Since I started my journey with The Culture Ko., I’ve been ever so engrossed in understanding the importance and nuances of gut health. Having spent innumerable hours researching about the gut, I have begun to immensely value my gut and the importance of it to my overall health.
Just to clear the air, our gut isn’t just the small and large intestine. In fact, it begins in the mouth and ends in the rectum, so it includes our mouth, throat, esophagus and even our pancreas. It is all those sets of organs that are responsible for our digestion. And of course, we cannot speak about the gut without giving a special mention to the trillions of microbes that line our gut and play a crucial role in almost every single bodily function!
Importance of our gut health
The gut is extremely important for our health because it is that part of our body that breaks down all the foods we eat and is solely responsible for the absorption of all the nutrients from it.
And as the saying goes, you are not what you eat, you are what your body absorbs! So if we don’t get the basic nutrients that our bodies require, we can be sure to face a multitude of health issues.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, rightly said ‘All disease begins in the gut’
Of course, there is much more to it. A lot to do with gut health actually comes from the gut microbiota,i.e., the trillions of microbes that line our digestive systems and form part of the gut.
To prove to you why we should give importance to our gut health, here are some compelling facts about the gut that should more than convince you!
70% of our immune system keeps guard in our gut. Yes! Our gut does serve as the first line of defense against foreign pathogens that try and invade the body
The gut is the only organ in our body that can function completely without the brain
90% of our serotonin, the happy-making neurotransmitter, is produced in the gut. The key to happiness might just actually lie in our guts!
We have more microbial cells in our body than human cells. Yes, more than half our body is not human!
If the gut was laid out flat, it would cover an entire tennis court
The gut is directly linked to the brain via the vagus nerve, which literally interconnects our gut and brain. Distress in the gut could be the reason for many neurological issues. The Gut-Brain Connect is real!
We have trillions of bacteria in our gut, cumulatively weighing around 2kgs. That’s heavier than our brain!
To better understand the importance of gut health, let’s go over some more topics!
Signs Of An Unhealthy Gut & Effects Of Poor Gut Health
1. Weakened Immunity
I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again, 70% of our immune system keeps guard in our gut. The probiotics (good bacteria) in our gut serve as the first line of defense for any pathogens (harmful bacteria) that enter our body! Probiotics literally bar these pathogens from colonizing in our guts and in turn protect our immune systems.
An interesting study was done on mice, wherein they were infected with the flu. The study showed that when the mice were given antibiotics, 1/3rd of them couldn’t survive the flu. However, 80% of the mice that were not given antibiotics survived!
So, what was the difference between the two groups of mice? Their gut bacteria! The group that took antibiotics had their gut bacteria destroyed and the other group let their immune systems work the magic!
2. Chronic Fatigue
In a 2017 study, scientists tried to find a correlation between participants who faced unexplained chronic fatigue / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and their gut health. The study published in the journal of Microbiome concluded that those participants who experienced the fatigue syndrome had a disbalance of gut microbiota and had certain specific bacteria strains that weren’t found in the guts of participants who didn’t have any fatigue issues.
3. Digestive Health Issues
As you can expect, if you face digestive issues like gas, bloating, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), diarrhea, or acidity, it is most likely to be a gut health issue. In fact, IBS has been one of those health issues which is most often linked to a disbalance of gut microbiota, known as dysbiosis. So fixing your gut health is definitely going to improve your digestive health and alleviate the above symptoms.
4. Food Cravings
It may sound surprising, but you craving your favorite dark chocolate at night could well be caused by your gut microbiome. There is a vast array of research about The Gut-Brain Connect talking about how the gut and brain are connected through the vagus nerve and via neurotransmitters.
Several studies on flies & mice have proven that the gut bacteria can actually influence the types of food that its host (us humans) craves. Different microbes require different food groups such as proteins, sugar, or fats. A study done on flies also proved that specific strains of bacteria, Acetobacter and Lactobacillus, when introduced in the guts of flies, were able to suppress their cravings for protein and increase their cravings for sugar. This shows the potential effect of the gut microbiome on the food cravings we humans are always complaining about!
5. Unexpected weight fluctuations
There might be a time in your fitness journey where you feel that you’re doing everything correctly but you still don’t see results. The reason behind this probably lies deep in your gut and the trillions of bacteria in it. These bacteria are responsible for breaking down the nutrients in our food as well as absorbing them.
There was a study done on obese and non-obese Danish individuals, which found that obese individuals had a lower gut bacteria diversity while non-obese individuals had a higher diversity of gut bacteria. Thus, proving that there is a correlation between gut bacteria and weight loss.
Fitness isn’t always about calories and protein, sometimes it’s about your gut too!
6. Autoimmune diseases
An autoimmune disease is one in which our immune system mistakenly attacks our own body tissue. There has been an increasing amount of research proving that autoimmune issues generally begin in the gut. In one such study, scientists did liver biopsies of patients who had passed away from autoimmune diseases and found commonalities in the bacterial strains present in the liver that were not present in the livers of healthy individuals.
In recent times, there has been a major consensus in the science world that autoimmune diseases actually begin in the gut!
7. Lack of sleep
A good night’s sleep has become one of the most important health markers. A study done by Nova Southeastern University has shown an indication that there is a direct correlation between gut microbiota diversity and sleeping patterns. Unsurprisingly, the relation between sleep and gut microbiota works both ways. So just as poor gut health can affect our sleeping patterns, poor sleep can have a detrimental effect on our gut health.
8. Unexplained mood swings
Did you know? 90% of our serotonin, the happy-making neurotransmitter, is actually produced in the gut! Along with serotonin, several hormones associated with our moods,such as dopamine and GABA are also produced in the gut. If you’ve recently been facing any mood swings away from the daily norm, the problem could be in your gut.
The gut has been linked with our mental health more than ever before. Several mental health practitioners around the world have been trying to cure mental health issues by curing the gut.
Food & lifestyle habits that lead to poor gut health :
1. Alcohol and Drug Abuse
It sounds obvious and it’s true, excessive alcohol consumption and drug abuse is neither good for us, nor the trillions of bugs in our gut. Dysbiosis, or imbalance of gut bacteria is often associated with excessive consumption of alcohol.
So the next time you’re on a late night out with your friends, remember the harm you are doing the trillion of bugs you host in your gut!
2. Consumption of excess refined sugar
The last decade has seen the consensus that sugar is a new evil. Although most sugar is digested in the small intestine and not the large intestine where most of the gut bacteria lie, excessive sugar consumption is bad for our gut health. Let us understand why!
The reason is that the bad bacteria in a gut feed of sugar, and use it as thor food. Thus, the more sugar we consume, the more the bad bacteria will multiply by eating that sugar and causing harm to our health.
3. Poor Sleep Patterns
As we mentioned above, our sleep patterns and gut health are interconnected. Just as poor sleep could be a sign of poor gut health, it could well also be that the reason for our substandard gut health is our irregular sleep patterns. Our gut bacteria may face imbalances i.e gut dysbiosis due to our irregular sleeping patterns. The Gut-Sleep connect goes both ways!
4. Too Much Stress
Think about this; the last time you were just about to begin an important sales pitch, or you were going in for your CFA exam, did you feel nauseous and uneasy in your stomach? You probably did. I for one used to feel pukey before every important exam.
This happens as our gut and brain are in constant communication. Known as the gut-brain connect, the gut and brain are connected via the vagus nerve and through millions of neurotransmitters. This bi-directional link is the very reason that our excessive daily stress affects our gut health.
5. Excessive use of medicines
More specifically, the usage of excessive antibiotics. Firstly, when we are prescribed antibiotics, we should be aware that it can possibly destroy not only the pathogenic gut bacteria but also all the good bugs we have in our gut. A study done by the University of Copenhagen showed that even after 6 months of using antibiotics, the guts of the sample audience were missing 9 types of common beneficial bacteria!
So next time you’re prescribed antibiotics, make sure you take a dose of probiotics too!
How To Improve Gut Health Naturally
A. Foods to incorporate into your diet
If you are into health and nutrition, it is likely that you have come across the term ‘probiotics’ recently. But let’s understand what probiotics are and what do they do for our health?
Do you remember about the trillions of bacteria we spoke about above? Well, these bacteria in our gut can be either good bacteria or bad bacteria.
Probiotics are the good bacteria that simply repopulate our gut with themselves by multiplying and keeping the bad bacteria in check! This has benefits beyond measure. From immunity to mental health, our gut bacteria is accredited with having an indispensable effect on every part of our being.
Adding probiotics to our diet will ensure that the bad bacteria in a gut don’t dominate our gut microbiome diversity, which could lead to several health complications
Interested in learning more about Kombucha and its benefits as a probiotic food? Check out this article written by me!
Prebiotics are not so often heard of like probiotics. They may sound very similar but perform very different functions. With the good bacteria (probiotics) playing such an important role for our health, I’m sure you’d agree we need to feed these bacteria and keep them strong and healthy! How do we do that? You guessed it right, Prebiotics!
Simply put, probiotics are the actual good gut bacteria that feed on prebiotics to stay healthy.
Prebiotics are a type of fiber that our bodies cannot digest and hence, serve as food to the probiotics! Adding these prebiotics to our diet will ensure that the probiotics i.e. the good bacteria in our gut get their fodder and are strong enough to keep the bad bacteria at bay!
The last couple of years has seen a major comeback in the fermented foods trend! Comeback? Yes, a massive comeback, because fermentation isn’t new to mankind, not by a far stretch
There are two main reasons that fermented foods are absolutely amazing for our health;
First, they’re rich in live probiotic cultures; and we already know how these probiotics are essential to maintain and keep our gut microbiota diverse & healthy.
Second is a byproduct of fermentation, the healthy organic acids. During the process of fermentation, the microbes feed off starch and sugar and convert it into alcohol and acids such as acetic acids, lactic acid, gluconic acid etc. These acids have a wide variety of benefits depending on the ferment you are consuming. acids like Acetic Acid are extremely beneficial for our digestive health problems and hence help in alleviating symptoms of poor gut health.
Low FODMAP diet
FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols. Well, don’t get intimidated by these complex words. It is pretty simple to understand – FODMAPs are essentially a group of carbohydrates that are difficult for our body to digest.
Foods can contain FODMAPs as additives or have FODMAPs inherent in them. These FODMAPs make it difficult to digest the food, leading to digestive issues like bloating, gas diarrhea etc.
The above list might seem like the foods you have daily. The point being, you don’t need to completely avoid high FODMAP foods, you just have to make sure that you do not consume an excess of them.
B. Lifestyle Changes
Yes, I mentioned it above, sleep and gut health are correlated. If you have irregular sleep patterns or are not able to get a good night’s sleep it might affect your gut health.
So the next time you’re binge-watching your favorite show deep into the night, remember, good sleep equals good gut health. Get those 7 to 9 hours of well-deserved sleep!
Avoid excessive antibiotics
When we consume antibiotics, we not only kill off the pathogenic infection-causing bacteria in our body but also all the millions of good bacteria we host.
I personally feel (it might just be me), we Indians pop antibiotics way too often without knowing when we actually need them. More importantly without being aware of how detrimental they can be for our health. Those good gut bacteria that antibiotics kill are so important for our gut health!
When I say stress, I am referring to chronic stress. So, the occasional assignment deadline/client presentation stress is nothing to worry about! The real issue arises in people who have chronic stress, which leads to a spike in the stress hormone (cortisol) over a prolonged period of time, which will definitely affect your gut health.
The negative effects of stress don’t stop at poor gut health and that’s why stress management has become one of the key parts of my life. Incorporating meditation or yoga as a part of your lifestyle is a great way to manage stress! Or just simply taking a few deep breaths and reflecting on my thoughts has always worked me in those stressful times!
When I say exercise, I don’t mean intense weightlifting or training to become a competitive athlete. But, what is important for your gut health iis to incorporate daily activity and conventional forms of exercise into your lifestyle! This will increase your overall health markers and improve your all-important gut health too!
This one study examined the correlation between exercise and gut microbiota. 36 mice were given the same diet and randomly put into groups of sedentary and exercise. The results!? When analyzed, it was found that the mice that exercised some specific strains of gut bacteria that weren’t found in the sedentary group of mice. This showed a correlation between exercise and gut microbiota diversity.
Special Mention: Gut Microbiome Test
This is something new and really fascinating. In the last few years, few companies around the world have come up with DIY kits to test your gut microbiome. Based on these test results, you get a complete recommendation guide on what you should eat and what you should avoid for optimal gut health.
Based on the premise that every individual has a unique and diverse gut microbiome, and there is no one diet fits all solution, companies like Viome have already started providing these tests in the USA. This is truly the future of personalized nutrition for optimal gut health! Check them out below
Putting Everything Into Perspective
Often referred to as the forgotten organ, our gut is one of our most undervalued organs, not given its due importance. The gut and its vast diverse microbiome play the role of our body’s engine. It is the driving force of all complex bodily functions and hence plays a very important role in our overall health.
While putting all of the above ideas into practice might seem tough for any individual, we must understand it is not about simply making sudden overnight changes, but rather, it is about making small changes over a period of time that help us value our gut as an important piece of a puzzle, a puzzle of how to ‘sail in the ocean of health’! (if you ever remember writing a letter in school, you should get the reference)