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Gut Health 101: Why It Matters And What To Do

Everyone is talking about gut health these days. Are you wondering what the big deal is? Welcome to Gut Health 101.

In this article, you will learn how your gut health affects the health of every other system in your body. I will explain some simple ways to get on the road to better gut health.

Let’s get started.

The Gateway For Nutrients

Nearly all of your body’s vitamins, minerals and energy enter your body through your gut. It is the gateway that allows in everything that keeps you alive.

Putting food into your mouth and swallowing it does not automatically make it a part of your body. The inside of the gut is actually outside your body. Think of the gut as an airport hallway where travelers wait to pass through customs and get into a country.

Two things must happen to those nutrients to bring them into your body: they must be digested and absorbed. This is an intricate process, all orchestrated inside your gut.

Your gut breaks foods down into the smallest forms possible. This is the digestion part of the process. Saliva, stomach acid, enzymes and bile all work together to digest foods.

Anything that enters the body through the gut must pass through a single layer of cells called enterocytes. This is the absorption part of the process. These tightly joined cells have mechanisms that allow digested nutrients to get in, while keeping toxins and bad bacteria out.

In a healthy gut, all of these systems work together to get the nutrients you eat into your body. When something goes out of balance, you can be missing important nutrients, even if you are actually eating those foods. You might be missing either the digestion or the absorption part of the picture, or possibly even both.

The Exit Route For Toxins

At some point, you are going to swallow toxic substances or harmful bacteria. These will either be absorbed into your body, or they will pass all the way through and out the other end. 

Remember how the gut is actually outside the body? This comes in real handy when there is something in there that might harm you.

You also produce toxins every day during your normal metabolic processes. Your liver filters these out and sends them to the gut for elimination. Otherwise they might build up and begin to harm your tissues and organs.

Think of it like taking out the garbage. Your body’s normal trash pick-up – you guessed it, pooping – should happen at least once a day.

Whether you are trying to get rid of harmful things that you consumed, or toxins created inside your own body, a healthy gut is key. 

Immunity Begins In Your Gut

Foreign substances, strange foods and bacteria wind up in your gut every day. Your body has to sort out what is safe and what is not.

There are many different mechanisms in your gut to keep out invaders. The first is stomach acid. A healthy stomach produces strong enough acid to kill any microbes you might eat with your foods.

Your gut also has physical barriers to keep out invaders. A mucus membrane prevents bacteria from getting over to the cells that separate your digestive tract from your bloodstream.

About seventy percent of your immune system is actually located in your gut. Lymph nodes are embedded all throughout the walls of your intestines. They recognize and protect you from microscopic foreign invaders.

Many specialized cells help your gut immune system, including sIgA, B-cells, T-cells, dendritic cells, toll-like receptors, and other cytokines (1).  

The Gut Brain Connection

Gut health is directly connected to your brain. The gut produces many of the major neurotransmitters that affect mood and brain function, including GABA, dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine and norepinephrine. 

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve cluster in your body, beginning at the brain stem and running all throughout your GI tract. Messages run in both directions along this nerve, some from the brain to the gut, but mostly from the gut to the brain. In fact, 80% of the messages that run along the vagus nerve start in the gut, and send information up to the brain.

Learn more about how you can improve digestion with a healthy vagus nerve.  

Hormones and neurotransmitters produced in the gut can reach the brain via the vagus nerve, cross the blood-brain-barrier, and affect food intake, appetite, emotional and cognitive health, and conditions like depression and PTSD (2).  

The link between the brain and the gut is evident when we look at people who are suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Over seventy percent of people with this condition have mood or anxiety disorders that require psychiatric help. Healing the gut can sometimes make mental health better (3)(4).

The Microbiome of Everything

You have about 3-4 pounds of microbes living in and on every nook and cranny of your body. This is your microbiome. The microbiome consists mostly of bacteria. It also includes other life forms like archaea, fungi, parasites and viruses. 

Nearly every organ system has its own microbiome. We have known about the bacteria that live in our mouth or skin for a long time. Now we are finding that even your lungs have their own little microbe community (5).  

These microbes are so plentiful that they have at least as many cells as your own human cells. That means that at least half the cells inside your body are non-human (6).  

Here are some of the ways that microbes keep your gut and your whole body healthy.

  • Remember how important your gut is to your immune system? Your immune cells use microbes in your gut to train on what they should recognize as a threat, and what is a part of your own body (7).
  • The bacteria in your gut break down plant fibers that you cannot digest. They digest these fibers and produce short chain fatty acids (SCFA), an important fuel for the cells of your gut lining.
  • As you learned already, microbes make neurotransmitters which are able to affect your brain health.
  • Gut microbes synthesize small amounts of essential vitamins. These include thiamine (B1), folate, biotin, riboflavin (B2), and pantothenic acid (8).  

First Steps To A Healthier Gut

With so much happening in your gut, how do you begin to make it healthier? Read on for some simple first steps that will put you on the path to a healthy digestive system.

Support your digestion with good eating habits.

Your digestion depends on how you eat. Are you grabbing meals on the go, eating in your car, standing at the kitchen sink while you scarf down your lunch? This type of eating sets you up for poor digestion.

The reason for this lies in the two states of your central nervous system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic states.

When you are rushed, distracted and stressed, your body is in a Fight or Flight mode. This is the sympathetic state. Sympathetic may sound like a good thing, but when it comes to your nervous system it means a state where your body senses danger, and is ready to fight it off.

Digestion gets put on the back burner in a sympathetic state. All your energy goes to fighting off that unknown threat. You produce less stomach acid, bile and digestive enzymes. The muscle movements in your digestive tract slow down or stop.

The best state to be in during a meal is a parasympathetic state. We also call this Rest and Digest. This is when your digestive system works most efficiently. If you take the time to slow down and relax while you eat, you will get more nutrients from your food.

Learn more about Rest and Digest.  

Allow stomach acid to do its work.

Stomach acid has become a bit of a villain. Many people suffering from heartburn or acid reflux think they need to turn off their stomach acid to get relief. 

The fact is that stomach acid is essential for good digestion. When you block stomach acid you lose your front line defense against harmful bacteria that come in through your mouth. You lose the ability to digest certain nutrients like protein, minerals, and vitamin B12.

Of course if your doctor tells you that you need to be on acid-blocking medication, you must follow that advice. If you are self medicating with over the counter antacids and baking soda, consider getting help to find other ways to get rid of your heartburn.

As we get older, we naturally produce less stomach acid. Work with a nutritionist to figure out whether you are making enough stomach acid, and what to do about it.

Keep Calm and Chew Your Food

I’m sure someone has told you at least once in your life to chew your food properly. This does more than just break it into smaller pieces. The act of chewing sends messages to your digestive tract to make stomach acid, bile and enzymes. 

Try chewing each bite of food at least 30 times, to learn the consistency it should have before you send it on down to your stomach.

Chewing increases your gut motility, or the muscle movements that propel food along through your digestive system. This can help prevent problems from fullness and bloating to constipation (9).  

There is even some evidence coming out that chewing your food well can help you to regulate blood glucose and manage your weight (10).   

Let the MMC clean up in between meals.

The Migrating Motor Complex is an amazing house cleaning service for your gut. It is a series of muscle movements that begins an hour or two after you eat. It sweeps undigested bits of food and stray bacteria down through your small intestine and into your colon.

The MMC keeps your upper digestive tract free of bacteria. Just like any cleaning service, it helps digestion to run smoothly and efficiently.

The key to a good MMC is giving it time to work. When you eat anything at all, the MMC shuts down. If you graze at food a lot during the day, it may not be running at all. Try to go without eating or snacking for at least 3 hours in between your meals (11).  

Read more about the Migrating Motor Complex.  

Nurture your microbiome.

You can think of your microbiome as a whole community of billions of life forms that are living inside your gut. If you treat them well and help the right population to grow, you will reap a lot of benefits in better health.

Microbes need the right kind of food. They need protection from substances that might harm them. 

Prebiotic Foods

Prebiotic foods feed your microbiome. You can take probiotic supplements all day long, but unless you feed the microbes in your gut they will not be able to thrive. These microbes like to eat certain plant fibers.

Here is a list of prebiotic foods that nurture your gut microbes:

  • acacia fiber
  • artichoke
  • asparagus
  • apples
  • barley
  • mushrooms
  • onions
  • psyllium
  • seaweed
  • whole grain oats
  • whole wheat
  • green bananas and banana peel (Yes, you can actually throw a little piece of banana peel into a smoothie.)
  • lentils
  • plantain
  • rolled oats
  • potatoes or rice which have been cooked, and then cooled (think leftover rice or potato salad.)

Read more about prebiotic foods.

Probiotic Foods

Don’t forget to eat some foods that bring more bacteria into your gut. Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut or other fermented vegetables are good probiotics. Others include cultured cottage cheese, kefir or yogurt, and fermented drinks like Kevita, Kombucha or Kvass.

Harmful Chemicals

What can harm your microbiome? Remember that these are bacteria. Preservatives in processed foods slow down and kill bacteria. When you eat these preservatives, they have the same effect on your gut bacteria (12).   

Crop chemicals kill insects or bacteria. When you eat foods covered with those chemicals, they can act like a poison to the little organisms living in your gut.

Get a stool test to find out what is really going on.

A stool test is a non-invasive procedure that gives you a pretty good idea what is going on in your digestive system. You can find out about stomach acid, digestive enzymes, and whether your gut is inflamed. A stool test looks for bad bacteria and other pathogens. It also tells you about the beneficial microbes that are living in your gut.

Contact me to set up a quick phone call and learn more about getting a stool test.  

Final Thoughts

Your entire body depends on a healthy gut. That is where nutrients are absorbed, and toxins get their ticket out. Most of your immune system is located in your gut. 

There is a direct connection between your gut and your brain, and many mental health conditions may originate in the digestive tract.

You host a large community of microbes in your gut, and they provide nutrients and substances that keep you healthy.

You can take some simple steps toward improving your digestive health. First of all, pay attention to how you eat. Are you giving yourself time to slow down and relax, so that your digestive system can work?

Avoid substances that can lower your stomach acid, unless a doctor has directed you to take them. Stay away from food for at least 3 hours after your meal to give your MMC a chance to work. Make sure to chew your food properly.

Finally, nurture the microbes in your gut. Make sure they have enough of the right foods, and are protected from harmful substances. Consider taking a stool test to get personalized recommendations for your own gut health.

Are you having digestive issues? How healthy is your gut? Take a digestion quiz by clicking on the link below.

1 thought on “Gut Health 101: Why It Matters And What To Do”

  1. Pingback: Butyrate Foods For Best Gut Health - The Whole Story LLC

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