What Is Gut-Health?
There has been lots of talk recently about what has become known as “gut-health.” The Johns Hopkins Medical Center, one of the most well-respected hospitals and Medical Schools in the United States, notes there is a good reason for this. 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 with Gut-Health?
There’s no simple answer to this one. Not all diseases start in the gut, such as genetic or inherited diseases, acquired infections and trauma based disorders. But, there is evidence that many of chronic metabolic disorders and mental health conditions do begin in the gut, or are at least heavily influences by gut health. We can help prevent these diseases by following some easy steps.
Step 1: Know What Second Brain Is and Why It Matters
This “little brain” is called the “enteric nervous system” or ENS and it comprises of two 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, releasing enzymes that help break food down, and control of blood flow to immediate tissues which aids with both nutrient absorption and elimination. The ENS communicates with our brain and body surprisingly effectively.
When you have an unhealthy gut the symptoms may manifest in other parts of your body. It’s your body trying to tell you that something is wrong or out of balance and needs attention.
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 disproportional anger, sadness, anxiety and depression
• Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
• Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
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 (CNS), which can trigger our mood and ultimately affect it. Considering that between 30%-40% of the population have bowel problems of some kind and a high percentage of these individuals develop depression and/or anxiety, it’s reasonable to consider a possible connection.
Our bodies are filled with bacteria – good and bad, depending on whether they’re where they’re supposed to be in the right numbers. 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. The key here is to have more good than bad bacteria in your gut.
Probiotics help us do things like:
• Digest food;
• Absorb nutrients;
• Break down medications; and
• Kill some of the bad bacteria that lead to negative symptoms.
Step 2: Get More Probiotics
There are quite a few ways to get good gut bacteria, but one of the easiest is to take a supplement called a probiotic. There are many different kinds and brands and talking to your qualified naturopath will ensure you get the the most appropriate one for your needs.
There are foods that are also high in probiotics, including:
• Apple Cider Vinegar
Getting more probiotics into your system is one of the best ways that to improve your gut-health!
Step 3: Play in The Dirt!
This is true both literally and figuratively. Gardening is good for getting outside, 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, and leading on from last months post, avoid over-cleaning with antimicrobial substances. There has been a recent push to reduce the amount of antimicrobial agents in cleaning and personal care products because both good and the bad are affected. Pets are another way to get dirtier – in a good way! Studies have shown that children who grow up with a dog have both a lower risk of allergies and a generally healthier immune system. Dog companionship also helps in other ways by increasing exercise and outdoor time and lowering stress.
Bonus Step: More Probiotics, What Else?
Now we get to the ones we hate to be told because they’re painfully obvious. Stress Less. Laugh More. Stress, especially long-term stress, not only affects our gut bacteria, but also affects the production of hormones and neurochemicals. In 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 high blood pressure, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD), stomach ulcers, IBD, IBS, and potentially food allergies/intolerances.
Laughter really is the best medicine. It helps to reduce stress and floods your body with happy hormones and neurochemicals. This study even compared healthy people and those with atopic dermatitis (a condition often associated with gut bacteria imbalances) and asked participants watch funny movies daily for one week. In only one week, the patients’ gut microbes had changed and more resembled that of the healthy participants!
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, however, some of the easiest changes that you can make include:
• Probiotics – through supplements and food
• Stress management, including exercise and time outdoors
• Avoiding over-cleaning and overuse of antimicrobials