One of the most exciting fields of medical exploration these days is studying the gut. It seems that everywhere we turn people are talking about gut health, whether from the perspective of nutrition, food intolerances, disease or one of the many other angles from which this topic can be approached. The gut is often referred to as “the second brain”. It is your digestive tract, which starts at your mouth and ends at your bottom. Many of us think of the gut simply as the part of the body responsible for digestion, but it is actually a complex organ system that is constantly communicating with the brain in your head and other organ systems to maintain balance in your body. It is not only involved in the breakdown and absorption of food, but also in protecting the body from the invasion of pathogens, keeping the immune system strong and balancing the nervous system. These functions are possible because of the microorganisms that live in our intestines known as the microbiome.
The microbiome is a term used to describe the trillions of microbes (bacteria, viruses and fungi) that normally live in and on us. The microbiome is established at birth and develops based on our exposures and interactions with our environment. Scientists think that what we eat, where we live, our genetic makeup and many other factors contribute to which organisms colonize our bodies. Therefore, each one of us has a unique group of microorganisms making up our microbiome. We are dependent on these “bugs” for our health because they help to keep our body in balance. The gut microbiome has been described as a control center. If these microorganisms are out of balance (dysbiosis), it can be detrimental to our health. Basically, when the gut is out of balance, the body can become out of balance, leading to illness.
Dysbiosis occurs when there are too many harmful or too few helpful kinds of microorganisms in the gut. We all know that eating contaminated food (“food poisoning”) or getting a “stomach bug” can lead to things like stomach pain and diarrhea, but imbalance in the gut appears to be much more complex than this simple cause and effect. Dysbiosis has, not surprisingly, been linked to a number of gastrointestinal diseases, including stomach ulcers, colitis, diverticulitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease. Dysbiosis, however, has also been linked to medical problems beyond the gut, including obesity, allergies, skin disorders, and autoimmune disease. What causes an imbalance in the gut microbiome? Many things are thought to contribute, including cesarean birth, infant formula feeding, over-sanitation, antibiotic use, poor nutrition and infection.
What can we do to promote a healthy gut environment? Here are a few answers:
Eat Prebiotic Foods. Prebiotics are fuel for the good gut bacteria. By eating prebiotics, you can nourish the good bacteria in your gut and promote a healthy gut environment. Foods high in fiber are good prebiotics. Examples are salad greens, asparagus, artichokes, legumes, bananas, apples, onions, and garlic.
Consider Probiotics. Probiotics are microorganisms that aid in digestion and gut health. They can be obtained in supplement form and are also found in many foods we eat. Foods containing probiotics include yogurt, cultured vegetables (pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi), kefir and kombucha. There is a great deal of research looking at the health benefits of probiotics. Preliminary evidence suggests that supplementation may be helpful in certain medical problems, such as infectious diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome. We don’t have all the answers, but the research is ongoing. Probiotics are relatively safe, but there are times when taking a probiotic may be harmful, such as if your immune system is weak. It is important to talk with your doctor when starting supplements like probiotics.
Eat real food. This may be the best thing you can do. Instead of focusing on one or two foods to incorporate into your diet, look at your diet as a whole. The Standard American Diet is crummy for the gut. It is high in processed foods, refined flours and sugars that lead to inflammation and an unbalanced, unhealthy gut environment. A diet rich in plants and low in processed foods and sugars cools inflammation, feeds the good bacteria in your gut and promotes health in and far beyond the gut.
Avoid unnecessary antibiotics. Antibiotics revolutionized medicine in the 20th century. They can be lifesaving and are an important part of many medical treatments. Antibiotics kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria, which is a good thing when you are targeting a bad bug. They also kill or inhibit the good bacteria in your gut, which can potentially have negative consequences. It is important that we reserve antibiotics for the times when they are necessary. Avoid taking antibiotics unless your doctor tells you that you need them. If you are taking antibiotics, it may be a good time to supplement with a probiotic to help restore some of the good bacteria to your gut.
Manage Stress. Remember what I told you last time about stress and its consequences on health? The gut is no exception. Stress can negatively affect the way the digestive system works. Stress management promotes proper digestion and motility of the gut.
Exercise. We are not meant to be sedentary. It is important that we get regular physical exercise to promote health and wellness. Research also suggests that exercise may benefit our gut health.
Get adequate sleep. Not getting enough sleep has many health consequences. Changes in the gut microbiota may be one of them. It appears that the types of food we eat and when we eat can affect our circadian rhythms. Conversely, disruption in sleep may also change the good rhythms in the gut and the health of the gut environment.
In 2008, the Human Microbiome Project was started at the National Institute of Health with the goal of identifying the microorganisms making up the human microbiome so that their role in human health and disease could be studied. Research in this field has exploded, and it appears we may have underestimated the importance of the little bugs living in our gut. Making healthy lifestyle choices to promote gut health can have far-reaching effects. We will surely be hearing much more about this topic. For now, treat your body (and your bugs) well, and better health will follow.