What exactly is gut health, and why is it so crucial?

Gut health entails more than simply proper digestion. Here’s why it’s so important for our holistic health, and how you can support a healthy gut.

You may have heard the term “gut health” and wondered what it means — surely a healthy gut just means it can digest your food effectively? While this is true, gut health has an impact on your overall health, with growing evidence suggesting that a healthy gut microbiome is critical for mental health and an effective immune function.

Our gut breaks down the food we eat into a usable form that can enter the bloodstream and go where it is needed in the body. Unfortunately, things can go wrong at any point during this process, ranging from major digestive disorders to food intolerances that affect how our bodies take nutrients from meals.

But what happens if our intestines get out of whack, and how can we get back on track?

What is gut health?

From the oesophagus to the bowel, gut health covers the health of our entire digestive system – the parts of our bodies responsible for breaking down food into different nutrients that our bodies utilize to function. Each part of the gut runs differently and different colonies of microorganisms break down food into more digestible formats.

Diet has a direct impact on the population of these colonies, according to research, with high-fat or high-sugar meals encouraging bacteria that eat these nutrients and high-fiber diets favoring bacteria that prefer fiber and reside further along in the gut. So keep in mind that you’re not just feeding yourself when you eat; you’re also feeding billions of gut bacteria, and your dietary choices have an impact on which bacteria thrive and which die off.

There’s evidence that these bacteria may play a role in longevity, as seen by the unique gut microbes of people who live to reach 100 years old. Furthermore, some gut bacteria may give athletes an edge, thriving in their bodies and increasing their performance.

A healthy stomach communicates with the brain via the neural network and hormones, which is how we know when we’re hungry and what we’re craving. Because everyone’s gut microbiome is different, meals that help one person thrive may cause irritation in others. Gluten intolerance, which is found in wheat, and lactose and casein intolerance, which is found in milk, are the most frequent food intolerances. Some people may digest these ingredients without problems, while others can experience severe discomfort and unpleasant symptoms if they consume them.

Why is gut health important?

The gut wall serves as a barrier that stops viruses, fungus, and ‘bad’ bacteria from entering the bloodstream when it is working properly, which is critical for immunological function. Unfortunately, this barrier can occasionally become permeable, resulting in a ‘leaky gut,’ which allows these nasties to get through and make us sick. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and celiac disease can make people more vulnerable to disease or infection entering the body through the gut wall.

Gut health has been shown to have an impact on mental health in studies. Known as the ‘second brain’, there’s a reason we feel a lot of our emotions in our guts. Our neurological system can be stimulated by gut bacteria, which transmit messages to our brains via the vagus nerve. They can also produce hormones that are identical to those produced by our own systems, making them small pilots with a big impact on our bodies and decision-making. This communication between gut and brain is known as the gut-brain axis. Because many of these bacteria are hormone-sensitive, stress can have an effect on them, resulting in an imbalance.

What are the signs of good gut health?

So, how do you know if your gut functions well? It can be measured in a variety of ways.

This might range from how often we go to the bathroom to how long it takes food to travel through our bodies. Although everyone is different, it is considered usual to go three times a day to three times a week. A slow or fast transit time can signal that something is wrong with your digestion. Stools should be medium to dark brown, smooth and sausage-like, and pass without pain, bloating, or gas.

What are the signs of bad gut health?

Poor gut health affects 60-70 million Americans, accounting for 12% of inpatient treatments, indicating that it is a widespread concern. Gut health issues can arise from a variety of causes, but the following are the most common indicators that you may have a problem:

  • Bloating
  • Loose stools
  • Constipation
  • Heartburn
  • Vomiting and nausea

Other, less obvious symptoms may not appear to have anything to do with gut health, yet they might be powerful markers that something is wrong.

Fatigue and poor sleep – An imbalance in our gut health can contribute to disturbed sleep patterns and low energy, according to a study published in 2020.

Skin irritation – it may seem unusual that your external immune barrier (skin) and internal immune barrier (gut) are linked, but research shows that skin irritation can be a sign of poor gut health.

Bad breath/halitosis – It’s understandable that symptoms of poor gut health would affect the mouth, as it is the gateway to the gastrointestinal tract, but you may not realize that bad breath can be a sign that something is wrong with the rest of the digestive system.

Because gut health is so personal, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for changes and symptoms that are abnormal for you. Increased bloating, gas, diarrhea, heartburn, or getting up in the middle of the night to pass a stool might all be signs that something is wrong. Sleep difficulties, increased fatigue, skin irritation, food intolerances, and unexpected weight changes can all be linked to a healthy gut.

If you think you’re having any of these symptoms, see your doctor or a gut health specialist to discuss potential causes and treatments.

How can you improve your gut health?

There are a number of things you can do to aid your gut and maintain healthy gut health. Probiotics, which are live digestive bacteria and yeasts that can be taken as a supplement, help to maintain a healthy gut flora since they are designed to reach the stomach alive and enhance populations of “good” bacteria and yeasts. Keeping these bacteria healthy prevents the overgrowth of ‘bad’ bacteria, which can cause digestive problems.

Prebiotics can also benefit the health of your gut microbiome by providing food for your gut flora, which helps to maintain population balance.

Dietary fiber helps to slow down gut motility, allowing the large intestine to absorb water instead of passing it through the stool quickly. It also acts as a bulking agent, binding indigestible matter together so that it can be passed through the body as stool.

To support optimal gut health, dietitians recommend eating a variety of foods. Increased microbial diversity can help us improve our gut health. This is a measurement of the different types and numbers of bacteria in the gut microbiome. We desire a high level of richness – more species – as well as a high level of evenness – no dominating species. Getting a diversified diet rich in plant foods is a wonderful place to start. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are prebiotic foods that help our microbiome thrive by feeding our beneficial bacteria.

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