Why Care about Gut Health
How often do you hear it? Gut feeling, gut instinct, my gut tells me, misery guts, gut matters and many more…
It is no wonder there are so many common expressions using the word gut. Our “gut” is one of our most important body systems and is central to overall health. Like all animals, we eat to process organic matter for the available nutrients and energy. This is the work of our digestive system, aka the gut.
Is it that simple – merely breaking down and absorbing food? What are the consequences of a compromised mechanism of digestion?
Role of the gastrointestinal tract
The gut is the main site of food digestion and nutrient absorption into the blood stream. It is also an organ that eliminates undigested food and waste.
Critical elements of the immune system are found in the gastrointestinal tract (gut). The gut is also where the important vitamins and chemicals like serotonin are made and where intestinal microbes live symbiotically.
The digestive tract provides a continuous flow of nutrients to every cell in the body. Impaired digestion, slow elimination of waste or a nutrient-poor diet can compromise the ability of body cells to perform efficiently. This may lead to diseases of the digestive system and to seemingly unrelated conditions like asthma, eczema, psoriasis, sinusitis, migraine, chronic fatigue and inflammatory conditions.
Gut discomfort and diseases
We usually do not think about our digestion unless it is not working well. When we have recurring unpleasant symptoms in the gut, it is time to sort things out; the symptoms are only messages pointing at something that is not right.
Unfortunately, many digestive problems are treated symptomatically – you have chronic diarrhoea and are given Imodium. Pharmaceuticals and other remedies may only mask the symptoms rather than deal with their root cause. For example, with bloating, flatulence and diarrhoea you may be prescribed a restrictive diet and sedatives, while the reason for your discomfort goes undetected and untreated. This may impact on your emotional and mental state and influence your social life. If you know where all the loos are on the way to work, it is time to take care of your gut!
Some digestive problems are ignored as people simply get used to living with the symptoms. More serious conditions and illnesses like IBS, gastritis, bacterial imbalance, parasites, Crohn’s, colitis, diverticulitis, cancer and food allergies are monitored and treated by experienced medical doctors. Both minor and more serious conditions should be investigated and their root causes found.
What can cause digestive problems? There is a broad spectrum of answers including: lack of digestive juices, use of antibiotics and other medication, infections, lack of exercise, smoking and heavy alcohol intake. It is frequently a modern lifestyle issue but we sometimes find genetics to be the critical factor.
The gut microbiota, your health and body weight
There are trillions of bacteria living in our gut. They weigh about four pounds in total and are a critical asset to our health. In fact, gut microbiota is now regarded as a separate body organ, and in scientific literature is called a ‘microbiome’, reflecting the profound effect on human physiology and genome.
Gut bacteria aid digestion, improve nutrient absorption, protect the integrity of the gut, manufacture vitamins, regulate gut motility, affect immunity and prevent diseases. Recent studies show an association between particular types of bacteria and the body’s leanness, low blood glucose and blood fats.
Your gut bacteria react to your diet. The more sugar and saturated fats are eaten, the more some harmful bacteria proliferate causing damage to the nerve cells that carry signals from the gut to the brain, resulting in gut-brain miscommunication. The confused brain misinterprets the signals and makes us think that we are not full.
What can you do to improve gut health?
1. Sort out the root cause of your digestive symptoms. Target the cause, don’t mask the symptoms.
2. Get tested for digestive juices, inflammation, gut bacterial composition and other markers of your digestive health. Find the trigger of the symptoms.
3. Test for and address food intolerance issues. They start in your compromised gut!
For general gut health:
- Have a diet rich in vegetables, some whole fruits and whole unprocessed grains and pulses.
- Eat healthy fats: avocados, coconut oil, seeds, nuts, cold pressed olive and flaxseed oils.
- Drink plenty of water
- Have fermented foods and drinks every day
- Avoid ALL foods with added sugar, processed flour, hydrogenated fats.
- Keep stress levels under control. Relaxation exercises and CBT sessions are effective stress management tools.
Your gut is a wonder-world of tireless service to your health. Rewarding that service with care and attention can only improve your health!
Natalie Gillan is a nutritionist on the welldoing directory.