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Ask a researcher: How do you improve your gut health?

Lankenau Medical Center February 28, 2019 Medical Research

Most people refrain from talking about gastrointestinal (GI) problems, but studies show that a significant percentage of people will have GI distress or disease as some point in their lives. We asked a long-time GI researcher, James Mullin, PhD, professor at the Lankenau Institute for Medical Research (LIMR), what steps he takes to improve the health of his GI tract.

What have you learned in your research that has prompted you to adopt lifestyle habits to help reduce your chances of developing GI disorders?

Generally, I try to be nice to my GI tract in two ways. First, I make it a point to drink a lot of water every day, which is important since the colon is very good at absorbing water and gathering up concentrations of assorted elements for excretion in stool. It also increases transit time along the colon—which is a good thing, as anyone afflicted with chronic constipation can attest.

Secondly, I have increased my fiber content. Fiber does all of the same good things that water does, and it also adds one very good micronutrient to the interior of our colons: butyrate. This type of fatty acid is very helpful in maintaining the integrity of the epithelial cells in the colon, as our research at LIMR has shown. Epithelial cells line the inside of your intestines and act like a safety shield, keeping out viruses and other germs. Fiber helps you maintain good epithelial barrier integrity, and that, in turn, could forestall a host of GI diseases.

Do you take any supplements, and if so, which ones and why?

Most people have heard that low-dose aspirin is good for cardiovascular health. It is equally good for preventing colon cancer, and there’s good data showing that. Check first with your doctor before starting an aspirin regimen, as aspirin can be problematic for those with clotting issues or GI ulcers. But if you can do it, you should. Aspirin is inexpensive, generally safe and can help your blood vessels, as well.

I don’t have problems with my esophagus, but if I did I would consider the supplement zinc. Zinc not only reduces acid output by the stomach, but our own research has shown that it very likely can reduce the chances of the disorder called Barrett’s esophagus from progressing to esophageal cancer. Learn more about the benefits of zinc and what to know before you take it. I would caution patients to carefully check the supplement’s packaging for dosage recommendations. And, check with your doctor about your current medications before starting a zinc supplement, because zinc can interfere with certain drugs, such as the antibiotics ciprofloxacin and levofloxacin.

Do you focus on any particular foods?

Red wine and grape juice contain the antioxidant resveratrol, which has heart health benefits. Of course, any alcohol should be consumed in moderation, and those with alcohol addiction should abstain.

Vegetables and fruits, especially broccoli, are high in vitamin A, the biochemical quercetin, and the intriguing chemical sulforaphane. Vitamin A is not only good for vision but also for a healthy immune system and cell growth. Quercetin has antioxidant and anti-inflammation effects that may help to reduce your risk of developing cancer, diabetes and heart disease. And sulforaphane may help to reduce your risk of cancer by killing cancerous cells.

Are there any other actions you recommend to reduce GI risk?

Do not shrug off getting a colonoscopy when your doctor recommends it. For many of us, colonoscopy screenings should begin at age 45, although it’s important to note the incidence of colorectal cancer is increasing in people who are younger than 45. If you have a personal or family history of cancer or GI troubles, ask your doctor about when your screenings should start. GI cancer caught early is curable by surgery or even endoscopic polyp/removal. If a colonoscopy seems too scary, talk with your doctor about the new molecular biology-based screening tool Cologuard.

Humanity went for thousands of years without the tools we have now for GI health—and suffered accordingly. It would be negligent not to put to use all of the knowledge we’ve gained in the past few decades that can improve our colons.

James Mullin, PhD, is a professor at LIMR. His research focuses on the role of GI cellular health in cancer, aging, infectious diseases and inflammatory disorders. Visit the LIMR website for more on Dr. Mullin's research.