What is the gut?
The gut is another name for the digestive tract or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the hollow organs that form the core part of the digestive system. Starting from the mouth and ending at the anus, the gut passes through food, absorbs its energy and extracts nutrients, and expels the waste. Although sometimes used colloquially to describe the stomach or belly, the gut actually comprises the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus, with food travelling through the GI tract in that order. The liver, pancreas and gallbladder play an important role in digestion, and are the 3 solid organs that when combined with the digestive tract form what’s known as the digestive system.
Spanning 30 feet (9 metres) in length, the gut is home to an assortment of approximately 300 to 500 different types of bacteria that make up your gut microbiota (GM), predominantly situated in the colon. GM is unique to you, determined partly by your mother’s GM and partly by your lifestyle and diet. Microorganisms found in our digestive tract serve many functions:
- they help to metabolise food and nutrients
- they break down medication for absorption
- their immune response helps to prevent infection and inflammation
- they prevent the colonisation of pathogenic microbes by claiming the guts real estate and restricting the growth of dangerous bacteria
What is gut health?
Having a healthy gut involves having a diverse microbiota – a plethora of different species of microorganisms. A gut ecosystem rich in different species is more robust against environmental influences. Lower GM diversity is considered a microbial imbalance, and has been associated with numerous health conditions, as well as with the elderly population:
- those suffering from autoimmune diseases
- cardiometabolic conditions
- Type 1 and type 2 diabetes
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Atopic eczema
- Coeliac disease
Some even theorise that conditions like GORD might be in part due to the overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut, although this isn’t fully understood.
But why is gut health important? Without a diverse microbiota, your body may not be able to regulate the growth of other microorganisms in your gut like fungi. For example, without a healthy gut, the candida fungus may overgrow in the gut, causing white spots on the tongue and leading to weight gain. Similarly, an unhealthy gut may lead to food sensitivities, if your gut doesn’t have the right amount of particular bacteria to metabolise certain food types.
Know your Gut Type
As well as being inherited from your mother, diet and lifestyle contribute to your gut microbiota, so it’s important to know your gut and it’s particular quirks. This involves learning which foods to consume and what foods you may be missing to best support your gut health. According to Josh Axe, a natural medical doctor and nutritionist, there are different ‘types’ of guts, each with their telltale signs and a list of rectifying foods to bring yours back to optimal health.
Characterised by a white coating on the tongue, weight gain and phlegmy coughs, this type is an overgrowth of the candida fungus in the digestive tract. A large portion of the carbohydrates that you need for energy are stolen by the fungus so that they can continue to leech off you.
For candida, sugary foods like ice creams, cakes, cookies are everything it needs to survive and thrive. Healing a fungal overgrowth takes time, and although difficult, you should avoid all things sweet for several months.
The best foods to eat are soups, stews, veggies and fermented foods (kimchi and sauerkraut), and you should take probiotics like Nutri Within Bio Cultures Complex to restore the gut microbiota.
Quickly eating large portions of food is the main cause of this type of gastric gut. The digestive system moves slowly, and too much food at once creates issues such as bloating, acid reflux and gas.
With this type of gut, it’s best to eat several small meals per day containing vegetables, citrus fruits and herbs. It is also important to drink plenty of water and take supplements with digestive enzymes. Try to avoid fried or spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine, and take your time when chewing. Use effective acid reflux treatment like Omeprazole or Gaviscon tablets to control the symptoms of acid reflux.
Stress diverts the blood flow away from the digestive system, impairing the growth of beneficial bacteria and may result in a decreased libido, sleep issues and trouble focusing. If these symptoms sound familiar, you should avoid caffeine and alcohol, while loading up on salty foods, animal proteins and supplements of vitamin B.
This type of gut is generally characterised by food sensitivities, such as dairy and gluten intolerances, and multiple allergies. These can be caused by long-term use of antibiotics, steroids, birth-control pills. You should replace alcohol, dairy and packaged foods with healthy fats, digestive enzyme supplements, and probiotics. For lactose sensitivity, try a Lactase enzyme supplement like Milkaid to help your gut process lactose and reduce symptoms associated with the intolerance.
Eating processed and fast foods causes an inflammatory chain in the gut. These can eventually lead to a multitude of problems such as gallstones, rosacea and neurological illness. Luckily, this is easier to fix: ease off the alcohol, oils and fried fast food, and try to eat plenty of raw fruit and vegetables.
The Gut-Brain Connection
As well as the well documented relationship between your gut microbiota and your digestion and immune system functioning, the connection between the gut and the brain is being uncovered in recent research. If you’ve ever had ‘butterflies in your stomach’, or had a ‘gut feeling’ about something, then you might have felt the impact your gut has on your feelings. This is often referred to as the gut-brain axis, and the enteric nervous system has a central role. The enteric nervous system is a semi-autonomous nervous system embedded into the lining of your gastrointestinal tract, and is key to the communication between brain and stomach – think of when you are anxious and suddenly need to go to the bathroom, or if the sight or smell of something gruesome makes you feel physically sick. Interestingly, about 95% of the neurotransmitter serotonin is produced by your gut cells. Serotonin, as well as impacting your mood stabilisation in the brain, also affects many functions of the gut, including how fast food moves, how much fluid, such as mucus, is secreted in the intestines, and how sensitive your intestines are to feelings like fullness from eating.
Another way they are connected through the nervous system is via the vagus nerve, one of the biggest nerves connecting your gut with your brain. Early research indicates stress may be connected with the gut through this nerve. Animal studies show that when stressed, the signals sent through the vagus nerve are inhibited and cause gastrointestinal problems. Mice studies have also found that consuming a probiotic reduced the amount of stress hormones in their blood, but had no effect if the vagus nerve was damaged. In human patients with irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease, reduced function of the vagus nerve was observed, suggesting the importance of the vagus nerve in the gut-brain axis, although this area of study would benefit from further human-based research.
But communication between your brain and gut may not be one directional. The enteric nervous system may trigger emotional shifts experienced by those with IBS, constipation, diarrhea, bloating and stomach upsets. New research indicates that irritation in the GI system may send signals to the central nervous system and trigger mood changes. Jay Pasricha, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, says that “for decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But these recent studies show that it may also be the other way around.”
How to improve your gut health
With this understanding of the importance of gut health, what can we do to best support our gut microbiota?
- Eat a nutritious diet – eat plenty of fiber-rich foods like fruits and whole grains, fermented foods, omega-3 fats such as in oily fish, and polyphenol-rich foods like green tea, olive oil and coffee. Limit sugar and fat intake, as these can kill certain types of healthy gut bacteria.
- Take a multivitamin to top up on your micronutrients – you should still try to get as many key vitamins and minerals as you can from your diet, but it can be difficult to get all of the recommended micronutrients in every day, so taking a premium micronutrient support supplement such as OneVit Complete Multivitamin is ideal. Supplements like these contain Vitamin B5, Chromium and Zinc, important components of digestive health.
- Be aware when using antibiotics – as well as wiping out problematic bacteria, these medications may clear some healthy bacteria too, so be aware to account for this using probiotics to help reinoculate your gut microbiota – onions, garlic, asparagus and legumes are great natural prebiotics.
- Exercise regularly – being active can encourage a variety of gut bacteria to grow.
- Consume probiotics – probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that can be beneficial to the gut. Natural sources of probiotics include the fermented foods yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi and sourdough bread. You can also supplement your diet with probiotics in tablet form, such as the Nutri Within Bio Cultures Complex, that may even help to relieve the symptoms of IBS.
- Take appropriate medication for digestive conditions – whilst medications for conditions like acid reflux are not going to diversify your gut microbiota, they will help to reduce or even eliminate the symptoms associated with the corresponding digestive issue. Proton pump inhibitors like Omeprazole or Nexium reduce stomach acid to prevent acid reflux symptoms, and treatments like Buscopan helps to relieve pain associated with IBS.