What Is Gut Health?
Gut health describes the function and balance of bacteria in the many parts of the gastrointestinal tract. It is the balance of microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. The human gut contains tens of trillions of bacteria and other microbes, collectively known as the gut microbiota
The microbiome consists of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Every person’s microbiome is unique, but it tends to fall into one of three categories: Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, or Actinobacteria.
Some people have a balanced mixture of these three types, but others are dominated by one type. For example, overweight people tend to have more Firmicutes bacteria than Bacteroidetes bacteria.
Although some variation within the microbiome is normal, an imbalance can upset your body’s natural processes and lead to various health problems.
Gut health is vital to our wellbeing. These microbes help us digest food and absorb nutrients, aid our immune system, protect against infection and produce vitamins.
Some of these microbes may be beneficial for our health (e.g. Lactobacillus probiotic species), while others may be harmful (e.g. Helicobacter pylori). An imbalance between the beneficial and harmful microbes can lead to a variety of health problems including cancer, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease (e.g. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), and obesity.
The gut has many functions in the body including:
- Digesting food and absorbing nutrients
- Making hormones
- Regulating blood sugar levels
- Controlling cholesterol levels
- Regulate metabolism and weight
- Produce vitamins
- Strengthen immune function
- Protect against pathogens
When this internal balance is upset and harmful bacteria take over, it can lead to the dysfunction of one or more systems in the body. This imbalance is called dysbiosis – which can result from:
- Antibiotic use
- Poor diet (high in sugar and processed foods)
- Chronic stress
Why is it important to focus on your gut health?
You’ve heard it a million times before: your gut is your second brain. But what exactly does that mean? And why is it important to focus on your gut health?
Your gut has a huge influence on your overall health. It affects everything from your immune system and metabolism, to your mood, energy levels, and ability to lose weight. Your gut is home to about 100 trillion bacteria—that’s 10 times more than the number of cells in your body! Research suggests that this complex microbiome plays a role in everything from obesity and allergies, to anxiety and depression. It could even be linked to the development of certain conditions like autism and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s no wonder that studies are showing a direct link between gut health and mental health. Some experts believe that up to 90% of all disease begins in the gut.
Improving your gut health is important for many reasons:
- It keeps you regular.
Your gut regulates the rate at which food moves through your digestive system. This affects how often you poop and whether or not you have diarrhea or constipation. A healthy gut helps food move through your system at the right place. That’s good news because constipation and diarrhea aren’t just uncomfortable — they can cause problems like hemorrhoids and anal fissures.
- It reduces inflammation in the body.
For some people, an unhealthy gut can lead to chronic inflammation throughout the body. Researchers are still learning about this condition, called systemic inflammation, but it appears to be linked to diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and type 2 diabetes.
- It boosts immunity.
Your gut is home to 70 percent of your immune cells. And more than 80 percent of your immune system is located in your digestive tract. So if your immune system isn’t working well, chances are it’s because of a problem with your digestive tract.
- It helps control weight gain and weight loss.
How do I assess my gut health?
Your overall gut health can be influenced by several factors such as stress, sleep, exercise, alcohol consumption, and nutrient deficiencies. The first thing you need to do if you’re concerned about your gut health is to start with a few simple steps:
The best way to assess your gut health is to look at the signs and symptoms of an unhealthy gut. These include:
- Food: What you eat and how you feel after eating can be a great indicator of the health of your digestive system. Cut out processed foods, refined sugars, and high-fructose corn syrup. Eat plenty of vegetables in a diversity of colors, especially the colorful ones which are rich in antioxidants
- Symptoms: when they occur, what they are, and how long they last can also be an important indicator of gut health.
- Lifestyle: stress, exercise, smoking, drinking, and sleep all play a significant role in the health of your gut.
What are some issues that affect my gut health?
Gut health is important for digestion and many other aspects of our overall health. Gut health can be affected by the food we eat, the amount of exercise we get, our stress levels, and the amount of sleep we get.
Problems with gut health can cause digestive issues, including diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and gas. Other problems that affect gut health include:
- Diet (eating too much fat or not enough fiber)
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Eating disorders
- Exposure to toxins
- Medical conditions (celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis)
What can I do to improve my gut health?
Your gut health is affected by factors including diet and exercise.
Eating a balanced diet and cutting out foods that can trigger symptoms like bloating and constipation can help to improve your gut health. If you have a condition such as IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), speak to your GP or healthcare team about how to manage it through your diet.
Doctors can prescribe medicines to help with gut conditions, but these are usually only given after other measures have been tried.
- Dietary fiber comes from plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and pulses (such as beans, peas, and lentils). It’s not produced by the body, so we need to eat fiber from food. You should aim for at least 30g of fiber a day. Fiber helps to keep our bowels healthy by reducing constipation and keeping stools soft. It also helps us feel full for longer, which can help with weight loss.
- Eat fermented foods that promote good bacteria. Some of my favorites include sauerkraut, kombucha, pickles, and kimchi.
- Take supplements that promote good bacteria such as probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are the good bacteria that keep your gut healthy while prebiotics help feeds those good bacteria.
- Reduce stress levels. Stress causes an increase in stomach acidity which affects the mucous lining of the stomach, allowing for increased permeability or “leaky gut” syndrome. It also suppresses our immune system which is dependent on gut health. Deep breathing exercises or meditation can reduce stress levels and improve bowel function.
Overall, a good way to maintain a healthy gut would be to try out different strategies. What works well for someone else might not work out quite as well for you, so don’t get discouraged and try experimenting with things on your own as well. Take it one step at a time, you’ll soon see why gut health is important and how you can take better care of it. Our bodies have evolved to require gut health. There’s no doubt the things we put in our mouths have a profound effect on our digestive system.