The Unsuspecting Health Barometer: Your Gut

It is well established that the billions of bacteria that reside in your gut are important for digestive health. Over the years, scientists have discovered that the state of health in your gut may be a window into your overall health status and risk for certain diseases down the road.

The bacteria that live in your intestinal tract, primarily in the large intestine, are symbiotic with the other cells. This relationship is key to healthy digestion (i.e., keeping you regular), but also provides many important immune functions such as keeping toxins out of your body and allowing nutrients in (technically, your gastrointestinal tract, from one end to the other, is outside of your body! That’s a mind-bender, isn’t it?). When the bacteria are off balance, called dysbiosis, this otherwise well-run system doesn’t work as it should. Typical symptoms of this dysbiosis can include gas, bloating, and other gastrointestinal upset, but it may not be limited to the gut. Research suggests our gut microbiome plays a pivotal role in our overall health including our body, mind, and immune system.

What’s known as the gut-brain axis is a two-way connection between your brain and your gut. Your gut receives information from your central nervous system, while it sends information through its own “brain” known as the enteric nervous system. This bidirectional system means a happy gut can promote brain health, an vice versa. The opposite is also true, problems in the brain lead may lead to problems with your gut, and problems with your gut may lead to problems with your brain (if you ever wondered why stress or nervousness give you butterflies in your stomach – this is your answer). This connection makes your gut microbiota a key regulator of mood, sleep, appetite, cognition, pain, and immune status.

Research also suggests a relationship between our microbiome and managing blood sugars. The connection between balancing bacteria in the gut and improved insulin sensitivity may be an effective intervention plan for type 2 diabetes. A relationship has also been established between metabolic syndrome, a series of risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, and gut health. Given the role of inflammation in all these conditions, it is not a surprise that they are connected to the gut – a gatekeeper for molecules that can cause inflammation.

The digestive system is complex and having a happy gut may reduce risk for a variety of other health conditions and improve quality of life. To maintain or improve your gut health, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Eat probiotic rich foods. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt, and miso can improve the good bacteria in your intestine.  Some people may benefit from a probiotic supplement but try food first.
  2. Eat lots of plant foods. Prebiotics, found in sweet potatoes, artichokes, asparagus, onions, and many other plant foods, are food for probiotics – keeping the good bacteria thriving.
  3. Limit processed foods and refined carbohydrates. Diets high in these foods have been associated with poor bacteria balance.
  4. Bust stress. Stress (both physical and emotional) has been linked to reduced gut function.
  5. Limit antibiotic use. Some antibiotics can reduce the number of healthy bacteria in the gut. While they are essential in treating bacterial infections, they may be over prescribed so be your own health advocate and ask questions to make sure they are necessary for your condition before you take them.

Want to learn more about keeping your gut happy? Read about the pros and cons of probiotics here.