What is gut health and why is everyone talking about it?
Digesting our food is only one function of the gut. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Is that why everyone is talking about gut health?
What is the gut?
The gut is the entire gastrointestinal or digestive system. It’s the whole pathway from the mouth to the anus including everything in between. The gut works in cooperation with the liver, gallbladder and pancreas. Everything we eat passes through this complex system, is expertly broken down and exits the body as poop.
The brain and gut connection
The brain is in constant communication with our gut. Do you recognise when you feel hungry and know exactly what you fancy to eat? Or have you ever felt nervous and had to dash to the bathroom? These are just two ways the brain and gut communicate with each other. The two-way communication occurs through the bloodstream, the immune system and the vagus nerve. This connection is called the gut-brain axis GBA. When this communication is impaired our mental and physical health are affected.
What affects gut health?
The health of our gut has a major impact on our overall health. The gut itself has a very important role in keeping our body and mind in tip top condition. Our gut health is affected by our diet. It is also affected by our lifestyle. Smoking, for example, can negatively impact our gut health and damage our wellbeing. Our gut contains trillions of microbes. Around 90% of these are bacteria. Together these make up the microbiome.
The health of our gut can be affected by many things:
- Poor diet
- Low exercise levels
- Taking antibiotics
- Bad sleeping habits
- Tobacco use
What is the microbiome?
The gut microbiome is an important part of the communication system between the gut and the brain. The gut microbiome is the colony of trillions of microorganisms that live in our gut. Sounds lovely, right? These microbes have the important job of ‘talking’ to our brain. They have some pretty important jobs to do. These jobs include absorbing nutrients, protecting us from ingested pathogens and supporting our immune system.
Types of good gut bacteria:
Lactobacillus - over 100 different types, boosts the immune system, good for allergies, digests dairy products.
Bifidobacterium - around 30 different types, keep the colon pH acidic, prevents growth of unwanted microorganisms, reduces inflammation.
Streptococcus thermophilus - a powerful strain of lactic acid bacteria, used to produce cheese, has antibiotic qualities.
Why should you look after your gut?
If you are suffering from poor gut health it impacts our health in a number of ways. It can affect our emotional states as well as our physical health. When we eat a lot of fast food, or get a bit too carried away with the snacks, it leaves us feeling sluggish and full. If we have a light and nutritious meal it leaves us feeling energised. The effects of what we eat can be felt immediately. We are what we eat after all.
Some signs of an unhealthy gut are:
- Constipation and/or diarrhoea
- Bloating and gas after eating
- Difficulties sleeping
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Finishing a course of antibiotics
- Depression or low mood
- Low immune system
How can I look after my gut?
Having good gut health means the entire digestive system is working most effectively. There are no signs of discomfort and you feel healthy. Here are some ways to keep your gut microbiome in great condition:
Keep your bacteria happy
Your diet is a major influence on the health of our gut. This means eating a range of different foods rather than having chips with everything. It means upping the amount of fruits and vegetables we consume. Try to avoid sugary foods and ones that are overly processed. These can lead to inflammation. Aim to eat fibre from whole grains and different types of beans. And not just the tinned baked beans variety.
Sleep is an all-round cure-all. Getting adequate sleep gives our digestive system enough time to rejuvenate. It can work on eliminating waste rather than digesting food. When we don’t get enough sleep, we don’t just feel tired, we can suffer from bloating and gas too. Sleep is really beneficial for a lot of health issues. So making it a priority is essential for our wellbeing.
During stress, our bodies are unable to absorb the nutrients we need. This is because our gut bacteria are negatively affected. When stress is long-term, the diversity in the gut is lowered. This can lead to poor immunity as well as other digestive issues. Stress has a lot to answer for! When we are feeling stressed, we can also turn to comfort eating. An over-reliance on junk food to get us through the day leads to poor gut health. We need to start managing stress more effectively. Some great ideas are gentle exercise such as yoga or walking. And don’t eat mindlessly. Eat when you are hungry and take the time to really enjoy your food.
We’ve probably all heard of probiotics thanks to the famous yoghurt drink. They are live microorganisms that boost the healthy bacteria in your gut. You can take probiotics easily as a supplement. Some foods contain probiotics. Fermented foods such as tempeh, unpasteurised sauerkraut and miso are rich in probiotics. Research has found these are good for increased brain activity.
Prebiotics are different from probiotics. They act as a food for the healthy bacteria in your gut. Like a microbiome fertiliser. Prebiotics are found in oats, garlic, onions and bananas. So when you eat these foods, you know you are keeping your gut happy. Apples are another great source and you know what they say about an apple a day…
Smoking causes the bacteria in our gut to become unbalanced. It inhibits the effectiveness of the membrane of the intestinal wall. This is a key part of our immune system. It protects us from toxins and bad bacteria. So any damage has a negative effect on our health. We know that quitting nicotine isn’t easy, but there are so many ways to support kicking the habit. And it’s guaranteed to boost your health and keep your microbiome happy.
Why is everyone talking about gut health?
With an estimated 10-20% of Americans suffering from chronic gastrointestinal conditions, it’s time to take action to improve gut health. The gut-brain axis (GBA) is a cutting-edge area of research. We are constantly learning more about the huge role it plays in our health. Scientists are studying how it impacts on physical conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome as well as psychological conditions such as depression.
Lots of experts refer to the gut as the ‘second brain’. So looking after it properly keeps our gut-brain connection strong and healthy. The more we learn about our digestive system, the more we can take action to improve our health and wellbeing. We can all start taking steps towards a happy gut. Interestingly, having varied gut bacteria might also help us live longer.