An Introduction to Gut Health

We’re kicking off a blog series on gut health to cover all the basics on what you should know about maintaining a healthy gut. Our nutrition blogs are part of our commitment to discussing the whole picture of health, gut bugs included!

Over the course of the coming month, we’re going to talk about what the term gut health actually means, WTF a microbiome is and where you can find yours, why fiber is so in right now, and our favorite gut-healthy foods. And we’re gonna kick things off with the basics: when there are bills to be paid, schedules to be planned, and entire seasons of Real Housewives to catch up on, why should your gut health matter? Let’s dive in: 

What is Gut Health, Exactly? 

Simply put, gut health is health. Your gut is your gastrointestinal tract, so the term ‘gut health’ refers to the overall health of that system, including the microbes that are part of it. Stay with us! 

Your GI brings food from your mouth to your stomach, absorbs the available nutrients and energy, and expels the rest out of your body. That alone is a pretty big job, but science has shown us that our guts are in charge of far more than breaking down that avocado toast you ate for breakfast: we now know our guts have a hand in many other aspects of our health, from immunity to chronic illness to brain health--even how we manage stress. As gut health expert Carla Oates explains to Bydrie, "while it might not sound very glamorous, the gut is where 70 percent of our immune system lies. It’s where we make nutrients, metabolize hormones and detoxifying enzymes, neutralize pathogens and make neurotransmitters—so it’s super important to get your digestive health in check in order to feel well.” 

And your gut relies on its army of bacteria, fungus, and other microorganisms in order to do its job well. Fun fact: the microbes in and on your body potentially (there is, of course, debate on this) outnumber your human cells, around 39 million microbial cells to 30 million human cells. These microscopic cells only make up around 3% of our body mass, but their contributions to our overall health far exceed the tangible space they take up on and in our bodies. This system of bacteria and other microorganisms is called the microbiome, a topic which we’ll dive into during the next installment.  And like in any community, there are good and bad bugs inside your gut. 

Your gut bacteria not only help you digest food, they contribute to the overall homeostasis of your body. There is a relationship between the bacteria in your stomach and disease that research is just beginning to reveal. The connection isn’t entirely clear right now, but it is most likely symbiotic--bad bacteria in the gut leads to disease, and vice versa. We all have a mix of “good” and “bad” bacteria in our bodies, and keeping those in balance is the goal of a healthy gut. For example, the gut contains bacteria that fights inflammation, and bacteria that promotes it. We know we need both (think swelling after an injury vs chronic inflammation of the joints). But when this balance is thrown off kilter, it can set the stage for disease to creep in. Specific gut bacteria has been linked to lower immune function, greater risk for allergies, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and certain cancers. Some studies have shown a link to neurological issues like anxiety, depression, and dementia. Gut health can vary among people of different body sizes, which points to a potential link between gut health and a vulnerability to obesity. 

Ok, this sounds important. So how do I know if I have a healthy gut? 

Your gut health depends on a variety of factors. One early factor that you have entirely no control over? How you came into this world. Babies born vaginally have been shown to have a more diverse gut microbiome than babies born via c-section, as our first act as humans leaving the birth canal is swallowing a hefty dose of our mother’s vaginal flora. 

Along with your birth story, your environment matters (some experts think we are way too clean these days to give our microbiomes a chance to thrive), your stress levels matter, and the medications you take matter when it comes to gut health. The overuse of antibiotics poses a real threat to that balance of gut bacteria we dished on earlier.

And, of course, there is your diet to consider. Diets that incorporate lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean high-quality meats, plenty of water and fiber while limiting sugar and processed foods contribute to a healthy gut. It has also been shown that the more diverse your diet is (read: if you eat lots of different plants) the healthier your gut will be. We’ll get more into gut-health foods in a later installment.

So, if you’ve got your eyes on all of these factors, what should you be looking for in terms of a gut imbalance? The most immediate and obvious signs of gut imbalance are, of course, digestive issues. Bloating, gas, diarrhea, stomach pain and nausea are all signs that all is not well in the colony of microbes that have set up camp in your GI tract.  Beyond that, doctors are discovering there are some imbalances that don’t immediately manifest into issues you feel, specifically with colon cancer. 

Your skin can also tell a story about your gut health. Research has shown there is  a strong connection between our skin and our gut known as the gut-skin axis. The skin effectively performs all of its functions when it is in a state homeostasis, which the gut plays a part in. For some people, healing a gut issue can help remedy skin conditions like acne and eczema. These connections can be difficult to spot and are best done under the supervision of a doctor. 

And finally, there is your immune system. Like the gut-skin axis, your gut and your immune system have a complex and important relationship: a large part of your immune system lives in your gut.  Think of your gut microbiota as the front desk security guard and favorite Peloton coach to your immune system: it protects it and helps it to grow stronger. When things are going well, the gut sends signals to the immune system to develop a healthy response to things. The immune system then helps to populate the microbiome with health-promoting microbes. When the gut and immune system are getting along, your body is equipped to handle pathogens, tolerate bacteria, prevent an autoimmune response, and keep you overall healthy. But things like poor diet, physical trauma like surgery, and certain medications can lower your intestinal flora, which can result in lower immunity. 

And that, Everipers, is a primer on gut health. Stay tuned for more on your microbiome, fiber, and gut-healthy food over the course of this month.  Cheers to happy bellies! 

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