It was Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, who was quoted as saying, “All disease begins in the gut” nearly 2500 years ago. Known as the “father of medicine,” he could not have been more accurate.
The complexity of our gut and its importance to our overall health have been on the forefront of medicine and research for generations. We now know there are clear links between a healthy gut and our immune system, mental health, the development of an autoimmune disease, skin conditions, endocrine disorders, and even cancer.
As long as everything is working well, you probably don’t give much thought to your digestive tract or gut. Most of us think of our digestive system as one long tube. However, research has proven that it’s a bit more complex. One could say our gut, known as our “microbiome,” is a carefully engineered ecosystem with multiple functions that can change depending on our diet, stress level, or sleep habits to name a few. Having a diverse microbiome is a good thing. Studies show that one course of antibiotics decreases your gut diversity by 30%.
So, what is our microbiome anyway? Well everyone’s microbiome is just as unique as they are. We know there are trillions of bacteria, both good and bad, that reside in your digestive tract. Collectively, they’re known as your gut microbiota. Although there are hundreds of different bacteria, there are certain combinations and collections found in healthy people. They not only help us process food, but they also help us maintain our state of health. These microbes can protect us from infection, regulate our metabolism and help to balance our hormones. When there is an imbalance in our microbiome, such as increased inflammation or an underlying infection, this most likely results in the individual developing symptoms or discomfort and in some cases disease.
Some signs you may have an unhealthy gut:
Frequent Upset Stomach. Chronic gas, bloating, heartburn, constipation, and diarrhea are not normal and should not occur during or after each meal.
Unintentional Changes in Weight. Gaining or losing weight without drastic changes to your diet could indicate something in your gut is out of balance. Such an imbalance can lead to the inability to absorb nutrients, regulate blood sugar, or balance hormones.
Autoimmune Conditions. Eighty percent of our immune system resides in the lining of our gut. Research shows that inflammation and gut permeability can lead to the body attacking itself and thus the development of an autoimmune disease.
Changes in Mood. Roughly 95% of Serotonin, the hormone that stabilizes our moods, feelings of well-being, and happiness, is produced in our gut. If our gut is out of balance, it can impair our levels of Serotonin, which directly effects our mood. Research shows a connection between gut imbalance and an increased incidence of anxiety and depression.
Food Sensitives. If our gut is out of balance, it can make us more susceptible to developing sensitivities to certain foods. Thus, foods you were once able to eat without an issue can cause post-meal discomfort. This is different than a food “allergy,” but can have a significant impact on your quality of life.
Our gut is responsible for putting our body into healthy working order. Its main function is to break down the food we eat and deliver the nutrients that supports our body’s function. If you are feeling like your gut could use a little TLC, here are some suggestions:
Load Up on Whole Grains, Nuts, Veggies, & Fresh Fruit. Whole grains, have beta-glucans and are a great source of soluble fiber. They also decrease cholesterol and stimulate the immune system. Decrease your sugar intake and processed foods, which tend to cause microbial imbalance and inflammation.
Eat Prebiotic Foods. Food like artichokes, leeks, garlic, asparagus, bananas, apples, oats, barley, and flaxseeds, help to feed the good bacteria in our gut.
Eat Fermented Foods. Add foods like sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, and tempeh to your diet to increase your good bacteria and improve your microbiome balance.
Eat a Variety of Polyphenols. Rich in fiber, anti-inflammatory, and help to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, polyphenols travel to our intestines where microbes use them as fuel. Some foods rich in polyphenols include red grapes, green tea, blueberries, broccoli, and dark chocolate. Who needs a reason to eat more chocolate?!
Spice Things Up! Adding spices to your food, such as garlic, turmeric, and ginger, help to rid your gut of harmful bacteria.
Avoid Artificial Sweeteners. Research shows artificial sweeteners cause dysbiosis - an imbalance in our gut bacteria. They have also been found to cause increased gas, bloating, inflammation, and problems with glucose intolerance. For better gut health, just avoid them all together.
Eat Slowly. Digestion starts in the mouth. Chewing your food thoroughly is the only part of digestion you can control. Eating slowly promotes digestion and absorption of nutrients. This may decrease digestive discomfort and help maintain a healthy gut.
It’s clear that our gut health has a direct result on many aspects of our overall health such as our nutritional status, immune response, behavior, and stress response. In addition to adding certain foods as listed above, I advise my clients to follow a whole foods diet, stay hydrated, exercise regularly and get quality sleep. By making appropriate dietary and lifestyle changes you can alter the diversity of microbes in your gut for the better.
As always check with your health care provider before starting a new health care regimen, diet, or supplement.
Meghan Punda, CRNP is a Nurse Practitioner and Functional Nutritionist. She works with women on lifestyle and dietary issues. Meghan is passionate about educating her clients so they can reach their full wellness potential.
The Human Microbiome: Everything you need to know about the 39 trillion microbes that call our bodies home, by Mun-Keat Looi. Science Focus July 14, 2020.
How Your Gut Health Affects Your Whole Body, by Netha Pathak, MD. WebMD December 17, 2020.