Updated: Nov 26, 2020
The gut is the gateway to our health.
If your gut is healthy, you are more likely to be healthy too. In fact, our gut is where 75% of our immune system resides (1,2) and where over 80% of your serotonin (3), the primary neurotransmitter responsible for your mood, is produced. Research indicates that the health of our gut impacts everything from skin conditions to brain health to hormonal issues to joint pain to seasonal allergies. Therefore, it is now more important to understand why your gut is key to your overall health.
All disease begins in the gut. – Hippocrates
What is the ‘gut’?
The term ‘gut’ refers to the components of your digestive system that support health, namely your intestinal system. Moreover, our gut is much more than just a long tube for digesting food, it is a complex system that absorbs nutrients, makes minerals, houses bacteria, protects from infection, and conveys messages to our brain and so much more.
Our gut is a hard-working system that allows nutrients and water into our bodies while keeping toxins and unwanted substances out.
Gut health is influenced by two related variables:
Disturbances in either one of these factors can induce gut inflammation, causing a chain reaction of damage that begins locally and may spread systemically throughout the body.
What is the intestinal barrier?
Our gut is a barrier system (or intestinal barrier) that works as the gatekeeper for our body; determining what comes in and what stays out. The gut lining is made up of very tight junctions which help to prevent toxins or foreign invaders from entering the body (9,10). However, the tight junctions of our gut can become compromised, making them permeable, which can increase the absorption of toxins and unwanted substances to enter the bloodstream.
This intestinal permeability is sometimes known as ‘leaky gut’. In turn, this intestinal permeability (or leaky gut) causes the body to launch inflammatory responses both locally in the gut and systemically in tissues and organs (9-11).
What is the gut microbiota?
Our gut is home to approximately 100 trillion microorganisms, which is 10 times more than the entire human body, and over 400 different species (4). The microbiota is involved in energy and storage, as well as in a variety of metabolic functions such as absorbing undigested carbohydrates (4). Perhaps even more importantly, the gut microbiota interacts with the immune system, providing signals to promote the maturation of immune cells and the normal development of immune functions (5).
A healthy and balanced gut microbiota is comprised of both good and bad bacterial species that have a bi-directional effect on health. The goal is to maintain a more “good” than “bad” balance.
Dysbiosis is a disruption of the gut microbiome by various stressors, such as processed foods, excess sugars, lack of fibre, inadequate hydration, exercise, emotional or mental stress, excessive use of antibiotics, and many other factors can influence your microbiota. Dysbiosis promotes gut inflammation, and, if left unchecked, contributes to the development of chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), obesity, brain fog, asthma and psoriasis (6, 7).
Gut health is MORE than just digestion
What many people don’t recognise is that the health of your gut spans far beyond digestive symptoms. Although issues such as IBS, Crohn’s disease, Celiac disease, and other digestive disorders are clearly related to gut health, gut health can affect many other things including; mood, mental health, energy, fatigue, obesity, headaches, migraines, skin issues, food intolerances and other autoimmune diseases (6 -8 ).
You do not need to have a digestive symptom for your gut health to negatively impact you.
Poor gut health can manifest itself as acne, psoriasis, poor concentration, anxiety, depression or fatigue before you have a digestive issue.
As 75% of your immune system resides in your gut, the health of your gut has a large impact on the health of your immune system. When the intestinal barrier becomes permeable, protein molecules can escape into the bloodstream. Since these molecules do not normally belong there, the immune system responds by attacking them as foreign invaders (8).
This process creates excess workload on your immune system and other organs as they attempt to cope with the unwanted invasion. Studies show that the link between gut health and the immune system plays a role in many auto-immune conditions as well as the increase in food allergies and food sensitivities (6-8).
To adequately address these conditions, you must rebuild healthy gut flora and restore the integrity of your intestinal barrier.
Here are general practical ways to optimise and support your gut health
1. Remove processed foods, refined sugars and food additives
Identify and remove foods that are causing inflammation for you, such as grains, gluten, dairy, soy, and refined sugars. Inflammatory foods can be identified via an elimination diet. (Please speak to your GP or registered nutritional therapist before you do this).
2. Add prebiotic foods
Found in foods such as artichoke, onions, garlic, and bananas. These fibres fuel the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and help restore intestinal permeability. Check out this article on why fibre is good for you.
3. Add probiotic foods
Foods rich in probiotics help restore a healthy gut microbiota and intestinal barrier. Examples such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, and kefir provide probiotics in abundance.
4. Slow down
The process of slowing down and chewing is important for enzyme release and breaking food down into particles that are manageable for the gut.
5. Focus on high-quality sleeping habits
Get 7 to 8 hours of high-quality sleep a night is important in supporting your gut health. Sleep hygiene practices such as maintaining a regular sleep schedule and avoiding blue light exposure at night. Check out this article here for more tips on sleep.
6. Manage Stress
Make stress-reduction practices, such as prayer, yoga, journalling, gratitude journal, and meditation a part of daily life. Mindfulness apps such as Headspace or Calm can be helpful for people who are new to meditation.
7. Exercise Daily
Studies have consistently found that regular exercise can positively impact the quality and quantity of the gut microbiota’s composition, providing you with many health benefits. For example, endurance exercise can help you gain a more stable and enriched microbiota diversity and improve the communication along the gut-brain axis (12).
The first step is accepting the fact that what you eat affects much more than your weight and physical appearance. By focusing on whole, balanced and lots of diverse food including vegetables, fruit, protein from plant, and animal sources, fats from plant and animal sources and whole grains as well as limiting refined sugars, food additives, processed foods and managing stress, you will be taking the first steps to improving your overall health.
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