Our bodies are comprised of several complex systems that work together to allow us to function. One of the most complex and important of these systems is our gut or our gastrointestinal system. Our gastrointestinal system includes our stomachs, intestines and colon and is responsible for breaking down our food into nutrients and getting rid of the waste left over. Our gut health is more important than you might think. Our guts play a role not only in how we absorb the food we eat but also has an impact on our physical and mental health. In this week’s blog, I’d like us to examine why gut health is so important and what we can do to keep our guts healthy.
How do our guts work?
Within our gastrointestinal system, we play host to billions of microbes. Microbes are tiny living organisms including various kinds of bacteria, viruses and fungi. Studies have suggested that every person is host to around as many microbes as we have cells in our body. Some of the microbes in our gut can make us sick whereas others are incredibly beneficial if not essential. It’s important to maintain a healthy balance of different microbes to ensure that our bodies can absorb the nutrition we consume and stay healthy. The two factors that are important to balance when thinking about gut health is balancing your microbiome and ensuring it has a diverse range of microbes.
How our guts affect our health
A healthy gut does far more than just break down our food. Gut health is related to how our immune systems function, our ability to fight autoimmune diseases, our mental health, how we sleep, and a range of other functions. The microbes in your gut help to inform white blood cells about harmful bacteria and diseases, which make us feel unwell. Without a diverse range of microbes in your gut your immune system can be left vulnerable to illness. Consistently poor gut health can lead to long-term health complications such as Chrons disease, Ulcerative colitis, or Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Our guts also regulate how hungry we feel, which when our microbiome is lacking in diversity can trigger issues with appetite that may lead to overeating.
Gut health and mental health
Our gut health goes beyond just regulating how our digestion works. The phrase “butterflies in your stomach” or “going with your gut” actually refers to how our gut works similar to A second brain within our body. Our enteric nervous system (or ENS) refers to the millions of nerve cells in your gut that communicate and send messages to your brain. ENS has been found to trigger an emotional response in people with bowel problems such as IBS, and the same for those experiencing functional bowel problems such as diarrhoea, constipation, bloating or a stomach upset. Previously scientists thought these physical symptoms were the cause of people’s low moods, but research has suggested that the inverse may be true.
When we are stressed or anxious our ENS system can send hormones to our guts that affect the microorganisms in our stomach that aid digestion but can decrease our immune system function. Inversely studies have found that those with limited and non-diverse microbiomes are more likely to suffer the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Diversity in diet
There are several things we can do to improve our gut health. The first way to directly address gut health is to regulate what we eat. Different microbes respond to different foods so it’s important that we eat a diverse and wide range of foods to fuel the variety of microbes that help aid our digestion. It’s important to make sure your diet includes a range of fresh and leafy vegetables, fruit, nuts and healthy oils to keep the diverse range of microbes in your gut happy and healthy. Whereas supplements can help enrich the diversity of our diet, whole foods contain nutrients that are not found in some supplements. Nutrients found in whole foods interact with each other in ways that cannot be replicated by supplements, so prioritise “real foods” over supplements where available.
One of the most important elements in a good gut health diet is making sure you are eating enough fibre. Fibre helps regulate how quickly or slowly food and nutrients are processed by our gut. When we don’t have enough fibre in our diets, the consequences become obvious when we use the toilet. Irregular and inconsistent bowel movements can be a sign of a lack of fibre in the diet, which if consistent can be problematic for your body. Make sure to eat foods which contain fibre such as beans, legumes, cereals, fruit and vegetables to keep your gut happy and healthy
Probiotics and fermented foods
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeast cultures that can help increase the levels of helpful bacteria in your gut. Probiotics are one of the fastest ways of kickstarting your gut health and restoring balance to your microbiome. Foods that are fermented such as Sauerkraut, Kimchi or Kefir are also packed with probiotics that are great for your gut health. To ensure your fermented food is beneficial to your gut health, look for “naturally fermented” on the label, or bubbles in the mixture which are signs that microorganisms are present.
Aside from our diet, the way we live can also have a big impact on how our gut functions. Regular cardiovascular exercise has been shown to have a positive impact on gut health as it stimulates the muscles that help aid digestion. Also, maintaining a consistent and good quality sleep cycle has been shown to help improve digestion and gut health. For more tips on how to ensure you’re getting good quality sleep, check out our blog on the subject. As previously stated, your mental health and stress levels can also have a big impact on how your gut functions. Regulating your stress levels can have a positive influence on your gut health, so be conscious of when you’re experiencing high stress levels and try using stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing or meditation to combat this. If you’d like to know more about how to reduce your stress levels with these techniques feel free to read our blog on mindfulness.
Maintaining our gut health is vital to staying fit and healthy, and maintaining positive mental health. Without a healthy and diverse range of bacteria in our stomachs, we leave ourselves vulnerable to a range of conditions, that can with a little bit of work be easily avoided. Make sure to eat a diverse and healthy diet to enrich your gut health and provide your body with the fuel it needs to stay fit and healthy. The relationship between gut health and our physical and mental health requires attention and care to maintain. However, the benefits of good gut health are fantastic and well worth the time and effort. You might find addressing your gut health is the first step towards a happier healthier you.