Why having a healthy gut is important
Often referred to by medical professionals as "the body’s second brain", the gut – and how healthy it is – can have a huge bearing on our overall health and wellbeing.
Far from just having an impact on digestive issues, the balance of the bacteria in our gut has a part to play in everything from mood to memory to mental health to weight control to diseases such as diabetes. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
When your gut is healthy it sends regular signals to and from your brain relating to critical bodily functions of the immune system, vitamin and mineral absorbency and hormone regulation.
The gut’s ability to keep all of this in check, however, is dependent on the levels and types of bacteria that exist within it – which are primarily responsible for neutralising the toxic by-products that are a part of the digestive process, and aiding in the absorption of nutrients.
It is vital, therefore, that these bacteria are adequately balanced. Too much of one type and infections can occur, while an imbalance the other way can lead to the lining of the gut becoming over-absorbent – a condition known as leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut results in undigested food molecules, toxins and other forms of waste that normally cannot pass through the gut lining being absorbed into the bloodstream, and – as millions of suffers the world over can testify – the consequences can be severe. It's very important to point out that most autoimmune disease is due to leaky gut.
The good news is that the health of our gut is largely in our hands. Below are the most common causes of gut complaints, and what we can do to keep our gut health in order:
What causes an unhealthy gut?
With literally trillions of bacteria and 100 trillion+ other microorganisms swimming around in our gut – but just 10 trillion human cells in our bodies – it's good to remind ourselves that we are, in fact, only about 10 percent human, with bugs making up the rest of us.
To keep the body healthy, it's essential to keep the gut healthy. While this is no easy feat, there are a number of things we can do to take care of it, and in turn, take care of ourselves.
The main one is to avoid processed foods at all cost. Packed with transfats, emulsifiers, sugars and other harmful additives, processed foods also do a great job of messing with the delicate microclimate of the gut.
Specifically, processed foods are known to play havoc with our microbiome – the cells that live within our intestine – which leads to a litany of medical conditions, including inflammation, insulin resistance, obesity and even diabetes. One ingredient found very often in processed foods – high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – is particularly brutal on the gut, upsetting its natural balance by feeding unhealthy bacteria.
What’s more, a very recent study published in the journal Autoimmune Disease highlighted a clear correlation between the amount of processed foods in the modern diet and the increase in autoimmune deficiencies as a result of leaky gut syndrome.
Another all-too-common foodstuff that your gut will not thank you for is grains. One of the many problems with grains is that they contain high quantities of nutrient blockers – known as lectins. Once ingested, these lectins gravitate towards the sugar-containing cells within the gut that break down food. Over time, they attach themselves to the digestive lining, causing inflammation and then, ultimately, leaky gut.
It’s not just a poor diet that can lead to an unhealthy gut. Other lifestyle factors – in particular stress – can disrupt this delicate bacterial balance. When we endure periods of stress, our bodies release peptides called corticotrophin releasing factors (CRF). These CRF, while vital for the regulation of our stress response, can also have a potent effect on the gut, causing inflammation, sensitivity and increased permeability in the gut lining. Getting at least seven hours of sleep every night, will aid good gut health.
The final spot on the list is pharmaceuticals. Many, such as antacids, NSAIDs, antibiotics (especially antibiotics!), and a ton of other prescription and over-the-counter drugs are all toxic to the gut. So, use with care, and only when needed.
How healthy is your gut?
The consequences of an unhealthy gut can be far-reaching and severe, with the potential to impact just about every facet of your health. It goes without saying that we have to be vigilant in watching out for the warning signs of gut trouble.
One of the more obvious signs comes in the form of digestive issues such as excessive bloating, gas, and diarrhoea, which can all be caused by an excess of “bad” bacteria in the gut.
And if you are suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) on a regular basis, you should certainly speak to your doctor about it to carry out some tests, as it could be indicative of something more serious – or it could eventually lead to something more serious.
New research out of Hungary, for example, recently highlighted how increased permeability in the gut lining can often be localised to the colon – causing not only IBS, but also ulcerative colitis and even Crohn’s disease.
Outside of the digestive tract there are plenty of other areas of your body where poor gut health can take its toll – including your brain. According to the Journal Neuro Endocrinology Letters, the inflammation caused by leaky gut leads to the release of what are known as pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are known to induce feelings of depression. And that’s not all when it comes to your cognitive and mental health. Indeed, poor gut health has also been linked to anxiety, ADHD, and poor memory function.
It should come as no surprise to you that there is a direct connection between poor gut health and weight. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg recently found a link between intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and visceral fat, which is the body fat that we store within the abdominal cavity. Their research found that women with a higher indication of leaky gut also had higher visceral fat levels and larger waistlines.
Improving your gut health
Fortunately, for anyone out there experiencing issues like the ones above, there is a very simple method to improving your gut health known as the four R’s: Remove, Replace, Re-innoculate and Repair.
Start by removing any aggravators to the gut, such as foods you may have a sensitivity to. The easiest way to establish what foods you may be negatively reacting to is to visit your physician for food sensitivity testing.
Once you've removed what ails you, it’s time to replenish the gut with plenty of goodness such as plant fibre and the right vitamins and minerals to bring it back to optimum digestion. High fibre plant foods such as leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds are a great way to do this and can be eaten every day. And there are also plenty of probiotic foods such as garlic, lentils, beans, onions, and asparagus, which the healthy bacteria in our gut thrive on. Also keep in mind that the fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso soup are also loved by the healthy gut bacteria.
Next up we need to repopulate the good bacteria in our gut to restore a healthy balance. One great way is add some probiotic foods to the mix such as yoghurt (plain Greek style is preferred) and soft cheese. Probiotic supplements are also a very effective way to speed things up here.
Perhaps the most vital stage is: repair. When the gut is inflamed, the gut lining can become seriously damaged over time and it must be fully repaired to allow for proper absorption of vital minerals and nutrients. There are plenty of great foods that can help us do this. Think anything high in vitamin A, D and C (carrots, fish, leafy greens, eggs and citrus fruits, to name a few).
Food is really the main issue (accounting for about 70 percent) when it comes to maintaining good gut health – and good health in particular. Given the relatively unhealthy diets most of us have grown up on and probably still eat, the chances are that we could all do a lot to improve our gut health, and the first step on the path is to know where you stand.
The opinions in the column are by Dr Graham Simpson, the Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah, Dubai, and are not necessarily those held by Esquire or Hearst International.