Gut Health is definitely a popular buzzword in the health and fitness world at the moment, and for good reason. We often think about the brain being the command centre of the body, but when it comes to our physical (and even mental) health, the digestive system is where it all starts. This is also why our gut can be known of as our “second brain”. Our digestive systems affect everything else in the body, including our immune system (80% of it is contained in our gut!), nervous system, hormones, brain and our ability to detoxify.
All disease begins in the gut
If you digestive system is performing as it is, then you should be adequately absorbing all of the nutrients you’re putting into your body, and therefore boosting your energy, your immune system, helping to prevent disease, feeling good and also looking great with healthy and glowing skin.
However, if you have poor gut health, then your digestive system isn’t going to properly absorb the nutrients it’s given, resulting in poor digestion followed by poor elimination and then the cycle continues for a whole knock on effect for the rest of the body.
How does the digestive system work?
Step 1: Our senses
The digestive process starts with our senses; before we even put food into our mouths, the sight and smell of food can help to signal to our bodies that it’s time to fire up the digestive system for action.
Step 2: Chewing
Once we start to eat, chewing in the mouth then sends signals to prepare the digestive enzymes for incoming! This is why chewing, and really taking the time to slowly and properly chew our food, is so important. Most people with our busy lifestyles and mindless eating often rush this step and shovel food in, and already are off to a bad start with the whole process.
Step 3: Stomach acids & enzymes
From there the stomach then begins to breakdown the food using hydrochloric acid (HCI) and digestive enzymes into small particles, before they then continue their digestive journey into the small intestine. As you can see for this step, HCI and digestive enzymes are crucial for helping to break down food particles. Both of these decline as we age (which is why older people can also have issues with digestion) and also are affected by poor nutrition. Zinc is essential for stomach acid production, and low levels of zinc can also cause a lack of taste and smell, cravings for meat, cheese and foods high in salt, and also create a distaste for fruit and vegetables.
Vitamin B6, as well as other micronutrients, are also essential for the production of digestive enzymes. Our pancreas also plays a crucial role here, as it contains special cells which produce digestive enzymes amalyse (for carbs), lipase (for fats) and protease (for protein).
Our liver and gallbladders also have a role to play, producing and storing bile, which contains lecithin to help emulsify and break down fat particles before lipase gets to work on breaking them down even further.
Step 4: Small & large intestine
Once our food particles have begun to break down in the stomach, they’re then passed onto the small intestine, where 90% of the digestion and absorption of our food and nutrients occurs.
The large intestine then absorbs water from waste, and works to create stool before see ya! Our food makes it’s final exit out of our other end. If we’re not properly eliminating our food, this then leads to a build up which creates issues such as bloating and constipation, and can also promote the growth of bad bacteria.
So, why is gut health so important?
As you can see above, it’s important each step in our digestive system is performing its role properly, so we can extract and absorb the nutrients we need, and also ensure we properly eliminate the waste we don’t.
Effects of poor gut health:
- Malabsorption of food and nutrients, meaning that even if we’re trying to eat the right foods, if we’re not digesting it properly, then we’re not getting all of the goodness we should
- Digestive issues such as bloating, cramping, pain, nausea and flatulence
- Food intolerances and allergies, created by poor digestion
- Immune system issues: as 80% of our immune system is contained in the gut, it shows how gut issues can easily be linked to poor immune function. Poor absorption of nutrients can also mean a lack of support for the immune system to work as it should, and food allergies and intolerances can also trigger an immune system response (as seen in autoimmune diseases). Immune system responses can also then trigger other negative effects such as joint pain, headaches and fatigue.
- Negative effects on the central nervous system (CNS), which can then trigger mood changes
- Lack of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter vital for mental and overall health and is created in the gut
- Poor cognitive function, including memory and thinking skills
- Low energy
- Risk for a whole range of diseases and health issues due to the lack of proper nutrition absorption and poor immune system function
- Weight gain
- Skin conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis and acne can all be negatively effected by bad gut health
What can affect your gut health?
- Poor nutrition and diet overall, which has several effects:not eating a diverse range of foods to encourage diversity of good gut bacteria, eating food which promotes the growth of bad bacteria, not getting enough nutrients required for the digestive process and enzymes, not eating enough foods high in fibre to allow for proper elimination of waste
- Antibiotics, which basically nuke all of your gut bacteria (good and bad). Read more about antibiotics and probiotics here.
- Drinking too much alcohol, which has a harmful effect on gut bacteria
- Lack of exercise; regular exercise can help promote the growth of certain good bacteria
- Cigarette smoking. Smoking is harmful to nearly every organ in your body, and in terms of gut health is a risk factor for both IBS and Chron’s. Giving up smoking can also help to fix diversity of gut bacteria. I am a HUGE anti-smoker. Don’t smoke, it sucks.
- Lack of sleep. Not getting enough sleep is so bad for so many functions in our body, so no surprises here that it has a detrimental effect on our gut health too. Sleep deprivation can cause changes to gut flora, and increase the population of bacteria associated with weight gain, type 2 diabetes and reduced fat metabolism.
- Stress. Also like lack of sleep, stress is an often overlooked lifestyle factor which has a huge negative effect on our health. Like other points in this list, it can result in the reduction of good bacteria, and the growth of harmful ones.
So, how can you improve your gut health?
Hopefully by now, you’ve got a basic understanding of how the digestive system works and how each vital step plays an important role in all aspects of your overall health. A great way to look at improving the health of your digestive system is to take a “top down” approach, first focusing on good digestion, followed by good absorption and finally, good elimination (we all love a good poop).
There are a number of ways you can improve your gut health, and as everybody is unique, some of which may be more important than others and depending on what is causing the issue/s:
- Slowly chew your food, so the digestive process starts properly
- Eat prebiotic foods, such as bananas, onions, oats, asparagus, legumes, to help further support good bacteria.
- Eat probiotic and fermented foods such as natural yoghurt, kimchi, kombucha and tempeh, or include a probiotic supplement too (or both!)
- Eat other generally gut friendly foods such as bone broth, natural gelatin and reishi mushrooms.
- Lower the balance of “bad” bacteria by reducing your intake of sugar and processed foods
- Eating foods high in caprylic acid (found in coconuts and olive leaf extract) which is a powerful antifungal or grapefruit seed extract, which is a powerful anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-bacteria (though it doesn’t destroy beneficial bacteria)
- Eat foods rich in polyphenols, such as blueberries, dark chocolate (yay) and green tea.
- Supplement with digestive enzymes and HCI to help the digestion of your food, and also eat more foods high in digestive enzymes such as papaya
- Avoid foods which you suspect you may be intolerant to, by either keeping a food journal or even starting an elimination diet if you believe necessary
- For those who have problems digesting fat, or have their gallbladders removed, supplementing with lecithin (found in bile) can help. Note though that most lecithin supplements are derived from soy, so you may want to look into other options if you’re avoiding soy in your diet
- Make sure you’re drinking enough water to help flush out any toxins
- Ensure you’re getting enough dietary fibre to help prevent constipation and ensure you’re eliminating what you need to be. Fruit and vegetables, whole grains such as oats and rice, psyllium husk and even fibre supplements are all ways you can boost this. If this step is still an issue for you, foods such as flaxseeds, prunes and also even high doses of Vitamin C all have a mild laxative effect.
- Exercise! To help get the system moving, as well as promoting overall wellbeing.
- Work on improving sleep quality and reducing stress, to help assist your general gut health as well as health in general!
So now hopefully you can see WHY gut health is such a rightfully popular term at the moment, and have a basic understand of how your digestive system works and what can negatively and positively effect it, as well as the consequences of poor gut health for your overall wellbeing. As always, if you’re making huge changes to your diet or have concerns about your health it’s always best to first speak to a doctor or nutritionist who can offer professional advice. Love your guts!