As we know, the health of our gut is extremely important for good digestion. However, not all of us are aware of the impact that poor gut-health has on every system in our body. Keeping our gut in tip-top condition will not only improve digestive function, but it will do wonders for physically and mentally boosting the health and wellbeing of the entire body.
The gut, or gastrointestinal system, is made up of vital digestive organs that are responsible for many essential tasks. The gut breaks down food, absorbs nutrients to provide energy, builds, repairs, and nourishes the body. It plays the important role of removing waste and toxins, and it’s the body’s first line of defense against harmful bacteria and pathogens. A large percentage of our neurotransmitters and immune cells are also produced in the gut.
It’s no wonder a healthy gut is said to be the foundation of good health and disease prevention!
Our digestive tract is home to around 100 trillion microbes. This includes bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms, which are collectively known as our gut microbiome or microbiota. Gut microbiota is commonly classified as either beneficial (good) or pathogenic (bad). We need a healthy balance of these good and bad microbiota in our gut to fight disease and promote good health.
Colonization of our digestive tract begins at birth when a baby passes through the birth canal and is exposed to their mother’s vaginal microbes. This early gut colonization is extremely important as it helps form the composition of our adult microbiome.
Your gut microbiome can be affected in a number of ways. If a baby is born via caesarean, is formula-fed or given antibiotics early in life, this will alter their gut microbiome. Physical and psychological stress, poor diet, excessive alcohol consumption, tap water (fluorinated and chlorinated), and certain medications (antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, contraceptive pill) can all negatively affect the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut. This creates an environment for pathogenic bacteria like candida to flourish. Dysbiosis is when your bad bacteria outweigh the good. Common symptoms of dysbiosis include digestive complaints like excess flatulence, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, candida, and urinary tract infections. Dysbiosis is also linked to leaky gut, behavioural and mood changes, skin issues, and an increased susceptibility to infections, allergies and inflammatory disorders. Having an unbalanced gut microbiome can also leave you more vulnerable to developing autoimmune diseases.
“All disease begins in the gut.” – Hippocrates
Research has shown that gut microbiota plays a fundamental role in the development of diseases such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. (1,2) Having the right balance of gut microbiota can also influence our tendency to store and burn fat, which can help reduce the risk of obesity. (3)
Scientists have also found a link between gut microbiota and the development of inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and atopic allergies (eczema, asthma, hay fever, and type 1 food allergies). (4)
Reduced exposure to microbiota and poor composition of gut bacteria is thought to be a major contributing factor to the increase in global atopic allergies over the past 50 years. (5) Exposure to microbiota early in life is associated with allergy prevention. It’s believed gut microbiota can stimulate the immune system and train it to react proportionately to antigens (toxins or foreign substances that induce an immune response).
Researchers have also found that a person’s gut microbiome can have an influence on their response to foods and their likelihood of developing autoimmune diseases like celiac disease (CD). People with Celiac disease have more of the potentially pathogenic bacteria and lower numbers of beneficial bacteria in the gut compared to those without the disease. Certain harmful bacteria in the gut can activate immune cells to produce inflammation, which can damage the intestinal lining and produce symptoms associated with CD.
Gut microbiota also has the important job of producing vitamin K2 and B12. Vitamin K2 is required for bone health and healthy blood clotting, and B12 is needed for energy production, red blood cell formation, and nerve cell formation. Our gut microbiota can also synthesize essential and non-essential amino acids which are the building blocks of the body.
Not only is our gut connected to our immune system, but it also greatly impacts the functioning of our brain and our emotional state. Because of this, our gut is often referred to as our ‘second brain.’
Our gastrointestinal and immune systems are intrinsically linked. Around 70-80% of our immune cells lie within the digestive tract. This makes the gut one of the main disease-fighting systems in our body.
The lining of the gut wall, or gut mucosa, is our body’s first line of defence against pathogenic invaders. A large percentage of bacteria and viruses enter the body via the digestive tract, so maintaining a healthy gut mucosa and balanced gut microbiome is one of the best ways to prevent illness and infections.
Gastrointestinal immune cells come from the lymphoid branch of the immune system and secrete lymphatic cells that attack harmful invaders. These lymphatic cells form bundles called ‘Peyer’s patches’ that protect the lining of the small intestine from rogue antigens and allergy-causing substances by releasing white blood cells (T-cells, B-cells, and Natural Killer Cells). Gut microbiota also helps by enhancing the effectiveness of these white blood cells and by boosting digestive immune cells’ defense of the intestinal mucosa. A healthy balance of beneficial gut microbiota is essential for the immune system to properly do its job.
The gut mucosa (intestinal lining) is a protective barrier that goes from your mouth all the way down to your anus. Maintaining a healthy gut mucosa is vital for good health and disease prevention. Leaky gut or gut permeability is when the intestinal lining becomes inflamed and small gaps appear. This allows larger protein molecules to enter the body. Thinking it’s an invader, the immune system is then triggered, and an immune response is activated. This is believed to be one of the primary culprits in the development of autoimmune diseases. Food intolerances are a common first sign of leaky gut. Long term antibiotic and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory use are common contributors to leaky gut as they cause damage to the gut mucosa and impact the diversity of the gut microbiome.
Zinc is essential for healthy immune function and it has an anti-inflammatory action. Zinc supplementation has been found to help improve gut permeability and improve gut barrier function in patients with the chronic inflammatory bowel condition, Crohn’s disease. (8) The best sources of zinc include red meat, chicken, seafood, eggs, dairy, legumes, nuts, and wholegrains.
We have two different types of nervous systems in our body: the central nervous system, found in our brain and spinal cord, and the enteric nervous system, which is found in our gut. The two systems are connected via the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the abdomen. This is known as the gut-brain axis. The enteric nervous system is made up of nerve cells that line the entire gastrointestinal tract. This controls our digestion, allowing the gut and brain to communicate back and forth.
Just like in our brain, our gut also contains neurons that produce neurotransmitters. Most of our brain chemicals, including serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and norepinephrine, are actually produced in the gut. In fact, 90% of our serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for happy feelings, is made in the gut. Maintaining a healthy gut will not only make you feel healthier, but it can make you happier, too.
Our gut microbiome can have a huge effect on our mood and behavior. Poor gut health has been associated with a variety of conditions including ADHD, autism, chronic fatigue, OCD, anxiety, and depression.
Beneficial fats found in oily sh, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, and raw nuts and seeds (including their oils, tahini and nut butters), are all anti-inflammatory foods that can help soothe an inflamed intestinal tract.
10 Top Ways to Awesome Gut-Health
Probiotics are foods and supplements containing live bacteria that help boost our good gut microbiota. Probiotics are found in fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir, miso, kavass, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, and other fermented veggies. Fermentation also increases the bioavailability and digestibility of nutrients in foods. Taking a good-quality daily multi-strain probiotic supplement is also recommended to help maintain a healthy gut microbiome balance. This is particularly important after antibiotic therapy. Antibiotics kill-off the bad bacteria in the gut but unfortunately, they kill-off all the good bacteria, too.
Our beneficial gut microbiota need certain foods to ensure they survive and thrive in the digestive tract. Prebiotics are foods that feed our beneficial gut bacteria to help them grow and flourish. Prebiotics are found in fiber-rich foods such as green bananas, onions, garlic, soybeans, Jerusalem artichokes, flaxseeds, as well as in whole grains like whole oats and barley.
Including enough fiber in the diet is of utmost importance for maintaining a healthy gut. Fiber is a type of indigestible carbohydrate derived from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Fiber passes undigested into the bowel where it’s broken down and fermented by gut bacteria. This produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), namely butyrate and acetate. These SCFA are the main energy source for intestinal cells, acting as a prebiotic to help stimulate the growth of beneficial gut microbiota. SCFA also have an anti-inflammatory effect, influencing blood-flow to the gut-wall and the secretion of gut hormones. (6,7)
For optimal gut health, you should include a variety of fiber-rich sources in your daily diet such as brown rice, whole oats, quinoa, chia, flaxseeds, legumes, sweet potato, corn, raw nuts, as well as a variety of fruits and veggies.
One simple way to greatly improve your digestion and overall health is to add bitter foods or herbs to your diet. Bitters aid digestion by stimulating stomach acid production to help you better digest and absorb nutrients from foods. The bitter taste on your tongue sends a signal to your stomach to get ready for food. Some bitter foods that can be easily added to the diet include lemon juice, grapefruit, apple cider vinegar, and bitter lettuce (endives, rocket, kale, mustard greens, and dandelion greens). Fresh lemon in water first thing in the morning is a great way to kick-start your digestion for the day. Having one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a little water 15 minutes before a meal can also help improve digestion, reducing flatulence and bloating. Herbal medicines gentian, globe artichoke, and dandelion root are often prescribed as herbal tinctures to help stimulate digestion.
Bone broths made from chicken, beef, lamb, or fish bones contain collagen that help soothe, nourish, and repair the gut lining. Bone broths are easy to digest and are a popular healing food for anyone with a leaky gut. You can easily make bone broths at home. Use bone broths as a nourishing base for soups or stews, or as a healing warm drink.
Healing Herbal Teas:
Chamomile, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, and liquorice are all excellent anti-inflammatory botanicals that can be enjoyed as a tea to help reduce inflammation and promote healing of the gut-lining.
Green tea is another good choice as it has anti-inflammatory properties and contains high levels of polyphenols. Polyphenols are antioxidant compounds found in tea, berries, grapes, and cacao that are broken down by gut bacteria and help to reduce the risk of chronic diseases including cancer.
Calmative herbs such as peppermint, aniseed, cinnamon, fennel, ginger and chamomile have traditionally been used by herbalists to alleviate digestive complaints such as excess flatulence and bloating. Slippery elm, aloe vera, and marshmallow are also lovely soothing herbs that are used to heal the gut mucosa.
Glutamine is an amino acid that is the primary fuel source for the cells that line the gut. It helps repair and strengthen the gut mucosa by tightening up the openings in the gut wall. This prevents large, undigested food particles and toxins from entering the blood stream. Glutamine also helps soothe the gut by suppressing inflammation. Supplementation is recommended for anyone with a leaky gut, Celiac disease, or any type of inflammatory bowel condition.
There are a number of important vitamins and minerals that the body needs to maintain a healthy gut. Vitamin A is essential for maintaining and restoring the gut mucosa. This important vitamin is also an immune enhancer and anti-inflammatory nutrient. Good sources of vitamin A include cod liver oil and eggs. High levels of beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body, can be found in leafy green veggies, as well as orange and yellow fruits and vegetables.
Zinc is another top gut-healing nutrient. Zinc is needed to make digestive enzymes and it helps produce the active form of vitamin A. Zinc is essential for healthy immune function and it has an anti-inflammatory action. Zinc supplementation has been found to help improve gut permeability and improve gut barrier function in patients with the chronic inflammatory bowel condition, Crohn’s disease. (8) The best sources of zinc include red meat, chicken, seafood, eggs, dairy, legumes, nuts, and wholegrains.
B vitamins are also important for good digestive function and are essential for producing stomach acids. A deficiency can lead to reduced gastric juices and impaired appetite and digestion. You will find B vitamins in red meat, fish, chicken, eggs, dairy products, brown rice, legumes, seaweed, and dark-green, leafy vegetables.
Quercetin is a flavonoid known for its powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-allergy effects. Quercetin can help heal and restore gut barrier function as it reduces inflammation of the intestinal lining, as well as seals openings or tight junctions in the gut wall. (9) Quercetin supplementation is recommended for anyone with a leaky gut. Good sources of quercetin include black grapes, raspberries, broccoli, kale, onions, and apples.
You should always sit down to eat when you’re feeling calm and relaxed. If you’re stressed and eating on-the-go, your digestion will slow down. This can result in digestive complaints like bloating, flatulence, and indigestion. Eating slowly and thinking about what you’re putting in your mouth will not only help improve the digestion of your meal, but you will be more in-tune with your body’s satiety signals. This will make you less likely to overeat. An often overlooked but critical part of healthy digestion is the importance of properly chewing your food. Digestion actually starts in your mouth. The act of chewing physically breaks down food and mixes it with saliva, which begins the process of carbohydrate digestion. Chewing also signals your digestive tract to prepare for food.
A properly functioning gut is something that most people take for granted in their daily lives. It’s only when we begin to experience the side effects of poor gut-health that we pay attention and search for help. While there are many reasons we can experience diminished gut function, it’s clear that there are also many things we can do to help our gut and improve our health. Yes, we really can have fabulous gut-health!
♦ This article was originally published in Issue 21 of Face the Current Magazine, featured on pages 112-117. Order a print copy or subscribe to print at our SHOP.
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