How Your Gut Impacts Whole Body Health
Listening to your gut is about more than responding to your body when you feel uneasy or need to make a decision. The gut refers to your gastrointestinal (GI) system, the health of which is generally determined by the levels and types of bacteria in your digestive, intestinal tract.
To understand the impact of gut health, it’s important to understand how the gut works. When your GI tract digests food, it breaks it down to the most basic parts and the valuable nutrients are absorbed through the wall of the gut to be transported through the bloodstream. To regulate this process, the gut uses nerves, bacteria and hormones. The bacteria are of particular significance – especially because bacteria tend to get a bad rap. Bacteria form a mucosal layer that strengthens the gut wall and good digestive health is the result of a balance of good and bad bacteria.
Gut health also affects more than just your digestion. It can have tangible effects on your mood, immune system and more. Here are seven reasons you should listen to your gut.
1. No One Likes Aches and Pains
Right off the bat, poor gut health is associated with minor, but unpleasant effects on the body. Abdominal pain, bloating, acid reflux and flatulence are possible effects, as are headaches, fatigue and joint pain.
2. Some Walls Are Worth Fortifying
Good bacteria in the gut – also called beneficial gut flora – strengthen the gut wall, which protects the rest of the body from potential pathogens by acting as a layer of cells and chemical barriers. Gut flora activate immune functions in the cells, thereby ensuring that physical barriers to infection are in place. Furthermore, flora affect the pH of the gut, keeping it relatively acidic and therefore hostile to invading bacteria.
3. Bacteria Regulates Inflammation
The bacteria in your gut either activate or suppress inflammation as a means of regulating the immune system. Some of this is gut wall-related: when the wall is compromised, potential pathogens can enter the blood stream, which consequently activates inflammation. Inflammation – the go-to response of the gut’s immune system to imbalance and general poor health – is the cornerstone of a range of conditions that affect the whole body, from allergies and asthma to Alzheimer’s disease and neuropathy.
4. You’ll Digest Better
A diverse composition of bacteria can strengthen and improve your digestion. Different types of bacteria have different functions that can help metabolize different, specific nutrients and gut health can therefore affect the ability of your body to absorb vitamins and minerals. Good bacteria can also keep yeasts and other fermentation at bay and prevent an overgrowth of fungus and other pathogens that can activate – you guessed it – inflammation.
5. It Can Prevent More Serious Digestive Disorders
Inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and colorectal cancer are all associated with intestinal inflammation, which is a result of how gut health impacts the immune system. However, it’s worth noting that the risk for these conditions is also considerably affected by genetics.
6. Your Gut is Central to Your Nervous System
There are approximately 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract, making up the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) and primarily governing digestion. The nerves in your gut communicate with the brain in your central nervous system, relaying the health of the gut and immune system. The ENS can also produce neurochemicals, like dopamine and serotonin, which can impact mood and mental health. New research suggests there could be a link to memory and thinking skills. In fact, the ENS is so significant that many physicians refer to the gut as a second brain.
7. Your Gut Really Does Have Feelings
Gut feelings are totally real. In addition to dopamine and serotonin - 90 percent of which is produced in the gut – the gut releases other major neurotransmitters that are usually associated with the brain, such as glutamate, norepinephrine, nitric oxide and enkephalins, the body’s natural opiates. Research also suggests that irritation in the gut can trigger mood changes and people with bowel disorders, such as Celiac disease and IBS are more likely to suffer from mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety.
What Creates Imbalance and What Can You Do About it?
An imbalance of various bacteria and/or an overgrowth of fungi – both of which contribute to an unhealthy environment in your gut – are largely affected by diet. Low-fiber, high-sugar, processed food and other options that are nutrient-poor and have high calories are likely to contribute to an influx of the bad bacteria and yeast. Overuse of medications that block healthy gut function – like antibiotics, acid-blocking agents and anti-inflammatory medications – can also contribute to poor gut health.
To improve gut health, the key is eating whole, unprocessed food with plenty of fiber (think: vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains) and taking probiotics or digestive enzymes when recommended by your physician. Healthy sleep, stress reduction and good exercise habits can also help from a behavioral standpoint. If you are experiencing any health concerns you think may be rooted in gut health, talk to your primary care physician about your symptoms and ask if you need a referral to see a gastroenterologist.