make up your small in­tes­tine, dur­ing which nu­tri­ents are ab­sorbed and tox­ins are ex­tracted.

What’s left then en­ters the 1.5 me­tres of the large in­tes­tine, where tril­lions of bac­te­ria get to work ex­tract­ing any­thing else use­ful that’s left be­hind. Re­ac­tions that oc­cur here also pro­duce nu­tri­ents in­clud­ing vi­ta­min K and other help­ful com­pounds that we now know im­pact ev­ery­thing from our im­mu­nity to our mood.

“The gut is more than a mere food pro­cess­ing sys­tem and it needs time to do all its work on food ef­fec­tively,” Pro­fes­sor Ker­ryn Phelps, a lead­ing med­i­cal aca­demic and au­thor of The Mys­tery Gut, says.

It can take be­tween four and 11 hours for food to pass into the large in­tes­tine ( six to eight is av­er­age), and it will spend up to 70 hours there be­fore be­ing ex­creted ( the av­er­age is 40) – the ex­act tim­ing de­pends on your me­tab­o­lism and what you’ve eaten, and it may vary day to day. The sum of these two fig­ures is your gut tran­sit time or GTT.

“Ide­ally it should be about 12-48 hours in to­tal,” nutri­tion­ist De­spina Kam­per says. “If food passes through faster than this you won’t ab­sorb the op­ti­mum num­ber of nu­tri­ents; if it passes through much slower, too much wa­ter is drawn from the stool which makes it harder to pass, caus­ing is­sues like con­sti­pa­tion and as­so­ci­ated con­cerns such as haem­or­rhoids or di­ver­ti­c­uli­tis [ in­flam­ma­tion or in­fec­tion of the colon wall].”

But these aren’t the only down­sides – a group of Dan­ish re­searchers re­cently dis­cov­ered a slow tran­sit time also af­fects the gut at a cel­lu­lar level.

THE BAC­TE­RIA CON­NEC­TION

Those tril­lions of bac­te­ria that feed on the contents of the large in­tes­tine have a pre­ferred fuel: car­bo­hy­drates found in the fi­bre we take in from whole­grains, fruits and veg. As they con­sume these carbs they cre­ate heal­ing by-prod­ucts that fight in­flam­ma­tion and help re­store the mu­cus layer that pro­tects the in­tes­tine against tox­ins.

How­ever, a slow gut tran­sit time can have a neg­a­tive ef­fect on this process, as re­searcher Hen­rik Munch Roager from the Na­tional Food In­sti­tute at the Tech­ni­cal Uni­ver­sity of Den­mark ex­plains: “The bac­te­ria run out of carbs to con­sume and start to feed on any leftover pro­tein in­stead, which changes the by-prod­ucts.”

So, rather than the bow­el­restor­ing com­pounds, they in­stead gen­er­ate by-prod­ucts from pro­tein degra­da­tion such as am­mo­nia and sul­phur com­pounds, which at high con­cen­tra­tions might dam­age the cells of the bowel di­rectly. Even worse, the lack of di­etary fi­bre also means the bac­te­ria start to feed on the pro­tec­tive mu­cus layer of our in­testi­nal cells, caus­ing it to be­come thin­ner. This is prob­lem­atic since a thin­ner mu­cus layer makes the in­testi­nal cells more prone to DNA mu­ta­tions, thus in­creas­ing the risk of de­vel­op­ing col­orec­tal can­cer. Know­ing and ad­just­ing your gut tran­sit time is there­fore an es­sen­tial part of main­tain­ing good health.

HOW TO TEST YOUR OWN GTT

The length of a per­son’s gut tran­sit time de­pends a lot on their diet, but there are other el­e­ments in­volved. Di­a­bet­ics, for ex­am­ple, of­ten have slower tran­sit times as high blood sugar can de­crease sen­si­tiv­ity in the nerves that con­trol bowel move­ments, and hav­ing an un­der­ac­tive thy­roid slows many bod­ily func­tions, in­clud­ing the bowel. Reg­u­larly sup­press­ing the urge to go to the toi­let can also re­sult in your bowel hold­ing stools for longer.

Women have a nat­u­rally lazier large in­tes­tine than men, while high lev­els of stress will speed up tran­sit time in men and women.

The ap­pear­ance of your poo can give clues about ex­tremes of gut tran­sit time – tiny nut-like pel­lets that are hard to pass sig­nify a very slow tran­sit time, while di­ar­rhoea can sug­gest as lit­tle as 10 hours have passed be­tween eat­ing and evac­u­a­tion.

Out­side of these ex­tremes you’ll need to do a sim­ple test to de­ter­mine your own GTT. “Sim­ply eat 1 ta­ble­spoon of sweet­corn or a lot of beet­root and see how long it takes for you to no­tice corn ker­nels or a bright pink colour­ing in the stool,” Kam­per says. “But don’t just look once – you need to see how long that hangs around for. It might be that you see the first glimpses in a healthy 18 hours, but if you’re see­ing corn ker­nels 72 hours later then your bowel is still slug­gish.”

IM­PROV­ING YOUR TRAN­SIT TIME

The re­sults of your DIY di­ges­tive check-up will help re­veal how you should re­act. Phelps says that a bowel that reg­u­larly moves too quickly needs to be checked by a doc­tor as there might be a med­i­cal cause – for ex­am­ple an al­lergy, in­tol­er­ance, IBS, in­flam­ma­tory bowel dis­ease or long-term in­fec­tion.

More com­mon, though, is a slug­gish bowel that needs help speed­ing up, and that can eas­ily be tack­led at home. It prob­a­bly won’t sur­prise you to learn that the num­ber-one way to do this is to in­crease the level of fi­bre in your diet. Fi­bre ac­tively speeds up how fast food moves through the gut.

“Ev­ery­one thinks this is bor­ing ad­vice and that they’re get­ting all the fi­bre they need if they eat break­fast ce­real, but very rarely do peo­ple eat the amount we ac­tu­ally need,” Kam­per says.

In fact, to reach the 25-30g of fi­bre rec­om­mended daily you’d need to eat two Weet-Bix with a pear (10g), three cups of veg­eta­bles ( about 12g) and 1 or 2 cups of brown rice ( 3g each) daily – and that’s a mix of high fi­bre sources. Most of us con­sume far lower fi­bre op­tions.

Hy­dra­tion is also key as wa­ter makes up about 75 per cent of fae­ces. Wa­ter also swells fi­bre, in­creas­ing its abil­ity to stim­u­late the gut wall.

Ex­er­cis­ing speeds up gut tran­sit time as well. And it’s im­por­tant to lis­ten to Mother Na­ture when she calls, so you don’t re­set your in­ter­nal sig­nals. One thing that’s not yet clear is the role of pro­bi­otics in all this. Some stud­ies have shown they can speed up tran­sit times in peo­ple with con­sti­pa­tion, but re­cent stud­ies have also shown that the more types of bac­te­ria some­one has in their stool the slower their gut tran­sit time, which might mean they’re not so help­ful in ev­ery case.

A healthy GTT should be about 12- 48 hours “If you’re see­ing corn ker­nels 72 hours later your bowel is still slug­gish”

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