Our digestive system is a vital and complex part of the body that serves as a sophisticated boundary between us and the outside world. It is quite easy to underestimate the functions of the digestive system and owe it all to up to breaking down food, processing it to calories and passing out the waste.
However, the truth is that the gut has a much more far-reaching effect for the health of the whole body, so much that Greek philosopher, Hippocrates declared about 2000 years ago that “all disease begins in the gut”.
So what is the link between our gut and our whole health? What are the signs that show our gut health is off? And what foods should we eat or avoid to promote its health? Let’s find out.
What Is the Gut?
The gut is like an ecosystem composed of a host of microbes (millions of bacteria) that collectively contains 100 times more genes than you’ve got.
You shouldn’t see this as a bad thing as we need these bacteria because it plays a very important role in our health and metabolism. The bacteria in the gut microbiome support the immune system, helps digestion, influence mood and brain function, and help to make essential vitamins like Vitamin K, B12, and folate.
Of course, there are good and there are bad bacteria, we just have to focus on getting the good ones like Bificiobacteria and get rid of the harmful ones. When too much of the bad bacteria runs the factory, then problems arise.
What Happens When your Gut Health is out of Whack?
Different facets of our modern life such as being super stressed at work can make us give in to processed and high-sugar food. Then when poor sleep quality is thrown into the mix, we’ve got the perfect recipe for damaging the gut microbiome.
We all have this miraculous body by default that gives us a heads up when it requires a tune-up. And our gut is no different. Remember the popular expression “that gut feeling”? Yeah, this is where it stems from.
If you've been thinking a stomach upset is the only package that comes with bad gut health, then its time you know you’re wrong. Here are some of the most common signs that show our gut is out of whack.
- Digestive distress (cramps, constipation, diarrhoea, bowel difficulty, heartburn, gas, bloating, abdominal pain)
- Change in mood (depression, anxiety)
- Frequent illness
- Poor sleep
- Joint pains
- Unintentional weight changes
- Skin irritation (eczema, hives, rashes, rosacea, dermatitis, psoriasis, fungal infection)
- Hormone imbalance (adrenal, progesterone/estrogen disorders)
- Autoimmune issues
- Food allergies
- Neurological disorders (Alzheimer’s disease, brain fog, dementia)
Importance of A Healthy Gut
1. A Healthy Gut Protects the Immune System against Infection
Do you know how much of our immune system resides in the gut? Approximately 70% of it.
When you think of how high this number is, it only makes sense to agree that an unhealthy gut leads to a weak immune system. Most often than not, a weak immune system can be traced to what’s going on in the gut.
With a healthy gut, the digestive tract can ward off infections.
This is achieved by the complementing functions performed by the gut microbiome and healthy intestine. Healthy intestinal cells create a barrier that keeps dangerous bacteria off the intestinal walls. It also gets rid of dangerous bacteria by making the terrain as inhabitable as possible by taking in the nutrients they require for survival, secreting acidic content into the intestine that’d naturally them kill off and stimulating the production of natural antibiotics by the intestinal wall.
Also, a healthy gut microbiome increases the number and ability of the white blood cells. In addition to having an increased number of deadly white blood cells for intruders surveillance, a healthy gut also boosts the ability of the white blood cell to enable them recognize a dangerous virus or bacteria.
2. Gut Health Has an Impact on Brain Health and Mood
Do you know that our gut is connected to the brain via a network of chemicals, neurons, and hormones? This connection means that the gut can influence neurological conditions and mental health disorders like anxiety and depression negatively or positively.
Science has yet to pinpoint the exact mechanism involved in the mental health/gut health connection. A popular theory is that healthy gut microbes produce short-chain fatty acids (they act as a trigger to the parasympathetic nervous system) which transmits signals to the brain that improves mood and cognition.
Also, 90% of Serotonin – the feel-good hormone – is produced in the gut, and when the guts are healthy, they can influence the amount of these chemical messengers in the brain to modulate mood.
3. A Healthy Gut Supports Nutrient Absorption
Contrary to the popular notion that our food intake determines the nutrient level of the body, new evidence has shown that gut health determines efficient nutrient absorption from foods. Findings from multiple studies examining the gut microbiota show they play a vital role in how well we absorb nutrients from our food, and the available nutrient in the body.
Researchers have shown that nutrient deficiencies can be prevented by a healthy gut. This can be achieved when it produces vitamins like B-vitamins and Vitamin K into the intestine for absorption, and generate fuel required for full nutrient absorption for the cells lining the intestine.
Also, multiple studies show that gut bacteria can break down hard-to-digest components of food like dietary fiber into smaller molecules that can be used for fuel.
4. A Healthy Gut Health Can Help Reduce Inflammatory Response
Inflammation is our body’s first line of action in response to a substance in the blood. For example, when you have excess sugar or cholesterol in your body, the immune cells see it as an invasion and produce infection-fighting chemicals into the blood. Unfortunately, over time, unregulated chemical release can damage healthy cells and lead to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Growing evidence shows that a healthy gut can help prevent these systematic inflammations. This is achieved when some sugar complexes produced by the good bacteria in the gut activates the Treg white blood cells, which calms the immune system.
5. A Healthy Gut Can Influence the Risk Factors for Heart Disease
Studies have shown that a healthy gut can reduce some of the risk factors for developing heart diseases. This can be achieved because:
1. It can absorb as little cholesterol as possible from our diet, herby cutting down the risks of elevated cholesterol levels that cause heart disease
2. It prevents chronic inflammation, which promotes cardiovascular diseases
3. It produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that influence blood pressure-regulating receptors in the blood.
Foods That Promote Gut Health
- High fiber foods – leeks, beans legumes, oats
- Fermented foods – kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt, kimono, temper
- Collagen-boosting foods – mushroom, salmon, bone broth
- Vegetables – broccoli, asparagus, dandelion greens
- Fruits – apple, banana, berries
- Ginger, garlic, onions.
Foods to Avoid
- Artificial sweeteners
- Refined sugar
- High-fat foods
- Processed food