While gaining popularity as people become more familiar with the importance of it, gut health has long been one of those subjects that people just haven’t paid attention to. But we can’t over-stress how big of a role the gut plays in health. Everyone knows that the digestive system is critical to sustaining life — if you don’t eat, you don’t live — but recent research has shown that the GI tract does more than just digest and nourish the body.
What is the gut?
We’re starting with this topic because when people hear the word gut, they think about the stomach — which is correct — but gut health spans more than just the stomach; the health of the entire gastrointestinal system is encompassed under the umbrella of gut health.
The human microbiome is composed of trillions of symbiotic microbial cells that live primarily in the gut and maintain not only the health of your GI tract, but the health of your entire body. It is composed of all the microbes — bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses — that live on and inside the body. Gut microbiota modulate the expression of many genes in the human intestinal tract, which includes genes involved in immunity, nutrient absorption, energy metabolism, and intestinal barrier function.
Here are some of the ways the microbiome contributes to your health:
- Protects against pathogens
- Synthesizes vitamins
- Development of the immune system
- Promotes intestinal angiogenesis (formation of new blood vessels)
- Promotes fat storage
- Produces short chain fatty acids (SCFAs)
- Modulates the central nervous system (CNS)
As you can see, having a healthy gut microbiome doesn’t just mean you digest and absorb your food properly, but it means that your body functions as optimally as possible. There is an increasing availability of research showing that many diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and fibromyalgia are all linked to microbiome dysfunction. Disease-causing microbes accumulate over time, which cause changes in gene activity and metabolic processes, resulting in abnormal immune responses against substances and tissues that are normally present in the body.
How do I know if I have an unhealthy gut?
While you may think eating poorly contributes to poor gut health — which is correct — here are some other signs to look out for that signify your gut may not be in optimal condition:
- Autoimmune conditions — Autoimmune conditions are those whereby your body attacks its own cells. Research has shown a link between the gut and the health of the immune system in that intestinal microbiota play a role in metabolism and directing immune system development. Dysbiosis (bacterial imbalance) is also observed in many inflammatory diseases of the GI tract. It’s therefore thought that an unhealthy gut contributes to increased systemic inflammation and changes in the function of the immune system, which can lead to autoimmune disorders.
- Upset stomach — Digestive disturbances like bloating, flatulence, constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn are all signs that your gut may not be in the best shape. A gut that’s healthy and has a healthy balance of bacteria is more capable of processing food and eliminating waste.
- High-sugar diet — A diet that’s high in processed foods and refined sugar tends to feed unhealthy bacteria and can cause dysbiosis. High sugar intake has also been linked to the development of inflammation, which is the precursor to many health conditions.
- Skin irritation — Skin irritations like eczema are essentially the result of an autoimmune condition and are signs of a damaged gut. Inflammation in the gut can be caused by a number of different factors, but namely a poor diet and food allergies or intolerances. This causes proteins to “leak” into the body and mount an immune response, which causes conditions like eczema to arise.
- Food intolerances — If you experience difficulty digesting certain foods and experience associated symptoms like gas, bloating, skin issues or the like, chances are you have some food intolerances. While intolerances don’t involve the immune system, it’s thought that gut bacteria do play a role. Bacterial and viral infections have the potential to suppress immune responses by triggering inflammation and altering gut permeability, therefore driving the development of a food sensitivity.
- Sleep disturbances and fatigue — If you’re having sleep troubles, your gut bacteria may be partially to blame. The majority of serotonin — the precursor hormone to melatonin, which controls sleep — is produced in the gut. As such, damage to the gut can cause changes in serotonin production and therefore changes in sleeping patterns.
So what can I do about it?
- Eat the right foods
A diet rich in colourful fruits and veggies is important not only to ensure sufficient nutrient intake, but also to obtain adequate fibre to support gut health. Dietary fibres are crucial to any balanced diet as they interact directly with gut microbes, but also lead to the production of key metabolites like short-chain fatty acids.
Inflammatory foods like refined sugar, gluten, dairy, and industrial seed oils are huge contributors to poor gut health and allow bad bacteria to thrive. We recommend following the paleo diet as it advocates for a high intake of fruit and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean meats, while omitting all of the unhealthy foods we mentioned above.
Introducing fermented foods like natto, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir are all great to support the growth of beneficial bacteria. The process of lacto-fermentation — how fermented foods are created — can also add nutritional value to your food through the production of B vitamins, omega 3 fatty acids, and digestive enzymes that are not generally present in the food prior to fermenting it. If you think your gut is in a little bit of trouble, adding in digestive enzymes or taking some apple cider vinegar before a meal can help.
2. Get enough sleep
Recent research has discovered that the gut plays a significant role in our sleep patterns and circadian rhythm. A 2016 study found that gut microbes move according to a rhythm during the day and night thereby influencing the circadian rhythms of other organs. As well, sleep rhythms are controlled partly by gut microbes. A 2014 study of humans and rodents on the effects of jet lag found that sleep disruption affected the efficacy of gut microbes. When the microbes of jet-lagged humans were implanted in mice, their guts started showing signs of malfunction.
One of the more common things we hear about is shift work and how detrimental it can be for the body, especially our sleep cycle. A 2018 study published by Washington State University found that just three days of shift work was enough to shift the body clocks in both the gut and pancreas, causing metabolic issues as well as a disconnect from the ‘master’ clock that is found in the brain.
If you need help getting your sleep back on track and don’t have the time to sleep under the stars for a few nights, supplements like 5-HTP, L-theanine, and melatonin can be beneficial. Surprisingly, collagen can also be helpful to promote a deeper, more restorative sleep due to high amounts of glycine.
3. Control your stress
Managing stress levels isn’t just important for general health, but gut health as well. It’s well known that stress modulates the gut microbiota community structure and activity and may also be one of the causal factors associated with dysbiosis. Stress is any sort of disruption in homeostasis as a result of environmental, physical, or psychological stimuli (i.e. stressors) that cause a stress response — an adaptive physiological and behavioural response to restore homeostasis.
While you may only think of stress in a certain facet, it can come in many forms:
- Psychological (anxiety, fear, cognitive demands)
- Environmental (toxins, pollutants, noise, pathogens)
- Physical (overtraining, undernutrition, sleep deprivation)
- Emotional (sadness, grief, anger)
Need some ideas on how to de-stress? Try meditation, yoga, go for a walk, get a massage, spending time with friends and get a mani/pedi, diffuse essential oils, decrease your caffeine intake, or simply just laugh.
4. Avoid over the counter medications
Prescription drugs are notorious for killing your gut. While many people know about the side effects associated with taking antibiotics, it may come as a surprise how common they are. These side effects occur because in addition to targeting ‘bad’ bacteria present in the body, they also target the beneficial bacteria living in the gut, which causes a disruption in the balance.
What’s more is that these effects were thought to be short-term, but recent research suggests that the effects of antibiotics may be more long-term.
Take Home Message
With all of that said, you should understand that the gut isn’t just important for digesting and absorbing food, but it plays a much bigger role in how the body functions. From digestion and immunity to synthesis of vitamins and control of the CNS, the gut is imperative to optimal body function and it’s imperative that you make a concerted effort to maintain its health.