A Quick Guide to Your Gut Health
Your gut is home to trillions of microorganisms that are important not only for the health of your digestive system but your overall health as well. Researchers believe that most people have a specific balance and variety of bacteria, and when this is disrupted, disease follows.
When your gut health becomes disrupted due to dysbiosis, you may develop digestive and systemic symptoms that could signal this problem. Luckily, there are ways to diagnose gut dysbiosis so you can get appropriate treatment. There are also simple and easy ways to protect your gut health and which involve lifestyle and dietary changes. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about gut health.
What Do We Mean By “Gut Health?”
The term “gut health” refers to the function and balance of the many microorganisms that inhabit your digestive tract.
Collectively called the microbiota, these microorganisms include various viruses, fungi, archaea, but most of all bacteria. There are thousands of bacterial species in your digestive tract, but over 90% of them belong to Proteobacteria, Firmicutes, Actinobacteria, and Bacteroidetes and most are found in the large intestine.
Human gut microbiota has co-evolved over thousands of years to form a mutually-beneficial relationship. In every person, gut microbiota starts to develop with birth when bacteria first colonize the digestive tract and slowly diversify until about 2.5 years of age.
Most healthy adults have a specific range of good to bad bacteria. But every person also has a unique microbial balance that is stable until around 65 years of age. After that time, the balance of bacteria starts to shift, which may be a normal part of aging, according to recent research. Illness, antibiotic use, diet, and other factors can also affect the balance of your gut bacteria.
Why Gut Health Is Important
There are over 10 to 100 trillion bacteria in your digestive system and over 2,000 different species. Researchers also believe that there are more bacterial cells in your body than your own cells and that their genetic material (i.e. the microbiome) exceeds that of the human genome by 100 times.
Just looking at these numbers gives you a clue about how important microbes are. While not an essential organ, your microbiota is essential for many processes, including:
Maintaining the mucus barrier
Your intestines have a mucosal barrier composed of mucus and epithelial cells, which protect keeps harmful microorganisms and toxins from entering your bloodstream while allowing nutrients to pass through. Your gut bacteria produce nutrients and metabolites that provide energy to epithelial cells and regulate the production of mucosal components.
By communicating with immune cells inside your digestive system, gut bacteria help your immune system “learn” to respond to infection while learning to differentiate between “good” and “bad” microorganisms. This may explain why many autoimmune disorders have recently been linked with gut dysbiosis.
Producing essential nutrients
Lactic acid bacteria are needed to produce vitamin B12, which animals, plants, and fungi can’t produce. Bifidobacteria produce folate, which is another essential B vitamin needed for normal development and red cell formation. Many gut bacteria also produce other vitamins, notably vitamin K and other B vitamins.
Gut bacteria ferment certain forms of fiber and produce beneficial byproducts that help maintain normal digestion. Bacteria in the large intestine also “recycle” bile acids by converting them into secondary bile acids, which are reabsorbed and returned to the liver for processing. Ultimately, this helps lower cholesterol levels since cholesterol is a component of bile
Signs of an Unhealthy Gut
An unhealthy gut has an imbalance in microorganisms, i.e. reduced variety, loss of good bacteria, and growth of bad bacteria. This is known as dysbiosis and has been linked to poor digestive and overall health. Some signs of an unhealthy (imbalanced) gut include:
However, these are fairly nonspecific symptoms that appear in many other conditions. To see whether dysbiosis is causing your symptoms, your doctor may recommend an organic acid test, a hydrogen breath test, or a comprehensive stool analysis.
Those suffering from an imbalance in gut bacteria are also more likely to develop certain medical conditions. Because your microbiota is involved in so many physiological processes, any disruption in their normal levels and diversity can to health problems such as:
How You Can Improve Your Gut Health
According to the Microbiome Foundation, there are two things you need to do to take care of your gut health: feeding your microbiota and limiting processed foods. While diet isn’t the be-all and end-all of a healthy gut, it certainly plays a huge role.
Studies show that modern diets high in processed foods and low in fiber have a deleterious effect on gut health. In contrast, a diet high in fiber, resistant starch, prebiotics, probiotics, fruits and vegetables, and fermented foods boosts gut health.
So, to improve your gut health, make sure you regularly eat minimally processed plant foods, sauerkraut, kefir, and miso. Eating 20g of resistant starch — a type of fiber that is resistant to digestion but is fermented by good gut bacteria — is also recommended. Sources of resistant starch include beans, lentils, oats, and green bananas.
It’s also a good idea to avoid highly processed foods like white flour, sugary drinks, chips, fast food, and candies. Studies show that additives and emulsifiers in processed foods (e.g. carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate 80) are associated with dysbiosis and intestinal barrier dysfunction.
When talking about gut health, what most mean is the balance and diversity of the numerous microorganisms that live inside your digestive system. These microorganisms have evolved with our bodies to form a symbiotic relationship — our bodies provide food and shelter, while bacteria produce nutrients and prevent disease.
However, a poor diet, stress, aging, and the use of antibiotics can disrupt the delicate balance. When this happens, you may initially notice digestive symptoms as well as inflammatory, neurological, and metabolic problems. In the long run, an imbalance in your gut microbiome can lead to chronic diseases like heart disease, arthritis, and even cancer. By eating a healthy diet rich in fiber and probiotics, you can keep your gut healthy and happy and stave off common health problems.
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