With our ever-increasing emphasis on health and wellbeing, no doubt you hear more and more about the importance of gut health. But what does that really mean? Like most buzz words, the phrase gets thrown around without significant meaning or background. Here, we'll explain what your gut and microbiome are and why their health is so vital to your overall health. We will also discuss how to improve its health through diet and supplements.
Related: 5-R Protocol for Digestive Health
What is Your Gut?
Your gut consists of several organs in the center of your body. These are the organs that remove waste and take in essential energy and nutrients from your foods. We generally refer to the gastrointestinal (GI) system as the gut. It begins at your mouth, includes your esophagus, and follows right through to your anus. Your gut makes up a large portion of your body. So, it makes sense that its health is key to your overall health and wellbeing.
What is Microbiome?
Microbiomes are the micro-organisms or 'bugs' that populate your gut. Their population consists of bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses. Ideally, these all live together peacefully, helping with the smooth operation of your body and its functions. In fact, each person has their own combination of the microbiome that's unique and likely determined by your DNA, environmental exposure, and diet.
The condition of your gut microbiome determines your gut health.
Why Gut Health is Important
Your body's wellbeing depends on the health of your gut. This isn't a hyperbolic statement. The trillions of microbiome must survive in a delicate balance of 'good' and 'bad' bacteria. Too many of one type and not enough of the other can cause issues with your immune system, digestion, and even sleep.
Here are other reasons for the importance of gut health:
Your Immune Health
A massive 70% of your immune system is contained in your gut. So, when your gut health is compromised, so is your immune response. Usually, an unhealthy gut means too much of harmful bacteria and not enough of the beneficial kind. It can make your immune system to attack your own body. This can cause autoimmune conditions to develop, which can lead to disease. Poor gut health is linked to diseases like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn's disease, bloating, and ulcerative colitis.
Your Digestive Health
Not only does your gut include your esophagus, stomach, and intestines, it also contains organs like your liver, pancreas, and others. The digestion process begins in the mouth as you chew your food and ends when you discharge the waste from the back passage (anus). When your gut is unhealthy, you may suffer from:
- Anal fissures
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Your Mental Health
Your gut health is closely related to your mental health. This is because your gut produces essential neurotransmitters that regulate many of your moods, as well as other chemicals that affect brain function. For instance, serotonin is made in the gut and regulates your internal clock and how happy you feel. When your gut doesn't produce enough of these essential neurotransmitters, you can become anxious and depressed.
One large study of 1,500 people showed that gut health was linked to heart health. The study found that the gut microbiome promoted HDL cholesterol (the good one) and triglycerides.
Some unhealthy microbiome species may contribute to heart disease by producing trimethylamine N-Oxide (TMAO). TMAO is partially responsible for blocking arteries, which will lead to heart attack or stroke.
Microbiome Diversity and Health
Not only do you need the right balance of 'good' and 'bad' microbiome, but there also must be a diverse bacterial population. There is a connection between reduced bacterial diversity and disease. Lower bacterial diversity has been observed in people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, coeliac disease, arterial stiffness, atopic eczema, and psoriatic arthritis. The conclusion drawn is that your gut requires a species-rich environment to be healthy and fully functional.
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Ways to Improve Gut Health
Now that you understand how crucial your gut health is to your overall health, here are some ways to improve it.
- Have a diverse diet. Diversity in your foods can lead to diversity in your gut microbiome. A diet rich in fruits, beans, and legumes contains enough fiber to promote the growth of good bacteria - bifidobacteria.
- Limit your consumption of artificial sweeteners because they can increase your blood sugar by causing the growth of unhealthy bacteria like Enterobacteriaceae.
- Eat plenty of fermented foods. Foods like sauerkraut, kefir, and yogurt have good bacteria like Lactobacilli.
- Consume prebiotic foods. These are a type of fiber that promotes the growth of healthy bacteria. Prebiotic foods include bananas, artichokes, asparagus, apples, and oats.
- Eat whole grains. These contain loads of fiber and good carbohydrates, which help protect you from cancer, diabetes, and to maintain a healthy weight.
- Breastfeed your baby for at least six months. Children who have been breastfed for this amount of time have more good bacteria (Bifidobacteria) than those who have been bottle-fed.
- Consider a plant-based diet. This could result in reduced intestinal inflammation and 'bad' cholesterol.
- Eat foods with polyphenols. This plant compound is found in green tea, red wine, dark chocolate, whole grains, and olive oil. They promote the growth of healthy bacterial growth.
- Take antibiotics only if they are medically necessary. They kill your gut microbiome's good and bad bacteria, causing deficiencies.
- Take a probiotic supplement. These are live bacteria that will 'reseed' your gut with healthy microbes.
Your gut health depends on a population of trillions of microbiome of varying species working in harmony. Not only is your digestive health connected to your gut, but so is your mental wellbeing, immune response, and brain and heart health. With a healthy diet, you can protect the balance of these micro-organisms and enjoy a well-functioning body.
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