Gut health is extremely important, and its significance in digestion, brain health, the immune system, and overall well-being is not overrated. The gut refers to our digestive tract, which begins with our mouth and ends with our anus. It is responsible for processing food from the time it is ingested to the time it is absorbed or eliminated. In addition to the digestion of food, the digestive system contains beneficial bacteria that is responsible for the immune response, vitamin production, mineral absorbency, hormone regulation, the regulation of metabolism, and the elimination of toxins.
When the bacteria in our gut becomes imbalanced with harmful bacteria, the mucosal layer in the GI tract becomes damaged and activates the immune system, which can result in inflammation that can elicit an immune response and cause food sensitivities along with a host of other issues in the body. As a result, the gut’s flora has a big impact on health and disease in general, especially since 75% of our immune system comes from our gut. Recent research shows that gut health plays a role in both obesity and diabetes, since our gut bacteria affects our metabolism and how we store and use nutrients. It also plays a role in arthritis, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and possibly autism.
Research has also shown that gut health can be damaging to the brain and that irritation may send signals to the central nervous system, causing headaches, anxiety, depression, dementia, trigger mood changes, and effect concentration. There are nerve cells in the small intestine (sometimes called the enteric nervous system) that are connected to the brain, primarily through the vagus nerve. The bacteria in the gut directly impacts cells along the vagus nerve. Since the neurons in the gut manufacture serotonin, GABA, and glutamate (which are all involved in brain function) they can affect brain response.
Unfortunately, many things in our modern life, such as processed foods, foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, chronic stress, chronic infections, antibiotics, NSAIDs, and dietary toxins, negatively affect our gut health. In particular, the types of food we eat affect our gut health and can be damaging to the brain. This is because they damage the gut and allow harmful bacteria to multiply. Additionally, the undigested food enters the bloodstream and elicits an immune response. In order to improve the gut flora, all toxins should be removed from the diet, high quality foods should be eaten, and probiotics are recommended.
Probiotics are live microorganisms (usually bacteria), which support digestion and the immune system. They are considered “good bacteria” because of their positive influence on the gut. The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” The two most common probiotics come from two groups of bacteria: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. There are different species and strains in each of these different groups. Some probiotics are yeast. Probiotics help with the immune system, protect against microorganisms that can cause disease, and help the digestions and absorption of food and nutrients. They have been shown to be effective for diarrhea, infant colic, IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), respiratory tract infections in children, ulcerative colitis, pouchitis (a condition that may occur after removal of the colon), and atopic dermatitis. For some it may prevent the common cold, UTIs (urinary tract infections), and lactose intolerance. Since there are cells in the digestive tract connected to the immune system, it is believed that probiotics can affect the immune system’s defenses by altering the balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria.
The take away message is to remember that what you ingest and digest can severely impact your physical and mental health in many ways. Sometimes the easiest fix, such as eating better, can alleviate and prevent a host of ailments and improve the quality of your life. So the next time you aren’t feeling well, think about changing your diet and taking supplements in your quest for better health.