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Gut Health

What is Gut Health and Why Does it Matter?

How Healthy is Your Gut?

If you are reading this, chances are better than average that you suffer from poor gut health. And you are by no means alone. It’s a widespread complaint that has been implicated in many of the ailments that plague modern humans, from digestive issues to hair loss, hypothyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, Parkinson’s disease and sleep disorders, to name just a few.  

The gut, although technically part of the digestive system, is responsible for much more than helping you digest that sandwich you had for lunch. Bacteria that live in the gut affect not only digestion but also the immune system, hormonal balance, the skin, the brain, and the adrenals.  Those bacteria number in the trillions, and collectively they make up the human microbiome, the foundation for our immune system.

“Good” bacteria exist in a delicate balance with “bad” bacteria in the microbiome. The good ones play many important roles in keeping us healthy, whereas the bad ones compromise our health by preventing the good bacteria from doing their job. When the good bacteria outnumber the bad ones, we generally feel healthy, focused, and energetic. When the opposite is true, a cascade of health issues is usually in store for us. Compromised gut health is associated with higher risk for many chronic diseases.

Let’s take a closer look.

Gut balance and the immune system

It may come as a surprise to learn that 70% of your immune system is located in your gut. That’s how important the gut is to overall health. The bacteria in our gut are the foot soldiers in our bodies’ war against toxins and pathogens. Without them, our immune systems would be unable to protect us against disease.

These microscopic inhabitants of the intestinal lining have an important job. They make up what is known as the gut barrier. The gut barrier allows nutrients to flow into the bloodstream from the food we ingest, while at the same keeping harmful pathogens locked inside the gut where they can do no harm. Beneficial bacteria are essential to the gut barrier.  They help digest food, produce vitamins B and K which are essential to many metabolic functions, produce short-chain fatty acids that regulate the function of immune cells, and protect against pathogens.

The other side of the coin is bad bacteria, which in a healthy gut live in balance with the beneficial ones. These bacteria produce toxic byproducts such as lipopolysaccharides. Also known as LPS toxins, these molecules normally live in the gut and are quite large. However, a damaged gut barrier opens up larger spaces in the gut barrier which allow them to cross over into the bloodstream. When this occurs, they are able to roam free, wreaking havoc by promoting infection throughout the body.

In the face of these threats, the immune system springs into action with one of the primary responses in its defensive toolbox: inflammation. This is the means by which the immune system destroys pathogens and protects against infection, and is normally a limited time, short term occurrence that lasts only until the threat is no longer acute. However, when the gut barrier is breached, the threat is ongoing and so is the inflammation response. The result is an immune system on constant high alert, laying the foundation for a number of autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lupus, arthritis, and type 1 diabetes.

The enemies of gut health

Diet and lifestyle factors play a central role in creating a healthy gut – or its opposite. The list includes many familiar culprits.

  • Processed foods. The high levels of saturated fats and sugars that characterize conventional Western diets pose hazards for healthy gut bacteria. High sugar intake causes harmful bacteria to proliferate while starving out beneficial organisms.  Saturated fat is hidden in the menus of fast food chains and nutrition labels on foods lining the outer aisles of grocery stores. Common offenders include hamburgers, French fries, breads, cakes, lard, cured meats like salami and bacon. These foods increase LPS levels and contribute to poor gut health. 
  • Antibiotics, antidepressants, laxatives, proton pump inhibitors, NSAIDS, and others. Many commonly prescribed and non-prescription medications can impact gut health in a variety of ways, especially in patients with pre-existing gastrointestinal disease. Over 1000 drugs currently on the market have been found to suppress multiple strains of gut bacteria. 
  • Pesticides and other environmental toxins. Studies show that chlorpyrifos, a common pesticide used worldwide on vegetable crops, golf courses, in treated wood, and in ant, mosquito and roach treatments, damages the gut barrier in. The resulting low-grade inflammation leads to insulin resistance and obesity. Widespread use of pesticides may be implicated in the global epidemic in inflammation-related diseases..  And thousands of environmental chemicals that have been connected to a variety of cancers and other diseases are now known to affect the microbiome as well. 
  • Stress, social isolation, and childhood trauma. Loneliness and social disconnection are powerful contributors to mental and emotional distress, but the factors that connect these to changes in physical health is becoming clearer. Higher than normal inflammatory responses have been linked with social isolation, childhood trauma, military service, and a variety of common life stressors.
  • Smoking. Although few large studies exist on the causal relationship between smoking and gut bacteria, we do know that cigarettes and cigarette smoke contain many pathogens that cause immune system suppression. This in turn changes the gut microbiome in ways that could allow harmful gut bacteria to proliferate. Significant changes in gut bacteria have been observed both in people who start smoking and those who quit, making it clear that smoking has profound effects on the microbiome.
  • Sedentary lifestyle.  Couch potatoes take note: lack of exercise is associated with increased inflammatory responses and higher levels of harmful gut bacteria. Studies have demonstrated that individuals who did not exercise, compared to those who had regular exercise routines, had lower ratios of healthy bacterial strains to unhealthy ones, in addition to higher obesity rates. The link between inflammation, sedentary routines, and changes in gut bacteria is still being studied but early results point to a strong connection.
  • Insufficient sleep. Intestinal metabolism and brain function are closely connected. A Japanese study found that depletion in gut microbiota had the effect of wiping out serotonin, which regulates sleep. The study builds on previous research which established a strong link between cognition, brain development, and gut health.  

How to heal your gut

If that list gave you pause, it should. The tiny inhabitants of our gut are involved in our health in far-reaching ways. But the good news is that you can improve your gut health (and your health overall) with diet and lifestyle adjustments.

Ready to embark on a gut healing journey? Here are the essentials.

Add prebiotics to your daily regimen.  Prebiotic foods are an essential part of a gut healthy diet. Found in such foods as apples, garlic, asparagus, leeks, green bananas, chicory and almonds, prebiotics supply fiber that feed your good bacteria.

Luckily for you, prebiotics are also found in chocolate that’s high in cocoa solids.

Prebiotic fiber, although indigestible, provides nutrients that your healthy bacteria ferment into short-chain fatty acids which help to repair the gut barrier and prevent inflammation. Eat a wide variety of these foods, because bacteria can be as picky as humans when it comes to what’s on the menu.

Probiotics are different from prebiotics, although both are important contributors to a healthy microbiome. Probiotics are living bacteria, yeasts and other microorganisms that help increase the number of beneficial bacteria in your gut. Probiotics are sold as supplements, but certain foods are good sources of probiotics as well. These include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi, and fermented soy products including tempeh and miso.

Substitute whole foods for refined sugar and snacks high in trans fats. Fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and grassfed meats and dairy nourish the microbiome and prevent inflammation which is so damaging to gut bacteria.

Clean up your home environment. Replace toxic chemical-laden cleaning products with safer alternatives such as vinegar and baking soda. If you smoke, quit. If you live with a smoker, set aside a room in the house for smoking or have your smoker go outside.

Get enough sleep. Move to an earlier bedtime and get at least 7 – 8 hours per night.

Adopt an exercise routine. Regular moderate exercise supports your microbiome by nourishing good bacteria.

Address your stress. Take some time for yourself daily. Keep your social relationships healthy, even at a distance. Indulge in a favorite hobby. Get out in the fresh air. Exercise and sufficient sleep fall under this category too! 

Conclusion

Improving your gut health takes some effort, but the results are well worth it. When you make diet and lifestyle changes that support the beneficial bacteria that call your body their home, you will find improved resistance to illness, better sleep, increased energy, and clearer thinking. Take care of your gut bacteria and they will take care of you!

Loren@healthmuse.net 615-578-8873