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Ep. 66 – Gut health

Today Dr. Chet Zelasko talks guts. Not courage - but your digestive system. Is it operating as it should? What role might coffee play? That and more on gut health on today’s Straight Talk on Health

Welcome to Straight Talk on Health. I’m your host Dr. Chet Zelasko. Straight Talk on Health is a joint production with WGVU in Grand Rapids MI. I examine the world of health. Nutrition. Exercise. Diet. Supplementation. If there’s something new, I look at the science behind them, and let you know whether it’s real or not. You can check out other things that I do on my website Drchet.com and sign up for my free emails.

Paula’s recovery from knee replacement is going well. While she’s been rehabbing, she does a lot of reading. I get the benefit of things she reads that never cross my health news feeds. She recently passed on an article that attempted to compare the health benefits of coffee vs. tea. One of the comparisons was about fiber: did either have any? The article suggested that there was 1-1.5 g fiber per cup of coffee. If true, that would help fiber-lacking Americans reach their RDA of 25-35 g of fiber per day. It would really help me as I typically drink 4-6 mugs per day.

I checked it out. In a single study, researchers found that there was about .5 g fiber in 3.3 ounces of brewed coffee or just over a gram per 8 ounce cup. If you drink coffee like I do, that could add up. But what about tea? Nothing really whether brewed black or green tea. Matcha (green tea) does have fiber but it’s not clear whether it’s just in the residue after brewing or in the liquid itself.

While fiber might not be readily available, could there be something else that could help with digestion and especially, elimination? After all, what coffee and tea do have are phytonutrients and plenty of them.

The health benefits of tea are substantial, but in some ways, coffee is even better. They both have substantial amounts of phytonutrients. But this isn’t about the benefits to your heart, your liver, or your brain. This is about the benefits to your digestive system comparing coffee with tea. While the fiber in either wasn’t really significant, one of the nutrients in both, was.

While I’ve never given it much thought, some people feel the urge to defecate shortly after drinking a cup of coffee and to a lesser extent, tea as well. With all those phytonutrients, researchers selected a nutrient common to both to test: caffeine. The subjects were required to insert an anorectal manometer into their rectum. Doesn’t that sound like a lot of fun! Thanks goodness for grad students.

The purpose was to test the pressure of the anal sphincter muscles. There was no response to drinking plain water but there was a significant increase in pressure at 10 minutes and even greater pressure at 15 minutes post caffeine ingestion. In short, the increase in pressure indicated the ability to “go” once the muscles were relaxed.

The only issue I see is the amount of caffeine the researchers tested at 3.5 mg/kg body weight. For a 180 lb. person, that would be almost 300 mg caffeine in one dose. It would have been nice to see the lowest dose that worked as not many people would or should have that much caffeine in one dose. Then there is the issue of genetics comparing fast metabolizers versus slow caffeine metabolizers. This appeared to be the only study done to directly test the impact of caffeine on bowel movements.

As long as I brought up the topic, I get asked about a natural approach to dealing with constipation. I’m not talking about severe constipation that you’ve been treated for by a physician. If it’s a serious and regular issue, do what your physician or specialist recommends you do. But most people, especially children, sometimes have an issue with mild constipation.

By definition, constipation is fewer than three bowel movements per week. It’s important to note that everyone has their own schedule whether they realize it or not. It’s the not that people notice; if they don’t or can’t go, they notice. One thing that I can tell you from experience, no one likes a change in their bowel movements. People hate that, at least, that’s what they say.

What causes constipation? Most of the time, it’s the lack of fluid intake. The colon absorbs more water out of the digesting food and everything slows down. The second reason is lack of fiber intake. Don’t want to eat your veggies and fruit? Pay the price. Finally, eating too much fatty foods, proteins, and other foods can also contribute to the problem. If I could pick one food people complain about most it would be cheese.

Here’s what I developed over the years based on the physiology and the biology of what's actually going on in the gut.

Fluid intake has to increase because that's one of the primary causes of constipation. This seems to afflict older people because just like children, they learn that if they don't drink too much fluid, they don't have to go to the bathroom as often. I would suppose that for children, they don't want to stop playing and so without realizing it, they often drink less fluid. For people who are elderly, they may have muscle and joint issues that they have to deal with in getting up out of a chair and going to the bathroom. I don't know that either age group realizes what they are doing but the net effect is the same eventually: constipation.

The second thing that needs to increase is fiber. A lack of fiber contributes to constipation and so fiber, combined with increased fluid intake, can be part of the solution.

The final part of the natural solution would be to increase electrolytes. That's as simple as a sports drink and it doesn't matter whether it contains sugar or is sugar free. Because of the osmotic pressures inside the cells in the colon, the increase in sodium, potassium, and magnesium, can pull fluids into the digestive system albeit temporarily.

Get a sports drink of your choosing, preferably a 20 or 32 oz bottle. Open the cap and pour a couple of ounces into a small glass, and set it aside. Add a quarter cup of either dextrin or inulin fiber powder to the sports drink bottle. Then add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt. You want it to be sea salt because of the extra minerals that are found in it. You also do not want psyllium fiber as that will tend to turn into a gel. Shake it, shake it, shake it. When everything is dissolved, pour yourself 4 to 6 ounces and drink it down. Do that about every hour. Generally, you should see movement within about four hours. You wouldn't believe the messages people leave me when they've gotten relief but the most popular one for some reason is “The eagle has landed.” I don’t get it but it’s common.

Because my grandson doesn't have the most robust diet in the world, we use a form of this almost daily. In about 4 ounces of water, I mix in one-half teaspoon of inulin fiber powder with a teaspoon of psyllium fiber. We stir that up and he drinks it right down. I think he's probably been constipated twice in going on nine years as we started this when he was probably two to three years old.

One thing that I'm not going to do is give him any caffeine in any amount. Not because I'm anti caffeine. It's because having more energy is the last thing that he needs. So keep in mind if you’ve got to go, you may need a cup of Joe. If you can’t go, remember the constipation solution from this podcast. As for me, I’m all out of time. Remember that health is a choice. Choose wisely today and every day. I'm Dr. Chet Zelasko.

Dr. Chet Zelasko is a scientist, speaker, and author. Dr. Chet has a Ph.D. and MA in Exercise Physiology and Health Education from Michigan State University and a BS in Physical Education from Canisius College. He’s certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as a Health and Fitness Specialist, belongs to the American Society of Nutrition, and has conducted research and been published in peer-reviewed journals. You can find him online at drchet.com.
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