Your digestive system is more than just a long winding tube that moves food from A to B. More complex than many people realize, it is intricately linked to your overall physical and mental health. What you eat is efficiently broken down to allow nutrients to be absorbed for use throughout the body. If there is any breakdown in this system, you don’t get the essential nutrients you need to stay healthy. Basically, if your gut is unhealthy, you are at greater risk for a number of serious health issues.
Why is gut health so important?
Trillions of microbe organisms reside in your gut, and these organisms are pretty important. In addition to the large quantity, there are close to 400 different species of bacteria in the human gut. The friendly flora in your gut helps to promote efficient gastrointestinal function, regulate metabolism, protect from infection, and makes up more than 75-percent of our immune system. In addition, there is a strong connection between brain and gut that influences your mental health.
An unhealthy gut causes the intestinal wall to become permeable, a phenomenon known as leaky gut. Large protein molecules are able to pass through the barrier to enter the bloodstream. Proteins do not belong outside the intestinal walls, so our immune system automatically launches a defense against these “foreign” bodies.
This is not only associated with the development of autoimmune disorders; the resulting inflammation extends far beyond the gut, affecting the whole body. Inflammation is the root cause of several serious diseases and complications, such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
How your gut affects your mood
You may be familiar with the term “second brain” when it comes to your stomach, and this is because your digestive tract is linked to your brain. This “gut-brain axis” is an essential communication system between your intestinal bacteria and your brain. The state of your digestive tract can alter your brain in terms of mood-impacting anxiety and depression. Any flora imbalance allows pathogens and yeasts to flourish, producing neurotoxins that disrupt your brain’s health. As a result, your ability to think and remember will become diminished, and you are at higher risk for depression.
Think about it. When you are anxious or sad, you may get a nauseous feeling in your stomach or lose your appetite. If your brain is able to alter the state of your gut, then it is logical for your gut to have a similar influence on your brain. A study done on women with different diets discovered that a probiotic diet was linked to significantly different brain functioning at rest and in regard to emotion recognition. A probiotic diet will enhance the bacterial population in your gut and therefore, communication to the brain will also be enhanced.
It is common for people suffering with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as well as other digestive problems to also suffer from anxiety and depression. Your stomach, or more specifically your enteric nervous system, is responsible for the release of several of the “feel good” neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. When your bacterial balance is out of whack or your gut is in distress from illness or leaky guy syndrome, there is a disruption to the release of these neurotransmitters. On the flip side, when things in your gut are good, dopamine and serotonin production are in full swing and mood will be uplifted.
How to improve gut health naturally
Fiber is the one food that makes it through your digestive tract intact, so when it gets to the gut, it is essentially a feast for your friendly flora. Sadly, Americans do not consume as much fiber as they should, which leads to an unhappy gut. Add more oatmeal, barley, and brown rice to your weekly menu and aim to eat 25 grams of fiber daily to give your gut the fuel it needs.
Although antibiotics target all bacteria, they are unable to detect a difference in the pathogenic ones versus the ones you need for good gut health. Each time you take antibiotics, you are reducing the helpful population in your gut. Given that the CDC reported that more than 50-percent of prescribed antibiotics are unnecessary, make sure it is absolutely necessary before you start an antibiotic regimen. If you do have to follow a course of antibiotics, you can take a supplemental probiotic capsule each day or increase the intake of fermented foods such as yogurt, miso, sauerkraut and kimchi.
There is more to the saying “trust your gut” than just following your instincts. Your gut is intrinsically tied to your brain so digestive and emotional health is strongly linked. More than just a food digesting machine, your gut houses the bacteria that are responsible for mental health, getting restful sleep, weight gain, and food cravings. This means that if your gut is unhappy, you are unhappy.
Jennifer Fontaine is a health and wellness expert and regular contributor to 1MD, a brand dedicated to integrative wellness by providing innovative health supplements and access to the latest research news, nutrition, and fitness, to help people lead a stronger, healthier life. Her work as editor of Outdoor Families Magazine and numerous other premium publications, including Shape, Parenting, and the Daily Meal, covers digestive and joint health, nutrition, and the benefits of the outdoors.