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Gut Health: What It Is and How You Can Improve It

Gut Health: What It Is and How You Can Improve It

Discover the importance of gut health and learn what you can do to improve it.

Happy gut, happy life? Ok so maybe having a healthy gut isn’t the only secret to happiness but it does play a large part in your overall health.

We’re sure you’ve heard the term “gut health” more and more recently. Gut health research has received increasing attention over the last 15 years and for a good reason.

The digestive system was once thought of as “simple,” but scientists are discovering that our gut plays a much bigger role than we possibly could have imagined.

From what makes up the gut to how it is linked to your mood, we take a look at why gut health matters.

What is Gut Health?

So what exactly is our “gut”? Simply put, it’s your GI tract. It is made up of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus [1]. It’s main responsibility? Transporting food, absorbing nutrients and energy, and moving waste out of the body.

Sounds simple enough. Though scientists have discovered that the gut is complex and has more functions than just moving food through the body.

Why is Gut Health is Important?

Your gut plays a vital role in your overall health.

Not only is its purpose to provide your body with nutrients and energy, but your gut also contributes to your immune system, brain health, and emotional and mental health.

Many cultures think of the gut as the center of the body. As scientists continue to study the digestive system, they are realizing just how true that belief is.

How Does it Work?

We’re sure everyone is familiar with the digestive process from eating to, um, waste removal. Though we probably give it little thought, many parts are working together to keep us healthy and energized.

As food moves through your body, your digestive system breaks the food into smaller bits. Your body then absorbs all of the nutrients and uses them for energy, growth, and cell repair. How your body does this is quite extraordinary.

Meet the gut microbiome. Consisting of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microscopic living things, (together known as microbes), the gut microbiome plays an essential role in digestion.

We have trillions of microbes in our bodies (that’s right, trillions!), that are hard at work aiding in digestion, building our immune system, and keeping us healthy [2]. We’re used to thinking of bacteria as a bad thing, but when it comes to gut health, good bacteria is definitely your friend.

Microbes not only aid in digestion, but they also help protect you from harmful bacteria and produce essential vitamins including vitamins B and B12 [3].

What can affect my gut?

Maintaining a healthy gut involves maintaining balance in your gut microbiome. Having a wide variety of microbes keeps your gut happy.

When this balance is pushed out of whack, you may notice changes to your digestion, immunity, and complexion.

Eating highly processed foods, stress, certain medications, and lack of sleep can all affect your gut.

Your body is very good at telling you when something isn’t right. It is key that we pay attention to any changes.

So what are some of the signs?

An upset stomach is a strong indicator that something isn’t working as it should. Gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn could all be symptoms of an unhealthy gut. Many of us have experienced these lovely symptoms temporarily, but if these symptoms persist it may be time to see your doctor.

Other not so obvious signs include skin irritation and getting sick often. Your gut is strongly connected to your immune system. If you notice that you are getting sick all of the time, there may be an imbalance in your gut.

Certain skin conditions such as eczema can be exasperated by poor gut health. Inflammation in the gut could cause increased “leaking” of certain proteins out into the body which can, in turn, irritate the skin [4].

You know your body best and if you suspect that something isn’t right, it may be a good idea to examine your diet and see a healthcare professional if needed.

Ways to Improve Gut Health

The good news is there are many simple, easy ways you can improve your gut health. You can start by incorporating gut-friendly foods into your diet.

1. Eat more plant-based foods

Aim for a range of plant-based foods which contain a diverse community of microbes. According to John Hopkins Medicine, leafy greens, such as spinach or kale, contain a specific type of sugar that helps fuel grown of healthy gut bacteria.

2. Don’t forget about fiber

A high-fiber diet can normalize bowel movements, maintain bowel health, lower cholesterol levels, and aid in achieving a healthy weight [5]. Aim for a varied diet. Fruits and vegetables, whole-grain products, nuts, seeds, and beans and other legumes are high-fiber foods.

3. Add probiotic foods

Consuming foods rich in probiotics is a great way to introduce healthy bacteria to our gut. Probiotics protect your gut from harmful bacteria by preventing them from settling in the gut. Yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, and kefir are all probiotic-rich foods.

4. Avoid highly processed foods

Highly processed foods and fried foods are difficult for the body to digest. This includes foods high in fat, salt, and sugar. They can also suppress the “good” bacteria and increase the amount of “bad” bacteria.

5. Choose healthy fats

Not all fats are created equal. Good fats mainly come from vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fish. So go ahead and buy that extra avocado!

Additional Tips

Avoid stress

  • Easier said than done! Though limiting the amount of stress in our lives can help alleviate gut problems.
  • Practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, and taking “me” time have all been proven to help reduce stress.

Get a good night’s sleep

  • When you’re asleep, the tissues in your digestive system grow, repair, and rebuild themselves.

Exercise often

  • What can’t exercise help? When it comes to your gut, exercise can regulate weight and speed up metabolism which contributes to a well-functioning system.

Should I take probiotics?

Probiotics are another way to maintain a healthy gut. Found in fermented foods (could link to food article?) and supplement form probiotics can help boost your health.

Probiotics are live “good” bacteria. They help maintain the balance of bacteria in your microbiome, which as we know is linked to an array of health benefits.

Microbiome research is still in the early stages, but many studies have shown that the benefits of probiotics are remarkable.

They aid in digestion and help reduce symptoms of certain conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). There have even been studies that show probiotics can help with skin conditions such as eczema, prevent allergies, aid in good urinary and vaginal health, and even promote good oral health!

With health benefits like these, adding a probiotic to your routine seems like a no-brainer! Though remember to always consult your doctor before starting any new supplement, medicine, or vitamins.

Let’s Not Forget about our “Second-Brain

We covered how your gut is linked to your physical health, but how is it connected to your mental health?

Have you ever been upset, anxious, or stressed about something and then noticed an upset stomach or digestion issues such as diarrhea or constipation?

That’s your second brain talking.

Your gut is sometimes referred to as your “second brain” as it has a strong connection to your mood and emotional health.

Scientifically, your second brain is known as the enteric nervous system (ENS). This system consists of a network of over 100 million neurons lining the gastrointestinal tract.

The enteric nervous system is intimately connected to the autonomic nervous system [1]. This is how your brain and gut communicate. Not only are messages sent about the status of our gut, but this system allows for the brain to directly impact the gut environment.

“The enteric nervous system doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain —with profound results,” explains Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology (citation).

Information is sent to the brain that seems to influence things like feelings of stress, anxiety, and sadness.

Research is still inconclusive about what comes first. Scientists used to believe that stress caused an unhappy gut, but it may be that an unhappy gut causes stress.

While we don’t know if it is the chicken or the egg, we do know that a happy gut is beneficial to our mental and emotional health.

Bottom Line

Your gut is a complex system, but when it comes to maintaining gut health, stick to the basics. Eat a balanced diet with lots of plant-based foods and avoid foods high in fat, sugar, and salt. Try and get a good night’s sleep, exercise often, and limit stress when possible.

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