“All disease begins in the gut.” – Hippocrates
Regarded as the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates was quoted saying this over 2,000 years ago. Yet interest regarding the gut’s role in the development of diseases outside of the digestive tract has only become popular in the most recent decades. What researchers are finding, though, is that an unhealthy gut can be a contributing factor to serious diseases, such as diabetes, depression, inflammatory conditions, certain autoimmune disorders, diverticulitis,and constipation.
It is evident that your gut, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, is one of the most important organ systems in your body. Although its main responsibility is to digest food, the gut is intricately involved in various other organ systems of the human body.
For example, your gut makes up 75% of your immune system. Additionally, there is an entire sector of the nervous system devoted to the gastrointestinal tract, called the enteric nervous system, which consists of over 500 million neurons. These neurons release the same neurotransmitters as your brain does, which explains why you often get a “gut feeling” about something or “feel butterflies” in your stomach. Your gut has so many functions that it has even been called “the second brain”.
So what does all of this have to do with taking care of your gut? Essentially, an unhealthy gut can wreak havoc on the entire body. Besides typical symptoms of GI distress (bloating, cramping, nausea, etc.), you may also feel tired, depressed, and inflamed. Furthermore, an unhealthy gut can predispose you to developing serious life-altering diseases. To keep your digestive tract functioning properly, this article will outline the two main factors that determine the health of your gut along with tips on how to take care of your gut.
The gut flora
Did you know that your gastrointestinal tract contains approximately 100 trillion microorganisms? Even more astonishing, the gut contains ten times more bacteria than all of the cells in the entire human body. (Huffington Post)
While bacteria may not sound like a good thing, bacteria residing in the gut, called the gut flora, is completely normal. In fact, the gut flora is necessary for many important processes, including digestion, metabolism, vitamin synthesis, defending against pathogens, etc.
An easy way to take care of the gut and maintain a balanced gut flora is to avoid overusing antibiotics, if possible. Antibiotics kill harmful bacteria, such as when you have an infection like strep throat. However, people often misuse antibiotics by taking them when a bacterial infection is not present. This is harmful in many ways, but in regards to gut health the antibiotics can kill off the good bacteria that your gut needs. Studies have found that antibiotics cause “a profound and rapid loss of diversity and a shift in the composition of the gut flora.”
Another way you can take care of the gut is to supplement your good bacteria by taking a probiotic. Probiotics are formulations either in capsule, powder, or liquid form that contain different strains of good bacteria. Drug store shelves seem to be overflowing with different types and brands of probiotics, which can make choosing the best one for you a daunting task. The most studied strains of bacteria used in probiotics are the Lactobacillus and Saccharomyces species, so it is often recommended to look for products that contain these strains.
The gut barrier
The gut acts as a barrier during the process of digestion: it breaks down food and other substances that are ingested, then only absorbs the nutrients and fuel that the body needs. Anything not absorbed by the digestive tract is, as we know, eliminated through the other end, which is one way pathogens and other foreign substances are prevented from entering the bloodstream. Additionally, gut flora play a role in the gut barrier through several different mechanisms. One is by preventing pathogens from adhering to the epithelial lining of the tract and subsequently entering the bloodstream.
The gut barrier can become disrupted in a condition known as “leaky gut syndrome,” which occurs when large substances that normally cannot permeate the intestinal lining leak into the bloodstream. (WebMD) Evidence suggests that increased intestinal permeability plays a pathogenic role in the development of autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
An important way you can take care of your gut is to eliminate foods and toxins that can cause leaky gut syndrome.
Below are examples of what research suggests can lead to leaky gut syndrome:
- Diets high in processed foods and refined carbohydrates
- Diets high in unhealthy fats (trans fats, saturated fats, and omega-6 fats)
- NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)
- Chronic stress
By eliminating these causative factors you can help restore the integrity of the gut barrier. However, it might not be possible to completely eliminate all of these factors from your lifestyle. If that is the case, there are certain foods and supplements you can take to help in maintaining a healthy gut barrier. Examples include fermentable fibers (starches like sweet potato, yam, etc.) and fermented foods (yogurt, sauerkraut, bone broth).
There are also several lifestyle modifications that can help you take care of your gut, which include reducing your consumption of caffeinated beverages, limiting alcohol intake, quitting smoking, and taking steps to manage your stress.