Gut health has become a more trendy topic despite the fact that it is not the most party-worthy conversation starter. But what is gut health and why should you care?
What is the gut?
Your gut is another name for your digestive system, which is responsible for breaking down food into energy and nutrients that get absorbed and used by the body, and then taking all the “extra” and allowing the body to get rid of it through bowel movements.
The digestive system includes the hollow tube (or gastrointestinal tract – GI tract, for short) that runs from the mouth to the anus (and includes your mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, and intestines) as well as the organs of the pancreas, gallbladder and liver.
The gut is a complex system that has the ability to affect all aspects of your body and health!
What is the gut microbiome?
A microbiome is a colony of microorganisms, or miniature organisms.
The gut contains its own microbiome, making it home to over 1000 types of microorganisms (or microbes). It’s been estimated that there are over 100 trillion microorganisms living in our gut!
Some of the types of microbes that naturally live in the gut are bacteria, viruses, fungi, and yeasts. While many of the microbes in the gut are beneficial, some of them are up to no good.
Yep, it doesn’t sound glamorous at all, but these organisms play a very important role in the gut and can impact your overall health in a big way.
What is gut health?
Gut health refers to the overall health and wellbeing of the whole gut.
There are several factors that determine the health of the gut.
1. Microorganism Balance
While many of the organisms in the gut do good things for the body, some of the organisms have bad intentions and can wreak havok in the gut and have a negative impact on your overall health.
If the microbes in your gut are imbalanced (meaning, you have too many of the bad microbes and not enough of the beneficial microbes), it will affect the overall health of your gut (along with the rest of your body).
This imbalance of microbes in the but is called dysbiosis and can lead to a variety of problems, including:
- Lowered ability to properly convert and absorb nutrients from food
- Leaky gut (see more info below)
- Lowered immune response to viruses and infections
- Hormone imbalances
- Irregular bowel movements and/or increased levels of gas and bloating
2. Gut Motility and Bowel Movements
As food is consumed, it travels through the GI tract. The amount of time it takes for the food to travel through the GI tract can indicate whether your gut health is optimal or not.
Constipation and diarrhea are both signs that your gut is not operating at peak performance.
If the nerves and muscles in your GI tract aren’t working the way they should, this can result in constipation or diarrhea.
Ideally, you should have a bowel movement 1 to 3 times per day, and they should be solid and easy to pass.
While talking about bowel movements (BMs) isn’t always a pleasant topic, it’s important to do so that you can get your gut on the right track and have an easier time in the bathroom.
3. Health of the Gut Lining
Have you ever seen footage of a conveyer belt sorting and separating fruit after it’s been harvested?
The fruit travels along the line of the conveyor belt and as it moves along, any rotten fruit gets separated out, while the good fruit continues on its way and gets further separated before its final destination (which is where it gets boxed for delivery to grocery stores).
Can you imagine what that’s like even if you haven’t seen it before? That’s kind of what happens in our GI tract as our food gets digested.
The food moves along the GI tract and as it moves along it gets broken down further. Then, it’s sorted and separated for the final destination (in this case, the destination is the nutrients getting absorbed into our blood stream for use by the cells of our body, while any waste continues down the line to get eliminated from the body).
What’s standing between the food that’s being digested and the blood stream is the lining of the intestines.
This lining is a barrier that is supposed to allow the nutrients from our food to pass through to the blood stream and prevent anything else from passing through.
If the lining of the gut isn’t healthy and strong, it can develop very tiny openings that allow toxins, microbes, and even undigested food bits to pass through from the gut into the blood stream.
This is called leaky gut, and if left unchecked, it can lead to inflammation, skin issues (such as eczema, rosacea and acne), and worsening digestive problems, to name a few.
Why is gut health important?
Because the functions of the gut impact all the other systems of the body, it’s essential to pay attention to your digestive health.
Yes, focusing on your gut health is important if you want to feel good after you eat and throughout the day. If you’ve ever had indigestion, excess gas and bloating, constipation or diarrhea, then you know how annoying an upset gut can be.
But there are other reasons to take care of your gut health than simply preventing indigestion.
Gut Health and the Immune System
This quote may not represent the full picture, but research has shown that 70-80% of our immune system function happens in the gut.
When you are exposed to potential infections, such as cold and flu viruses, microbes in the gut stimulate the immune system to take action and fight off the infection.
Often times, you won’t even know this battle is taking place in your body because the immune system is quick to fight off the potential infection. It happens behind the scenes.
But if your gut health isn’t in as good of shape as it should be, the process doesn’t work as effectively as it should, and the result is that the infection takes hold more easily and can cause you to feel sick.
An unhealthy gut can lead to short-term illnesses, such as the common cold or flu.
Or, it can lead to more debilitating, long-term autoimmune conditions such as:
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)
- Celiac Disease
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Graves’ Disease
- Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
- And more
Metabolic syndrome is becoming more and more common. This syndrome is defined as a combination of at least 3 of the following symptoms:
- Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar)
- Insulin resistance (meaning, your cells aren’t using the insulin you produce)
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Dyslipidemia (unhealthy levels of either LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, or HDL cholesterol)
Metabolic syndrome puts a person at higher risk for complications from cardiovascular disease and increases the risk for developing type 2 diabetes or fatty liver disease.
So, what does gut health have to do with metabolic syndrome?
Studies have shown that the make-up of a person’s gut microbiome can increase the likelihood of metabolic syndrome and that your gut microbes can affect the way in which metabolic syndrome progresses.
On the flip side, the make-up of your gut microbiome can also help prevent metabolic syndrome.
Scientists are still learning more about the connection between your gut microbiome and metabolic syndrome, but the bottom line is that this connection is another reason to pay more attention to your gut health.
These reasons (and more!) strengthen the argument that taking care of your gut health should be a top priority.
What factors affect gut health?
Just as the health of your gut can impact many areas of your health, there are many factors that affect gut health.
Here are some of the main factors that affect gut health:
- Medication use
- Fluid intake
- Your birth and the first couple years of your life
- Supplement use
While this list may make it seem like improving your gut health would be almost impossible (because there are so many factors that affect gut health), don’t be discouraged.
The important thing to remember is that small shifts can really add up to have big results over time.
It’s about taking it one step at a time and staying consistent with your actions and committed to the overall goal of improving your gut health.
Working with a functional medicine practitioner or a registered dietitian/nutritionist who specializes in gut health can help you improve your gut health more quickly!
What are symptoms of an unhealthy gut?
While some symptoms make it obvious to tell that your gut health isn’t in tip top shape, there are some symptoms of an unhealthy gut that you may not realize have anything to do with gut health.
But they do, and if you have any of them, you may want to consider improving your gut health to get some relief.
Here are some of the obvious and not-so-obvious clues your gut health may be off-balance:
- Excessive gas
- Heartburn or reflux
- General indigestion
- Chronic constipation
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Food intolerances or sensitivities
- Regular fatigue/lack of energy
- Brain fog or feeling like you can’t think clearly
- Lack of focus
- Memory challenges
- Excessive sugar cravings
- Difficulty losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight
- Unexplained weight loss
- Joint pain or general achiness that you can’t pinpoint a cause for
- Depression (even if it seems mild)
- Difficulty controlling your mood
- Unexplained skin rashes
- Itchy skin
- Prone to catching cold or flu viruses or other common illnesses
- Seasonal allergies
I know it can be hard to wrap your mind around the connection of gut health with some of these symptoms that don’t seem to have anything to do with gut health.
Keep in mind that as you take steps to improve your gut health, you can start to see relief from several of the symptoms you may be experiencing.
And remember, if improving your gut health seems like an impossible hurdle to jump, take it one step at a time.
Focusing on the health of your gut is one of the best things you can do for your overall health and wellness. Make it a priority, starting today!