Gut health – what’s the big deal?

Gut health. I feel like you can’t go a week, maybe a day, without hearing about it. It’s definitely getting a lot of airtime at the moment, and rightly so. As a health coach and friend to many 30-something women, one of the most common problems I hear about is gut issues. Whether it’s bloating, sensitivities to foods, abdominal pain, poo problems (I love talking about poo) or excessive wind, the list goes on… many people these days are experiencing gut health problems.

The first step in understanding gut health is understanding exactly what the gut is. The gut is another name for the gastrointestinal system, it is a group of organs that includes the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, large intestine and anus₁. I think this is important to understand as often people mistake the gut for just the intestines when actually it’s a group of organs working together.

So what does our gut do?

1. Digestion : The guts primary (and most obvious) function is the digestion and absorption of nutrients, and the excretion of waste. It is where food is broken down (starting in the mouth with chewing and enzymes in your saliva) and absorbed into the body before finally getting rid of the waste (toxins etc).

Image of hand on belly

2. Immunity : Another role of the gut is immunity – it is on front line of fighting disease. 70-80% of our immunity comes from the gut. First, the acid and enzymes in the stomach work to sterilise our food and, in this way, protect the body from illness and infection. In addition to this the digestive tract is an importance source of immune function in the body₁. The gut is home to the gut microbiome*. The gut microbiome play a crucial role in our immune defense. They not only help control the digestion of food but also regulate immune homeostasis₆. The gut lining at times can be one cell thick, so if these little guys aren’t functioning well, it can lead to immune responses, intolerances, sensitivities to food, leaky gut, and some more severe illnesses like auto-immune diseases.

*Gut microbiome : refers to the billions of live bacteria humans have in the gut, but it also includes things like fungi and viruses. It’s estimated that the gut contains approximately 35,000 different strains of bacteria₂.

3. Gut-brain communication : Ever get that ‘gut-feeling’? Well, it’s not a load of bull. The gut and brain are in constant communication. First, the gut provides information to the brain, while the brain helps us decide what, when, how much, and how fast to eat and drink. In addition, both the brain and gut play key roles in our stress level, and our mood or state of mind. Not only is the gut filled with nerve cells that receive and provide information to the brain, but the gut also produces more than 90% of the body’s serotonin, a hormone that helps regulate our mood or emotions₁. This is where a healthy gut and diet can help fight symptoms of mental illnesses.

What affects our gut health?

There are many, many things that affect our gut health₃. These include:

  • If you were born via C-section or vaginally : Being born vaginally exposes the baby to strains of bacteria which can help support the gut microbiome.
  • Diet during infancy : Breastfed infants are exposed to more beneficial bacteria from their mothers than formula-fed babies. The breastmilk microbiota of the mother can vary depending on; the mother’s health, BMI, antibiotic use, and diet.
  • Diet during adulthood : Diet has a profound impact on the types of bacteria that can thrive. More on this below.
  • Antibiotics : Antibiotics kill bacteria. This is good when you need them (e.g, to fight an infection) but they also tend to kill good bacteria, including the bacteria in your gut. Of course they’re needed sometimes but multiple / extended use of them can lead to gut health issues.
  • Stress levels : Stress can have a huge effect on our digestive system and our microbiome. Being in a stressed state (sympathetic nervous system activated) blood flows away from our gut, inhibiting digestion. Extended periods of stress can also alter the gut microbiome₄.
  • Age : It takes up to three years for a human to colonise their gut microbiome. What we’re exposed to as children (the outdoors, animals, ‘mud’ etc) helps colonise our gut health. Microbial diversity may also decrease after age 75₅.
  • Genetics : Most of our gut health is down to environmental factors, but some aspects may be inherited.

How can we improve our gut health?

As with most things in life, there is not a ‘one size fits all’ answer to this question. If you are experiencing gut health problems, they may be linked to one or a number of causes (such as stress, diet etc). Here are a few tips I often give clients to improve their gut health:

  • Eat probiotic foods: These are fermented foods which contain live cultures or bacteria. Some common probiotic foods include; kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles (not in vinegar), kimchi, & tempeh. Each of these foods contain different live cultures, so getting a range of different fermented foods will help increase your gut health further.
  • Eat more prebiotic foods: Prebiotic foods are the fibre sources that feed the bacteria in your gut. You’ll find prebiotic foods in many fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Basically plant foods. As there a millions if not billions of different bacteria in your gut, getting a range of different plant foods will help feed the range of different bacteria in your microbiome.
  • Reduce stress: I cannot stress this enough (pun intended), stress affects your digestion hugely. When we’re in a stressed state out body directs blood away from our digestive system to our limbs. For tips on how to relieve stress, check out my blog: How does stress affect your health.
  • Reduce processed food intake: such as refined sugars and high (bad) fat foods (trans fats and saturated fatty acids – find out more about fats here). Just like plant-based whole foods support your gut health, processed foods do not and can lead to inflammation within the gut and body.

The Western diet is associated with dysbiosis, a disruption in the gut bacterial profile when the “bad” bacteria outnumbers the “good.” A combination of probiotics and prebiotics as part of a whole foods diet can help achieve the right balance of gut bacteria to support gut health and overall health₃.

How is your gut health? Do you have any problems? If you have any questions or would like to chat about it more please feel free drop me a line here or in the comments box.

Love Emma x

REFERENCES:

  1. NYU, Your Gut Feeling: A Healthier Digestive System Means a Healthier You, online, https://med.nyu.edu/medicine/gastro/about-us/Gastroenterology-news-archive/your-gut-feeling-healthier-digestive-system-means-healthier
  2. World J Gastroenterol Jandhyala, S. M., (2015) Talukdar, R., Subramanyam, C., Vuyyuru, H., Sasikala, M., & Reddy, D. N, Role of the normal gut microbiota, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4528021
  3. Institute of Integrative Nutrition, (2021), Module 12: Your Gut Microbiome
  4. BMC Microbiol 14, (2014), Galley, J. D., Nelson, M. C., Yu, Z., Dowd, S. E., Walter, J., Kumar, P. S., Lyte, M., & Bailey, M. T, Exposure to a social stressor disrupts the community structure of the colonic mucosa-associated microbiota, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25028050
  5. PloS One 5, (2010). Biagi, E., Nylund, L., Candela, M., Ostan, R., Bucci, L., & Pini, E…De Vos, W., Through ageing, and beyond: Gut microbiota and inflammatory status in seniors and cenetarians, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20498852
  6. Gut Microbes, (2012) H J WU & E Wu, The role of gut microbiota in immune homeostasis and autoimmunity, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3337124/

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