Most of us don’t think about our digestive system until something goes wrong. Even then, when a cheeky slip of gas or an impatient pre-dinner rumbling happens, we tend to write it off as irrelevant. However, ‘listening to your gut’ is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. It impacts not only our digestion but also our skin appearance and mental state.
The Importance of the Gut Microbiome
Experts have been talking a lot about the gut microbiome and its effect on the body. The gut microbiome includes viruses, microorganisms, bacteria, and fungi that reside in the gastrointestinal tract. It is important for the absorption of key nutrients and minerals. Altogether, these microbes are roughly the weight of a human brain, and they function as an “extra organ” in your body.
The gut residents vary from one individual to another. Research suggests that a diverse population of gut microbes is linked to better health. However, the modern lifestyle has led to a decline in microbial diversity. It is believed that this can result in various chronic diseases, such as auto-immune disorders and food allergies.
The Link Between Gut Health and the Immune Response
The body’s immune response depends largely on the gut microbiome because the human gut is the home of 70% of the immune system.
These interactions are complex and can work in both directions. Just as your gut microbiome can influence your immunity, your immune system can affect your gastrointestinal health. The immune cells are exposed to foreign substances daily, and the gut bacteria train them to tolerate the beneficial ones and prevent unnecessary inflammation. When there is greater diversity in the microbiome, the immune cells will “learn” what to “let in” and protect themselves.
A study published in 2020 found that the “good bacteria” are connected to higher levels of immune cells, while the “bad” ones are linked to lower levels. Another study that collected nutritional data from more than a thousand people found similar results. And just as these two are connected, the immune system, as a complex web of organs, proteins, and cells, is crucial for your overall health. It presents the barrier that defends your body against infection.
Your Gut Is Your “Second Brain”
When people are anxious, they might say that they have a strange sensation in their gut. Also, we tend to follow our “gut feeling” when our reasoning is blurred.
It’s no secret that your mood can affect your digestive health. Many doctors find that depression and anxiety contribute to digestion problems. However, it can be the other way around as well. This is because the enteric nervous system (ENS) plays a big role in our overall health. It is a plexus of nervous tissue found in the gastrointestinal tract that coordinates various aspects of digestion. This can affect not only how frequently you have to use the bathroom but also your mood. A large chunk of your body’s serotonin is made in your gut, and the microbes found there send signals that can influence brain function.
Additionally, there is a link between poor gut health and endocrine disorders, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and cancer.
Recognize the Signs of Poor Gut Health
There are some common symptoms of poor gut health you should pay attention to, the most common one being an upset stomach. You may experience some disturbances, such as heartburn, bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea.
If you are gaining or losing weight without making significant changes to your diet or exercise routine, the cause might be in the gut. An imbalanced gut impairs your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, store fat, and absorb nutrients.
You may also develop certain food intolerances, such as allergies or difficulty digesting some foods. Constant fatigue, sleep disturbances, and skin irritation can also suggest an imbalance in gut bacteria.
How to Improve Your Gut Health
We’ve already established how important gut health is and the signs of poor gut health. Now it is time to learn how to improve it.
Eat Prebiotic and Probiotic Foods
While both are recommended, you should know the difference between probiotics and prebiotics to get the most out of them.
Probiotics are (as defined by the WHO) “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, offer a health benefit to the host.” As you probably know, they are frequently found in yogurt but also in other fermented dairy products, fermented foods, and beverages. Many of them are used to treat gut disorders, such as inflammatory bowel disease, diarrhea, and constipation.
Prebiotics are a specific group of fibers found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. They improve the viability and activity of beneficial microbes.
While both generally benefit gut health, they can also make conditions worse for people with specific gut conditions, so you should consult your doctor on this.
Eat a Diverse Diet
Generally speaking, a diverse diet is good for your gut health because it can lead to a more diverse microbiome. However, the traditional Western diet may seem diverse, but it often contains similar nutrients and is rich in fat and sugar. Make sure your diet consists of different whole foods, and avoid processed and fried food.
Also, fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of nutrients. Other foods high in fiber, such as beans and legumes, can be good for your gut bacteria. Finally, foods rich in polyphenols — such as broccoli, dark chocolate, cocoa, red wine, onions, almonds, and blueberries — can lead to positive changes in the microbiome, reducing the chance of inflammation.
Over 2000 years ago, Hippocrates said that all disease begins in the gut. The relationship between gut health and overall wellbeing is pretty obvious today as well. Now that you see it, follow your gut, and keep it in good shape by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
About The Author
Sarah is a life enjoyer, positivity seeker, and a curiosity enthusiast. She is passionate about an eco-friendly lifestyle and adores her cats. She is an avid reader who loves to travel when time allows.