How Gut Health Impacts Other Areas of Your Life
More than 2000 years ago, Hippocrates allegedly said that “all disease begins in the gut.” Today, we have research to corroborate this theory. As now widely known, a healthy gut can absorb and produce essential nutrients necessary for overall health. It also regulates immunity and influences mood and brain function, among countless other things.
And it's not just the gut itself that influences health, the countless microbes that inhabit it play a part too. Research into the role of the human microbiome is slowly discovering how the interaction between gut critters and your body affects health and well-being. Knowing all this, it’s safe to assume that a healthy gut leads to a healthy life! Want to learn more about why that’s true? Keep reading
What Is Gut Health?
When talking about gut health, people may refer to different aspects of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Your GI tract contains major organs that make up your digestive systems, such as the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. So, gut health is a fairly non-specific term that can mean many different things.
But for the sake of simplicity, let’s say gut health boils down to the following:
- Good digestion and absorption of food
- Not having a GI illness
- Having a balanced gut flora
- Having a strong immune system
- Good well-being
As you can see, gut health goes way beyond the digestive tract. That’s because gut health influences overall health, and your general health has a strong impact on the health of your digestive system. A not-so-healthy gut, on the other hand, can mean poor digestion, having a GI illness (e.g. gastritis), an imbalance in good vs. bad gut bacteria, poor immunity, and low levels of well-being.
Why Gut Health Matters
The primary reason gut health matters is because a healthy digestive system is necessary for the body to get nutrients and fluids that keep you alive and healthy. Your body uses nutrients from food to produce energy, repair cells, and make hormones, among other things. Problems with digestion can disrupt these processes and lead to illness.
But gut health has important roles that go way beyond digestion. Your intestines have hundreds of trillions of microorganisms, which is ten times the number of all the cells in your body. This collective called the microbiome helps regulate your immune system by interacting with the immune system, 70% of which resides in the gut.
Your gut is also your second brain. It communicates via your vagus nerve and hormones with the brain, which can affect mood and cognition. And it goes the other way round: the brain can impact gut functioning and health. This bidirectional communication is known as the gut-brain axis (GBA). If you’ve ever felt butterflies in your stomach or had a gut feeling about something, now you know why.
Problems That Affect Gut Health
According to the National Institutes of Health, digestive diseases affect 60 million to 70 million Americans, which means that poor gut health is common. Just a couple of examples of common diseases that affect the digestive tract include:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Gallbladder disease
- Peptic ulcer disease
- Chronic constipation
Many of the above are a result of diet and lifestyle choices. A low-fiber diet, for example, is known to cause constipation, while physical inactivity and obesity are known to increase someone’s risk of gallstones. Signs that you need to pay more attention to your gut health include:
- Weight loss or gain
- Chronic pain
- Depression and anxiety
- Frequent migraines
- Chronic pain
Certain diseases and medications can also cause problems with gut health. Antibiotics, for example, can cause long-lasting disruption of gut flora. Broad-spectrum antibiotics reduce the number and diversity of good gut bacteria, leading to diarrhea in the short term and problems with immunity in the long term.
How Gut Health Affects Your Life
The state of your gut has effects on almost every other aspect of your health, from your immune system functioning to your mood and more. Playing a central role in overall health, it’s not surprising your gut health will reflect on your well-being and quality of life. Here’s how your gut health may reflect on other areas:
Your gut releases hormones, neurotransmitters and immunological factors that send signals to your brain directly or through autonomic neurons. This is known as the GBA and seems to play a role in mental health. Studies show that when stress, antibiotics, or disease disrupt the GBA, people are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric problems.
Any health problem is bound to cause fatigue and low energy levels. But this is especially the case with diseases that affect the digestive system. Your digestive system is where your body gets its energy-producing nutrients from. It also regulates inflammation and brain functioning, both of which have an effect on energy levels. Another thing to note is that many cases of chronic fatigue syndrome have been linked to gut inflammation and an imbalanced microflora.
Because having poor gut health can lead to chronic disease states, it will inevitably affect your overall well-being. Constantly feeling tired, having aches and pains, and experiencing the side effects of a disrupted biome is bound to make you feel less than optimal. Good gut health, on the other hand, is protective against the above-mentioned issues and higher levels of well-being.
Your digestive system has roles beyond mere digestion of food and absorption of nutrients and fluids. It regulates your immunity, keeps your mind sharp, and staves off many chronic diseases. Poor gut health, on the other hand, can negatively affect your overall health and levels of well-being.
While not every disease affecting the digestive system is caused by our choices, many are. Eating a high-fiber diet, being physically active, and avoiding antibiotics are a couple of strategies known to protect gut health. Knowing how important the state of your gut is for your life helps keep you motivated to take care of both.
Bischoff SC. 'Gut health': a new objective in medicine?. BMC Med. 2011;9:24. Published 2011 Mar 14. doi:10.1186/1741-7015-9-24
Your Digestive System & How it Works. National Institute of Diabetes and Kidney Disease. December 2017. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/digestive-system-how-it-works
Digestive Diseases Statistics for the United States. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Last Reviewed November 2014. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/digestive-diseases
Lammert F, Gurusamy K, Ko CW, et al. Gallstones. Nat Rev Dis Primers. 2016;2:16024. Published 2016 Apr 28. doi:10.1038/nrdp.2016.24
Ramirez J, Guarner F, Bustos Fernandez L, Maruy A, Sdepanian VL, Cohen H. Antibiotics as Major Disruptors of Gut Microbiota. Front Cell Infect Microbiol. 2020;10:572912. Published 2020 Nov 24. doi:10.3389/fcimb.2020.572912
Clapp M, Aurora N, Herrera L, Bhatia M, Wilen E, Wakefield S. Gut microbiota's effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis. Clin Pract. 2017;7(4):987. Published 2017 Sep 15. doi:10.4081/cp.2017.987
Lakhan SE, Kirchgessner A. Gut inflammation in chronic fatigue syndrome. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2010;7:79. Published 2010 Oct 12. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-7-79