If you’ve yet to be convinced that gut health is important, you’re in the right place. These days it seems like almost everyone is talking about it, whether it’s friends, the news, people you follow on social media, and so on. Or maybe you do know that gut health is important, but you’re confused by conflicting recommendations and articles and advice and just don’t know who to listen to.
We all know that we need to eat food to survive and that the gut, GI tract, GI system, however you want to refer to it (more on this below), is responsible for dealing with said food. However, it’s a much more complicated system than previously thought. It may seem trendy now (looking at you, probiotics, and fermented foods), but it’s much more than a trend.
Welcome to our gut health series. Follow along to dive into this topic to help make it a little less complicated.
What is gut health?
Whether you’re in the eat to live or live to eat camp, the bottom line is that we do indeed need to eat to live. And we need a functioning GI system to do so. But first, let’s define a few terms:
GI: Short for gastrointestinal, refers to the stomach and the intestines.
GI tract: Also known as the digestive tract, refers to the hollow organs involved in digesting the food you eat from the moment you take a bite until it leaves your body.
GI system: Also known as the digestive system, refers to the GI tract plus the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder, which all play a role in digesting food.
Microbiome: The microorganisms in a particular environment. (In this post, we’ll be referring to the microbiome located in the gut, often referred to as the gut microbiome.)
Gut health: While the word ‘gut’ on its own has many meanings, including the stomach or belly and the intestine, for this post, we’ll be using it to more or less refer to the GI system as a whole. And when describing how well this system is functioning, including the balance of good and bad bacteria (more on this later), we will use the term ‘gut health’.
When looking at gut health, it’s important to note how unique it is among individuals. With about 1,000 species of microorganisms, no two guts are created equal. It’s simply not possible. There are too many contributing factors that determine the type and amount of bacteria taking up residence in your gut for that to happen.
But I thought bacteria were bad?
Well, yes and no. Some bacteria are good, and some bacteria are bad. For example, the kind that helps turn milk into yogurt are good, and the kind that causes illnesses like pneumonia are, you guessed it, bad.
Ideally, the good bacteria in our gut continuously outweigh the bad. When the opposite is true, problems often arise. And the amount of each is determined by what you eat. How cool is that? As humans, we have the ability to recognize the role we play in our own gut health. It can be as simple as the foods you choose to eat. It’s like what Dr. Michael Gregor says, “the bacteria are what we eat.”
And since our human cells are significantly outnumbered by the number of bacteria in our bodies, we need to understand and embrace said bacteria (especially the bacteria that live in our gut) and learn to live together happily. (This happy cohabitation is also known as symbiosis.)
Why is gut health so important all of a sudden?
While maintaining optimal gut health has always been important, more and more doctors and scientists are discovering just how vast a role our gut plays in our bodies. It’s logical to think that something may be wrong with your gut if you’re experiencing gut-related symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, to name a few).
But what if your immune system isn’t behaving as it should? Or you’ve been feeling a bit foggy lately and aren’t sure why? It’s becoming more evident that our gut is a lot more involved in our body than just digesting food. While the lines aren’t yet crystal clear, we know now that our gut is related to other systems in our body, such as our immune system and mental health.
And with more and more people suffering from chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases today, the link between our gut health, inflammation, and our immune system is especially important. Here is an excellent example of when you want the good bacteria to outweigh the bad. You can find both bacteria that promote inflammation and bacteria that fight inflammation present in the gut.
When you think about how the majority of our GI tract is only one cell thick, it’s easy to see how important it is to maintain a healthy gut to prevent some of the nastier viruses, toxins, and bacteria out in the world from getting through that fragile barrier and causing problems.
Things you can do to promote a healthy gut:
If you were born vaginally or were breastfed as a baby, your gut health was off to an excellent start (because it’s all about exposure). But since you can’t change how you were born or fed soon after, there are things you can do now to have a healthier gut.
Since our gut bacteria are what we eat, food is probably the best place to start. It may or may not come as a surprise to you that fiber is our friend. And with many people today lacking sufficient fiber in their diets, it seems that a reunion is in order.
To put it simply, whole plant foods (grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds) are a great source of fiber, and processed animal foods are not. That’s not to say that you should completely change your diet overnight (unless you’re dealing with a serious medical condition and have been instructed by a healthcare professional to do so). It doesn’t have to be all or nothing to improve your overall gut health. You can do so by shifting your diet and incorporating more whole plant foods, which results in less room on your plate for everything else.
Once you’ve become best (or at least good) friends with fiber again, you may want to consider getting a pet (or two or ten) for your kids (if you have them). While having pets around may not impact the gut microbiome very much in adults, it can certainly impact the diversity of your kids’.
And don’t be afraid to get out in nature or start a garden. Diversity and exposure is the name of the game here.
Simply put, we are living too cleanly today. And while this is a bit tricky given our current situation with Covid (please keep wearing masks and using hand gel per state/country/CDC/etc. recommendations), we can’t forget that eliminating all sources of bacteria in our life isn’t the way to go.
And if you’re prescribed antibiotics from a healthcare professional, it is worth asking if it is necessary. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. But a conversation needs to be had between the patient and provider as unnecessary antibiotics can have negative and long-lasting consequences to overall gut health. (We’ll cover probiotic use post antibiotics in a future post.)
Given the expansive role our gut health and microbiome have in our body (in the gut itself and beyond), it’s easy to see the importance of maintaining a healthy gut. And while more and more is being discovered about gut health and the negative effects it can have when things are off-balance, there is still so much that researchers and scientists don’t know.
But what we can do is go off what we do know and start making small changes to improve where we can. If you’d like to follow along in our Gut Health Series, sign up for our email newsletter here to be notified of future blog posts in this series as well as our other blog posts.
This blog post does not provide health or medical advice. This blog post is for informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional health or medical advice. Before taking any actions based upon such information, we encourage you to consult with the appropriate medical and healthcare professionals. We do not provide any kind of health or medical advice. The use or reliance of any information contained on this blog is solely at your own risk.
https://time.com/5556071/gut-health-diet/ https://nutritionfacts.org/topics/microbiome/ https://nutritionfacts.org/video/microbiome-we-are-what-they-eat/ https://www.gutmicrobiotaforhealth.com/conserving-restoring-human-gut-microbiome-increasing-consumption-dietary-fibre/ https://nutritionfacts.org/video/how-to-develop-a-healthy-gut-ecosystem/ https://nutritionfacts.org/video/microbiome-the-inside-story/ https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/ https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/digestive-system-how-it-works https://health.ucdavis.edu/health-news/newsroom/what-is-gut-health-and-why-is-it-important/2019/07#:~:text=%E2%80%9CGut%20health%E2%80%9D%20describes%20the%20function,and%20digest%20food%20without%20discomfort