What is Gut Health?
When we hear the word “gut” we might initially think stomach or that butterfly feeling we get when we’re nervous or anxious, but the subject is incredibly complex and evolving each day. In the simplest form, gut health encompasses our entire digestive system starting with where food enters our mouth and where it exits.
We may not think much about the process of eating, unless of course it doesn’t agree with us, but so much happens within that 25-30 hour window from when we first smell and ingest a food to its excretion from the body. Most people are aware that WHAT we eat is very important to our well-being, but it is our ability to properly digest and absorb the food we eat which is often overlooked. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract, or tube that runs from our mouth to large intestine, is lined with mucus and trillions of microorganisms (a.k.a microbes) that thrive and metabolize the foods we eat. The majority of these reside in our large intestine or colon. We now know that a strong link exists between the microbes (bacteria being a type of microbe) that inhabit our gut and our risk for disease. This is why gut health is such a hot topic.
Your Gut is Your First Line of Defense
Have you ever considered the fact that the contents of the gut are technically outside the body? The gut is a hollow tube that passes from the mouth to the anus. Anything that goes in the mouth and isn’t digested will pass right out the other end. This is, in fact, one of the most important functions of the gut: to prevent foreign substances from entering the body.
When the intestinal barrier becomes permeable (i.e. “leaky gut syndrome”), large protein molecules escape into the bloodstream. Since these proteins don’t belong outside of the gut, the body mounts an immune response and attacks them. Studies show that these attacks play a role in the development of autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s and type 1 diabetes, among others.
While leaky gut and bad gut flora may manifest as digestive trouble, in many people they do not. Instead they show up as problems as diverse as heart failure, depression, brain fog, eczema/psoriasis and other skin conditions, metabolic problems like obesity and diabetes, allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune diseases.
To adequately address these conditions, you must rebuild healthy gut flora and restore the integrity of your intestinal barrier.
What can negatively affect gut health?
There are a number of diet and lifestyle-related factors which can negatively impact the health of your gut. For example:
- poor diet, alcohol and having a high fat intake
- someone with food intolerances
- being highly stressed all the time impacts cortisol levels
- some medications
The Gut-Brain Connection
Now, the gut-brain connection is also entering the picture in a bigger way. Turns out your gut’s got its very own nervous system, called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), and it’s so influential it’s often referred to as “the second brain.” The ENS’ main job is to regulate digestion, but it also sends up regular signals to the brain via the vagus nerve.
Think of the vagus nerve as a busy two-lane highway. Traffic is moving in both directions, but it’s much heavier headed north, to the brain. Who’s directing that flow of traffic? Your microbes, of course.
How That Connection Affects Your Health
Here’s where things get interesting. Since your microbes are sending so many signals to your brain, if your gut health is out of whack, they may send up some wacky signals that influence your moods in negative ways.
Studies have shown changing the makeup of gut microbiota actually changed how mice behaved, affecting anxiety and cognition, for instance. Mice raised without beneficial microbes also have been shown to be less capable of managing stress.
Another example: 90 percent of the neurotransmitter serotonin is made in the gut, and research has shown microbes play a critical role in its production. So if yours are not doing their job well, your body could end up with inadequate serotonin. That’s a problem since it regulates sleep, appetite, mood, and more.
Taking daily probiotics can help prevent or manage depression but unfortunately most of the residents of your microbiome settle in within the first three years of your life, so it’s tough to change them (you can only change how they act).
But doing what you can to maintain a healthy gut is a step in the right direction towards balanced moods and happiness over anxiety. Eating as many fibrous veggies as possible is key (microbes feast on the prebiotic fiber), fermented foods are great for your gut, and taking a high-quality probiotic is a good strategy either way, since it can also benefit your digestive and immune systems.