Connecting the dots between gut bacteria and whole-body wellness
It’s easy to assume the term gut health encompasses only the stomach. Gut health refers to more than just bellyaches. The gut makes up our entire intestinal tract and contains hundreds of trillions of tiny microbes that are keys to maintaining a healthy body and mind.
Over the last 10 years, the scientific community and food producers have come together to bring about more awareness of the bacteria in our digestive systems and the effects they have on overall health.
According to numerous reports, digestive problems account for more than 200 million doctor visits and billions of dollars in health care costs annually. What’s becoming more evident as research delves deeper into the gut is that these bacteria imbalances can impact more than just digestive health.
Dr. Emeran Mayer, director of the Gail and Gerald Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience at UCLA and author of The Mind-Gut Connection, explains that until recently the digestive system was only studied, taught and evaluated by the medical community in three basic functions: digestion, absorption and excretion.
“That’s what was being taught as recently as 10 to 15 years ago. Which is a very simplistic way to look at it,” Mayer says. “Now, we’ve come to understand that the gut has its own nervous system — 100 million nerve cells sandwiched in between the gut, closely tied to the immune system. And the largest portion of the immune system is actually located just microns away from being inside of the gut.”
Research from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine shows that the composition of gut bacteria changes when the body is exposed to different diseases. Mayer explains that part of the human hormonal and endocrine systems are also in the gut. Hormones stored in specialized cells along the lining of the gut have been found to have a prominent role in appetite regulation.
“That’s just what we currently know — the various cells in the gut could have a lot more functions,” Mayer says. “You also have the most complex regulatory system in the whole body located in the gut. What happens is all the signals that originate from the gut as a result of food intake, stress and emotions are translated to hundreds of thousands of molecules and go to different sites in the body or act on nerve endings that signal into the brain.
“It’s almost turned our entire model of the body upside down,” Mayer says. “It really is the beginning of a revolution and this revolution is already beginning to change our understanding of health and disease.”
Gut bacteria impacts on health
The trillions of bacteria that live inside your digestive system have largely positive and sometimes negative effects on the whole body
Good gut bacteria help create a protective barrier that prevents unwanted immune system activation.
It’s through this bacteria that vitamins B and K are synthesized and iron and calcium are absorbed.
Many plant-derived fibers would not be metabolized by the body without the proper gut bacteria.
A recent discovery has shown a significant difference between the gut bacteria of obese and average-weight adults.
Bad bacteria play an important role in the development of chronic inflammation throughout
our body, which increases the risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Making a healthy gut
The foods and fibers we consume feed and fuel the good and bad bacteria that live in the gut. Soluble fiber (fruit, legumes, vegetables, flaxseed), fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled vegetables), and superfoods (turmeric, blueberries and olives) are the favorites of good gut bacteria.
Probiotics are the good bacteria in your gut and primarily come from fermented foods and yogurt. Those foods that feed the good bacteria are referred to as prebiotics (apples, onions, garlic, bananas). Feeding the gut a combination of prebiotics and probiotics can help resolve digestive issues and increase overall health.
Mayer suggests eating a diet low in calories, with nearly two thirds of those calories plant-based, and little to no refined sugar. The key is not to think of it as a diet, but more like a lifestyle change.
“The simple thing is decreasing inflammatory-type foods. Decrease high concentrations of bad animal fat, sugary drinks, salty snacks, high-processed foods and the overall amount of calories,” Mayer says.
A diet high in inflammatory foods can lead to a number of unhealthy conditions. Mayer warns that this diet can lead to leaky gut — inflammation that causes the cell walls to be more permeable, allowing bad bacteria to pass through.
“Gut health has implications to many chronic diseases that simple things like eating right, having a positive mindset and exercise can correct,” Mayer says. “It’s sort of created a whole new framework for looking at chronic disease, diet, exercise and stress.”