Gut health is one of those topics that has A LOT to it and it can feel a bit overwhelming. In hopes of making a broad topic a bit more digestible (see what I did there?), I’ll keep it short and sweet.
If your experience is anything like mine, talking about the gut had a bad rap. I used to hear the word “gut” and think about the part of my body I wanted to hide behind loose tops or high-waisted jeans. But in this instance, when I refer to the gut, I’m talking about the vast ecosystem of life residing right inside of our bodies, specifically in the gastrointestinal tract.
In the course of my health history, both managing my physical and mental health, one of the most worthwhile investments I made was learning about the gut microbiome and why it’s important. I had no idea how remarkable the digestive system alone is, let alone how it benefits the body as a whole. From maintaining physical health to managing severe anxiety, focusing on gut health is at the foundation of it all.
MEET YOUR MICROBIOME
We have two primary interfaces where our internal world meets the outside world- our skin and our gut. The skin, our largest organ, skin deserves a post in and of itself so, for now, let’s focus on the gut.
In 2008, the National Institute of Health launched the “Human Microbiome Project” (you can check it out here). The N.I.H. sought out to understand whatever they could about the bacteria that was in and on us; how the microbiome impacts human health and disease.
One of the things discovered was that humans are practically walking Petri dishes. From the skin on our body to the recesses of our gastrointestinal tract, we contain numerous colonies of bacteria, the majority of which is found in our gut. We’re talking trillions of bacteria and other organisms.
Our gut microbiome is our very own diverse ecosystem. It’s full of good and bad bacteria that, when in a healthy balance, help our bodies do all sorts of things, including supporting our immune systems and help us to thrive. There’s a host of research in the health and wellness community that contributes optimal health with a healthy digestive tract.
Our digestive system is responsible for processing the very fuel we put into our bodies to keep it running. The gut is where food is digested, metabolized, and absorbed to be delivered to the cells in our body and provide us with energy.
Gut health has implications that stretch far beyond healthy digestion. The health of our gut helps regulate both our mood (most serotonin is produced in the gut), immune responses (70% or more of our immune system is located in the gut)(2008), and even impact our metabolism. Digestive problems are not the only forms of illnesses traced back to poor gut health. Many health problems, such as autoimmune disorders, chronic disease, cardiovascular disease, allergies, even mental health, have been associated with some form of gut imbalance or poor gut health.
THE IMPORTANCE OF GUT BACTERIA
By definition, the term “microbiota” talks about a group of microorganisms that normally inhabit a certain environment. In this case, the environment is the gastrointestinal system. The term “flora” basically refers to vegetation or plant life, in this case it’s the plant-like microscopic bacteria, fungi, protozoa, etc. from the gastrointestinal system. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll just refer to it as bacteria.
It’s important to know that this bacteria (also known as gut flora) help carry out a number of essential bodily functions. They help us:
– break down macronutrients from our food (protein, carbs, and fats) by producing helpful enzymes and ferment fiber
– help detoxify our bodies
– aids in metabolizing drugs/medications
– suppress the growth of pathogenic bacteria
– help our immune system mature after we’re born
This bacteria is one of our first lines of defense as our insides meet parts of the outside world every day through the things we eat and drink.
Our guts are happy when there’s a balance of good and bad bacteria. Yes, we have both. In a healthy gut environment, the thriving bacteria are the good guys.
In layman’s terms, there are foods we can eat that are considered friends by our bodies. These foods support our gut by feeding the good bacteria. There are also foods we can eat that act more like foes. These feed the bad bacteria. If too much of the bad bacteria is fed and thrives, it can cause dysbiosis- an imbalance of the gut bacteria. This takes the whole “you are what you eat” phrase to another level.
An imbalance of gut bacteria can lead to a myriad of issues. Dysbiosis or bad bacterial overgrowth can result in a variety of intestinal problems we commonly see today, including inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), SIBO, and coeliac disease. There are also extra-intestinal disorders including, but not limited to, allergy, asthma, cardiovascular disease, and obesity that seems to share roots in poor gut health.
Another common problem associated with poor gut health is leaky gut syndrome. This is where the tight junctions in the gut lining are damaged and start to lose integrity and cause intestinal permeability. When this happens, particles that otherwise would not leak into the bloodstream (toxins, undigested food, etc) can now do just that.
Because we eat every day, there’s the chance of more particles to leak into the bloodstream through the lining. If unaddressed, leaky gut syndrome leads to chronic inflammation in the body as the immune system responds to the particles as foes because they don’t belong in the bloodstream. Because it’s on high alert around the clock, this chronic inflammation depletes your immune system.
A host of health issues is correlated with both leaky gut and chronic inflammation.
BENEFITS OF SUPPORTING YOUR GUT HEALTH
It’s safe to say that the gut, specifically the bacteria in the gut, is paramount to overall health. Now that you have a little more of an understanding of the importance of good gut health and the vital roles gut bacteria play in our well being, it’s time to touch on some of the ways our gut is under attack in today’s world.
All too often, I meet people struggling with health concerns- specifically things that seem an awful lot like leaky gut. Speaking from experience, it’s possible to help restore balance to the gut flora, heal intestinal permeability (leaky gut), and clear skin from severe eczema, all by focusing on healing the gut.
To learn more about common things that harm gut bacteria, as well as practical ways to start supporting your gut health, visit this post.
Overall, a happy gut means a happier body which means a happier you! When you focus on promoting good gut health, you lay a foundation for overall health and wellness. There are most definitely ways you can do just that and improve your overall health! Gut health impacts everyone- adults, children, and the like!
SOURCES Vighi, G., Marcucci, F., Sensi, L., Di Cara, G. and Frati, F. (2008), Allergy and the gastrointestinal system. Clinical & Experimental Immunology, 153: 3-6. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2249.2008.03713.x Environmental Working Group- https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/clean-fifteen.php Galley, J.D., Nelson, M.C., Yu, J., Dowd, S.E., Walter, J., Jumar, P.S., Lyte, M., & Bailey, M.T., (2014). Exposure to a social stressor disrupts the community structure of the colonic mucosa-associated microbiota. BMC Microbiol 14, 189. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25028050