Do you suffer from a gastrointestinal (GI) issue – or what we’ll call a gut health issue? If so, then you may not be alone. It is estimated that as many as 10-15 percent of U.S. adults suffers from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), although only about half of them have been diagnosed. IBS can affect people of all ages, including children. Bloating, gas, weight changes, diarrhea, and constipation are some of the most common signs and symptoms of IBS. Sound familiar? What you might not know is that your gut health can be related to numerous health issues that are seemingly unrelated – skin conditions, for example. As many as 35 million U.S. adults and children are living with a gut-health related skin issue, such as eczema, itchiness, red patches, or dry skin. Your gut health also plays a role in your sleep quality, sleep quantity, and the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep – something two-thirds of Americans can relate to. Do you suffer from constant fatigue or mood changes? That too can be explained by your gut health.
So, what is gut health?
Your GI tract, which encompasses your full digestive system, is a long tube that extends from your mouth to your anus, which would actually span three stories in height if it were straightened out. Because it is exposed to the environment on both ends, your gut interfaces between your internal system and the outside world.
Your GI tract is constantly busy. Every time you eat or drink (even a single morsel), you stimulate a series of muscle contractions, chemical reactions, hormones, and secretions that operate in cooperation to move food particles through your GI tract. The primary function of your GI tract is to digest, absorb, and metabolize the nutrients from your diet that your body requires, and then excrete the waste. But it has many other jobs.
As the saying goes, “You are what you eat and don’t excrete!”
When used as a slang term, the word “gut” usually refers to your stomach or belly. In the medical community, however, “gut health” refers to the whole gastrointestinal system – including the complex and diverse population of organisms that reside inside it.
Research suggests the average human has more than 30 trillion cells and 40 trillion bacteria, most of which reside in their GI tract.
Your gut is home to a dynamic population of trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, which collectively are known as the gut’s microbiota – all of the microbes living in the GI tract. Included in your gut bacteria are beneficial bacteria, sometimes referred to as “good” or “friendly” bacteria. On the flipside, there are potentially pathogenic or “bad” bacteria. The goal is to maintain a balance that has more good bacteria than bad bacteria.
Humans all share about one-third of the same gut microbes, which partially comes from our genetics. But about two-thirds of your microbiota is specific to you as an individual. Your gut’s microbiota continuously evolves throughout your life, mostly because everything you come in contact with will influence its balance and health.
What influences gut health?
In addition to helping to maintain regular digestion, healthy skin, and regular sleep, the gut plays a role in almost everything that makes you, you. Because it has such a deep connection with the brain, gut health also plays a significant role in your mental health. Memory, functioning speed, mood, and your anxiety and depression levels can all be influenced by the signals your gut gives to the rest of your body.1
Having issues with your weight? Weight gain or the inability to lose weight can be a result of a bacterial imbalance. Either the right bacteria aren’t present or they are insufficient in numbers, which can affect your metabolism – or there are too many of the wrong bacteria. The same holds true for the way you digest and metabolize carbohydrates. An imbalanced gut microbiota can make you more susceptible to insulin resistance, diabetes, or other metabolic disorders.2
Even the most common chronic conditions – like arthritis or lung conditions like asthma – can be linked to less than optimal gut health.3 The gut’s lining is crucial to keeping your immune system intact, and it has a direct link with your lungs. When there are leaks or a weakening of the gut’s lining (called leaky gut), the body’s immune response can initiate a cascade of adverse events everywhere in your body, eventually resulting in food allergies.
The environment around you plays a huge role in your gut health. Do you live in a city with lots of people, smog, and emissions? How about working inside a clean room, or at a hospital, or around kids, or outside? Do you have a pet or go to the gym? Microbes in the air, water, and on your skin can easily make their way into your body and change the way your GI tract operates.
Throughout life, the foods and liquids you consume can have an impact on your gut microbiota in as little as one day. Foods like processed meats, high-sugar treats, and alcoholic beverages can cause inflammation in the gut, which contributes to leaky gut. Even more so, foods you have intolerances or allergies to, like dairy or gluten, not only can cause gut inflammation, but they can be more easily absorbed into the bloodstream when inflammation and gut leakiness occur – setting up a vicious cycle. In addition, leakiness in the gut can result in bacteria from the GI tract entering the bloodstream. Inflammatory markers released by the brain’s ability to sense these irritations happening in the gut can also enter your circulation. This gut-brain connection can directly influence the brain’s functions relating to memory, mood, emotions, and sleep.
Mental or emotional stress, prescription medications, and exercise also help shape the diversity of our gut microbiota. Antibiotics – which are designed to kill all bacteria – are unable to differentiate between the “good” and “bad” bacteria in your gut, thus destroying all bacteria in the antibiotic’s path, which is good for fighting infection, but not so good for maintaining a healthy gut microbiota.
Moderate daily exercise can help maintain a good bacterial balance in your gut, although both sedentary and extreme exercise behaviors can be detrimental to this effort.
What to do?
We all need a well-balanced gut microbiota for daily physical functioning – for metabolism, digestion, and immune function. How can you obtain and keep a healthy gut? Start with your daily diet.
Try a high-fiber diet
One way to reduce inflammation in the gut is to start with what you put in it. A diet including high-fiber foods or fiber supplements help move food through your GI tract so bad bacteria doesn’t build up or sit for too long in one segment of your gut. Try to consume at least 25 grams of fiber every day.
Skip foods that increase gut inflammation
If you know you are allergic to a certain food or group of foods, then avoid them because they are likely to cause gut inflammation. Eat plenty of leafy green vegetables and mixed berries – both perfect choices for a low-inflammation diet. Olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish like tuna and salmon provide healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, which are helpful in managing inflammation. Prepare your foods with spices that help quell inflammation, like turmeric, ginger, or garlic.
Maintain a healthy gut lining
The lining of your gut is called the intestinal lumen. It regulates the absorption of nutrients, bacteria, and water from your GI tract to the rest of your body. This lining can be damaged on a daily basis, but it can repair itself with the help of dietary glutamine – an amino acid that helps maintain GI tract integrity. Dietary sources of glutamine include meat, dairy, eggs, legumes, and cabbage. That’s why cabbage juice is an old naturopathic treatment for healing stomach ulcers.
Support your beneficial gut bacteriaProbiotic supplements or fermented foods that naturally contain beneficial bacteria have been shown to support a balanced inflammatory response in the gut.* When you are prescribed an antibiotic, remember you need to take a probiotic supplement to help maintain the “good” to “bad” bacterial balance in your gut. Food sources of beneficial bacteria include kefir, yogurt, pickled vegetables, and kimchi.
- Clapp M, Aurora N, Herrera L, et al. Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis. Clin Pract 2017 Sept 15;7(4):987. doi: 10.4081/cp.2017.987
- Caricilli A, Saad M. The role of gut microbiota on insulin resistance. Nutrients 2013;5(3):829-851.
- Shukla S, Budden K, Neal R, Hansbro P. Microbiome effects on immunity, health and disease in the lung. Clin Transl Immunology 2017 Mar 10;6(3):e133. doi: 10.1038/cti.2017.6.Morey J, Boggero I, Scott A, Segerstrom S. Current directions in stress and human immune function. Curr Opin Psychol 2015;5:13-17.