Understanding Gut-Health to Prevent Disease
What Is Gut-Health?
You may be hearing a lot of talk recently about what has become known as “gut-health.” The Johns Hopkins Medical Center website, one of the most well-respected hospitals and Medical Schools in the United States, says there is a good reason for this rising awareness. Hidden within the walls of your digestive system is what is known as “your second brain” and this “brain in your gut” is changing the way that we look at the links between mood, digestion, health and even the way that we think.
Does Disease Begin in the Gut?
The answer technically is “NO”. Not all the diseases start in the gut. For example, it doesn’t apply to genetic or inherited diseases. There is evidence, however, that many chronic metabolic diseases do begin in the gut. We can help prevent these diseases from developing by taking steps to have good gut health.
Step 1: Know What Your “Second Brain” Is and Why It Matters
This “little brain” in your gut is called the “enteric nervous system” or ENS and it comprises of 2 thin layers of over 100 million nerve cells that line your GI tract from your esophagus to your rectum. The role of the ENS is to control digestion, including swallowing to releasing the enzymes that help break food down, to the control of blood flow, which aids with both nutrient absorption and elimination. The ENS communicates with our brain with significant results.
When you have an unhealthy gut the symptoms of that can manifest themselves in other parts of your body. It’s your body trying to tell you that something is wrong or out of balance.
Studies have found that increasing your gut-health can lead to improvements in:
• Immune function – 80% of our immune system is located in our guts!
• Brain function
• Symptoms of anger, sadness, and depression
• Toxin levels in the body
• Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
• Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
What Results? How Is This Even Possible?
The ENS may sense things that our cerebral brain can’t. Evidence has been found that when the GI tract is irritated it sends signals to the central nervous system, which can trigger our mood and ultimately affect it. When you consider that between 30%-40% of the population has bowel problems of some kind and that a higher percentage of these individuals develop depression and/or anxiety it’s easy to see how there could be a connection. Our bodies are filled with bacteria – good and bad. There are more bacteria in a human body than there are cells and there are an estimated 100 trillion microorganisms living in our bowels alone (http://www.naturallivingideas.com/ 13-ways-to-improve-gut-health/).
The key here is to have more good than bad bacteria in your gut – the fancy name for the good microorganisms is probiotics.
Probiotics help us do things like:
• Digest food
• Absorb nutrients
• Break down medications
• Kill some of the bad bacteria that lead to infection.
This is why you keep hearing about them!
Step 2: Get More Probiotics
There are quite a few ways to get probiotics, but one of the easiest is to take a supplement (but not the only way!). You will find many different kinds under different brand names and it would be a good idea to talk to your physician or pharmacist to see which is the brand that they recommend. In Canada I like the Genestra (a leader in scientific research in this area) and Genuine Health brands.
There are foods that are also high in probiotics and it’s a good idea to cover your bases with food as well.
These foods include:
• Apple Cider Vinegar
• Yogurt – be sure and read the labels on the different yogurts and be sure it doesn’t have added sugars
Getting more probiotics into your system is one of the best ways that you can improve your gut-health. Prebiotics are also important and are crucial to keep your good bacteria (probiotics) thriving. You can read more about them here.
What Else Can You Do?
Stress Less. Laugh More. Stress, especially long-term stress, not only affects our gut bacteria, but it also affects the production of hormones and neurochemicals that communicate with our brain.
When it is long-term stress these chemicals and hormones can change permanently (unless you specifically work to change them back). Long-term stress may also lead to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), stomach ulcers, IBD, IBS, and potentially food allergies.
Laughter really is the best medicine. It helps to reduce stress and floods your body with the happy hormones and chemicals that make the good overtake the bad.
There was even a study conducted (you can read more about it by clicking the link,) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19543102, where researchers studied healthy people as well as those with atopic dermatitis – a disease that is often associated with imbalances in gut bacteria. The researchers had the participants watch funny movies daily for one week. In only one week, the patients’ gut flora had changed and resembled the healthy participants.
Step 3: Play in The Dirt!
This is true both literally and figuratively. Gardening is good for you because it gets you outside, gives you exercise, and putting your hands in soil introduces your body to the microorganisms that are found on the plants and in the ground. In a more figurative way, stop killing all the bacteria. They have recently stopped putting anti-bacterial agents in things because humans are killing all the bacteria, the good and the bad. And what is happening? The bad bacteria are getting stronger and the good bacteria are dying.
Studies have shown that kids who grow up with a dog have both a lower risk of allergies and a healthier immune system. Dogs are associated with a type of house dust that actually exposes us to important strains of bacteria, L. johnsonii is one, which is essential within the digestive tract (http://www.naturallivingideas.com/13-ways-to-improve-gut-health/.)
Dogs also work somewhat like a probiotic, helping develop healthy bacteria that boost your immune system, stopping you from getting ill, and possibly reducing allergies. Dogs also help you, or in some cases force you, to exercise more and help relieve stress in your life.
Step 4: Reduce your Intake of Sugar and Processed Foods
This one is simple. Bad bacteria thrive on sugar and the damaged fats in processed foods found in baked goods likes cookies, pastries, cakes, muffins, and foods that are fried in bad oils. It is crucial for gut health (and many other areas of your health) to reduce the consumption of these foods. Try baking at home with healthier alternatives like replacing white refined flour with almond meal or coconut flour. You can use Stevia or Xylitol as a sweetener instead of sugar.
It may well be that a large part of maintaining good health is maintaining good gut-health. There are many ways that you can do this, including exercise, and learning to listen to your body; however, some of the easiest changes that you can make are to:
Get plenty of probiotics – through supplements and food
Manage your stress better (read my blog on stress here)
Don’t over sterilize or try and kill all bacteria
Reduce your consumption of refined sugars and bad fats in processed foods.