Last week, I had my annual physical, conducted by my doctor, Dr. Jeffrey Crespin. To alleviate any of your concerns: my exam went well, thanks. Everything is in its proper place and working well. Anyway, after the measurements were taken, the blood was extracted, and the latex gloves were thrown in the trash, I spoke with Dr. Crespin about his area of expertise: the gut. Although he serves as my internist, Dr. Crespin is a gastroenterologist who specializes in all aspects of the digestive system and performs surgery to resolve a wide range of gastroenterological issues. We had a good discussion about our guts and what we can do to make them work effectively.
A Passion for the Gut
I’m always curious about how doctors have arrived at their specialty. Particularly when it comes to areas such as podiatry, proctology, and urology. Gastroenterology falls into that “why’d he choose that one?” category for me. Dr. Crespin told me that his interest in gastroenterology was triggered at an early age: “When I was fourteen, my father got an ulcer from a medicine. In ten days, it burned a hole in his stomach and he required emergency surgery. That got me interested in gastro.” Years later, Dr. Crespin, who has a B.A. from Harvard and M.D. from Washington University in St. Louis, became more interested in the specialty that he believes “has a unique set of technological tools available to diagnose very accurately, whereas in other areas of medicine you’re often guessing.”
Why the Gut and its Digestive Partners Matter
The digestive system is responsible for taking the food and beverages that we consume, breaking them down, and delivering critical nutrients to every cell in our bodies. Dr. Crespin explained, “The digestive tract begins at the mouth and ends at the rectum, and includes the esophagus, stomach, pancreas, intestines, and liver.” Our gut absorbs food and is detoxified by our liver. Dr. Crespin said, “Your gut stores nutrition. If your gut isn’t working well, you become malnourished.” The digestive system has its own immune system to fight infection. It also has its own “enteric” nervous system, which is comprised of 500 million neurons, and is referred to as the “second brain” by scientists. Keeping this second brain functioning well is non-trivial.
Nutrition Controls the Gut
The most important thing we can do to maintain a healthy digestive system is to eat a nutritious diet. Dr. Crespin said that often those with eating disorders can severely damage their guts. Even special diets, according to Dr. Crespin, can lead people to become malnourished. “For example,” Dr. Crespin said, “people who go on the Atkins diet can become fiber-deficient and that can affect their motility [stretching and contractions of muscles in the GI tract] for months or years later.”
Exercise Keeps Things Moving Along
Regular exercise “increases GI motility. If things move slowly through you, they’re more likely to cause damage,” according to Dr. Crespin. Think red meat getting stuck in your system for longer periods of time. Not good. “With more exercise, you can have more peristalsis,” Crespin explained. These are the contractions that run the show for the digestive system. So, in essence, he said, “Regular exercise helps keep you regular.” Aerobic exercise, such as running, walking, or cycling, plays a particularly helpful role in keeping the digestive system humming. According to a Harvard Medical School report, it “stimulates the natural contraction of the intestinal muscles, helping move food through your intestines more rhythmically.”
Fat Reduction Helps the Gut Function Better
Exercise also reduces fat. Fat doesn’t just make our guts bigger, it makes them function less effectively. Crespin said, “Fat can lead to insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes and damage your liver. Less fat pressing against the gut will improve the ability of the digestive system to work efficiently.” Dr. Crespin suggests a minimum of 30 minutes of activity three times a week to keep the gut in good shape.
Exercise Allows Good Bacteria to Thrive
A study conducted by researchers at the National University of Ireland found that physical activity encourages the “good germs” to thrive in our guts. The study compared players on Ireland’s national rugby team with a group of non-athletes. The results showed the active group had a larger and more diverse population of organisms living in their digestive systems. This improves their immune system and makes them more resistant to a range of medical problems.
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