Diet tips for a healthy bowel and digestive system

20 July 2017

We know that having a high fibre intake is important for a healthy digestive system, but are there any particular vitamins and foods that can help prevent bowel cancer, as well as less serious digestive disorders? Ceitanna Cooper, registered nutritionist at AXA PPP, investigates.

Evidence shows that diets high in a variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains may help to reduce the risk of bowel cancer, owing to their active vitamin, mineral and fibre content.

An array of antioxidants found in these foods - namely carotenoids, flavonoids, selenium, folate, and vitamins C and E - may help to protect cells from damage.

Good sources of antioxidant vitamins

Carrots, red peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins, spinach, kale, broccoli, watermelon, mangoes and corn

Raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, onions and beans

Brazil nuts, whole wheat, eggs and fish

Green leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts and wholegrains

Vitamin C
Broccoli, cabbage, spinach, citrus fruits, red and green peppers, kiwi fruit, strawberries and tomatoes

Vitamin E
Nuts, seeds, wheatgerm, whole grains and avocados.

Eating a variety of brightly coloured plant foods ensures that plenty of important antioxidant vitamins are included in your diet.

As well as fruit and veg, unrefined or whole foods such as potatoes in their skins, brown rice, beans, wholegrain bread and cereals are thought to help reduce the risk of bowel cancer.

Due to their high fibre content, whole foods move through the gut quickly. A reduction in stool transit time is an important factor in bowel cancer prevention. The shorter the time that waste is left in the colon, the less likely the bowel is exposed to toxic chemicals, which may contribute to an increased risk of the disease.

Digestive system-friendly foods

A great deal of our daily requirement for water is needed for the digestion and the elimination of waste products from the body. The current advice to drink more water (at least 2 litres or 6-8 glasses a day) is important not only to help stay well hydrated, but also help to prevent constipation, which is one of the first symptoms of habitual dehydration.

Many of us may exist in a semi-dehydrated state, which can often lead to niggling health problems such as indigestion, bloating, irregular bowel movements, as well as headaches and lack of concentration. The key to staying hydrated is to drink little and often throughout the day.

The UK diet is often heavy in wheat and therefore gluten (which is also found in barley, rye and oats). While not everyone needs to avoid gluten, some may benefit by choosing non-gluten cereal grains, like rice, more often, as these are more easily digested and gentler on the gut.

The starch in rice, particularly Basmati rice, is digested and absorbed slowly, thereby providing a steady release of glucose into the blood for sustained energy. Rice has long been used in natural medicine to treat digestive disorders ranging from indigestion to diverticular disease (a condition affecting the large bowel or colon). It is also believed to relieve mild cases of diarrhoea and constipation.

Pears are known to be one of the least allergenic foods and are very gentle on the gut, so are well tolerated by almost everyone. Pears are good sources of the soluble fibre pectin and of bioflavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants and may protect against a range of diseases. Pears also make a useful contribution to vitamin C and potassium intake, which can help to regulate blood pressure.

Probiotic bacteria, or 'friendly bacteria' as they are often known, are thought to assist the body's naturally occurring gut flora and increase their numbers. They are often recommended for gut-related problems, such as diarrhoea or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or after a course of antibiotics that has resulted in constipation.

The reason for probiotics is that the body contains a system of microbes, collectively known as the gut flora. A number of bacteria in the gut are thought to be thrown out of balance by a wide range of circumstances, including the use of drugs, excess alcohol, stress, disease or exposure to environmental toxins. In cases like these, the bacteria that work well with our bodies may decrease in number, which allows harmful competitors to thrive, causing ill-health.

Maintenance of healthy gut flora depends not only on probiotic intake, but also on a good intake of prebiotics.

Prebiotics are nutrients and constituents of food that our gut flora feed upon, thus increasing their numbers. Prebiotics include compounds known as fructo-oligosaccharides, which are found naturally in many plants, including leeks, onions, wheat, garlic, chicory root and artichokes.

The prebiotic inulin is now being added to breads and cereals, and research has shown that having about 5g of inulin per day can optimise the gut flora and improve digestion. Prebiotics help the proliferation of the 'friendly bacteria' in the gut, which in turn aids digestion, improves gut health and boosts the immune system. It may also help reduce the severity of food poisoning and the effects of food intolerance.

A number of herbal teas are said to aid digestion and help alleviate gut problems. Peppermint tea, in particular, is thought to help food digest after a meal, preventing bloating and heartburn. Ginger tea may help upset stomachs and prevent nausea, while fennel and chamomile teas have been reported to help with symptoms of IBS, which is strongly associated with stress.

These teas can have a soothing and comforting effect, reducing levels of stress and preventing symptoms such as abdominal spasms and loose stools.


Beating Bowel Cancer

Cancer Research UK

Further reading:

Top cancer fighting foods – AXA PPP