Are you interested in learning more about gut health? It’s a fascinating topic, and an important one to read up on if you want to improve your overall health. As many experts say, your gut is your pathway to health… or your pathway to disease! Here is a basic beginner’s guide to gut health to get you started. I hope it inspires you to put your gut health at the top of your list on your journey to optimal health!
What is the gut?
What is the gut microbiome?
Why is gut health important?
What is gut imbalance?
What are some common causes of gut imbalance?
How can you support your gut health?
Are you inspired to put your gut health first?
The gut, also known as the gastrointestinal tract (GI), is defined as:
an organ system within humans and other animals which takes in food, digests it to extract and absorb energy and nutrients, and expels the remaining waste as feces. The mouth, esophagus, stomach and intestines are part of the gastrointestinal tract.
More specifically, the main parts of the digestive system include, from top to bottom, the salivary glands, pharynx, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and the rectum.
Then, it also has accessory digestive organs that support the process that include the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.
So the gut is a pretty complex organ system and serves an important function. After all, digestion is how your body absorbs the nutrients and energy it needs to function.
And it all starts the moment you open your mouth to eat or drink!
The Gut Microbiome is also referred to as the Gut Flora or Gut Microbiota. This refers to the community of living microorganisms that live inside your gut. These microorganisms are mostly made up of different species of bacteria but also includes yeast, fungi, and viruses.
It’s incredible to think that there are trillions of these microorganisms in our gut. And, they weigh up to 1.5-2kg (3500-4500 pounds) in mass! Amazingly enough, it’s been found that we have more of these gut microorganisms in our gut than we have human cells!
We each have our own mix of microorganisms in our gut. Some can be ‘bad’ bacteria, while others are ‘good’ bacteria. The goal is to have more of the ‘good’ bacteria running the show. This creates a healthy balance within our gut, leading to optimal health.
These ‘good’ bacteria are so important for our bodies, for many reasons, far beyond maintaining healthy digestion. They help the body digest foods properly, they help produce vitamins (B and K), they help fight ‘bad’ microorganisms, and they even play an important role in the immune system.
There is a reason why many professionals say that your digestive tract is your pathway to health… or disease.
As the inspiring Dr Mark Hyman says in a recent article of his:
Digesting, absorbing, and assimilating all the food and nutrients we eat is critical for health. Our digestive systems must also protect us from internal toxins, bugs, and potential allergens as well as eliminate wastes. Breakdown anywhere in this process creates illness. Full article: A New Roadmap for Treating Disease
The gut is firstly where your food is digested, metabolized (converted into energy), and absorbed to be delivered to the cells of your body as energy. The gut is also responsible for getting rid of waste from the body.
If you really take a moment to think about it, this is such a vital process of the body. That is, after breathing I guess 🙂 This is where the food and drink you ingest literally gets sorted through. The ‘good stuff’ is made available to all the cells of the body. And the ‘bad stuff’ is removed to prevent any harm.
And these ‘good’ bacteria living in your gut are essential in making this happen efficiently. These little microorganisms work really really hard for us!
As briefly mentioned above, gut health goes far beyond healthy digestion.
Just to give you an idea:
Most of the body’s serotonin (the ‘feel good’ hormone) is made in the gut. That is why gut health can have a big effect on how you feel, playing a role in anxiety and depression.
Also, about 70% of the immune system is in the gut. That’s why the gut plays a vital role in your immune strength and ability to stay healthy and not succumb to diseases.
Within the gut, these ‘good’ microbes are so busy doing all sorts of important work. They play a pivotal role in running our digestion and metabolism, enhancing nutrient absorption, getting rid of toxins, regulating the immune system and fighting infections, preventing inflammation, regulating our moods, and so much more. They even play a role in helping with healthy weight management.
The state of the gut has far-reaching effects on our health and has been linked to diseases ranging from asthma to cardiovascular disease. As many have started to stay… it all starts with the gut…
And so, we need to support our gut and find a healthy balance. Because when we have a healthy balance in our gut, we are a big step closer to optimal health.
When our gut is out of balance and we have an overpopulation of unhealthy bacteria, our immune system is compromised. When there is this imbalance of good and bad bacteria, with more bad, this is called dysbiosis:
Dysbiosis (also called dysbacteriosis) is a term for a microbial imbalance or maladaptation on or inside the body, such as an impaired microbiota. Wikipedia
This can lead to a leaky gut where your intestinal lining is compromised and no longer functions as a good enough barrier. Your gut lining is so important, as it is the gateway between the outside world and your body’s inside world – when we eat food, it often contains unwanted elements that we don’t want in our bodies, like pesticides or moulds. As it passes through our digestive tract, our gut microorganisms sort it out, basically deciding what’s going to be absorbed and what’s going to be ejected.
When your intestinal lining is compromised, and perhaps broken down by bad bacteria, it becomes a less effective barrier and can result in unwanted compounds moving through the wall into your body. These unwanted compounds can cause havoc in the body, triggering the immune system and resulting in inflammation. And if there is one important thing to remember… inflammation is very often the start of disease.
Our gut health is influenced by many different factors over our lifetime, including:
The way we were delivered as babies – When delivered naturally, babies are exposed to different strains of bacteria than when they are delivered via a c-section. Natural births allow babies to be exposed to more strains of beneficial bacteria.
Whether we were breastfed or not – When babies are breastfed, they are exposed to more of the beneficial bacteria in their mother’s milk. That said, because we’re all unique, each mother’s milk will be different.
What you eat as an adult – Our diets have a huge impact on what kinds of bacteria thrive in our gut. The foods we eat fed the good or the bad microbes and ultimately determine who runs the show.
Taking antibiotics – Antibiotics have a strong impact on our gut microbiome. They work by killing bacteria, and while they are effective in killing the bad guys, they also destroy the good guys in the process. When taking antibiotics it’s important to take extra measures in protecting your gut and supporting the good bacteria.
Genetics – Some aspects of our unique gut microbiome can be determined by our genetics, but most of our gut health has to do with environmental factors – our lifestyles and the foods we eat.
Stress – Stress plays an important role in our gut health and has been shown to alter gut microbiota (the balance of microorganisms in our gut). Even brief periods of stress can have an impact.
While the above can affect the community of microorganisms in our guts, as adults, our gut health is predominantly affected by our diet and environment (lifestyle).
And that’s motivation to make lifestyle changes, one by one, to support your gut health and journey towards optimal health.
There are a few ways you can improve your gut health, but one of the most effective ways is to eat more beneficial foods to help restore your gut’s balance. Apart from adjusting your food choices, you can also look at options like taking supplements, managing stress, and even look at the way you actually eat.
Your food choices
It all starts with food. The food you put inside your body ultimately decides what your gut microbiome will become. Here are tips to get you started:
Eat natural over processed foods – Natural foods, like fruits and veggies, contain the essential nutrients that support our gut health. Processed foods, on the other hand, usually contain additives, chemicals and added sugars. These additives feed bad bacteria and mess up our gut balance.
Remove inflammatory foods – When eating processed foods regularly, our gut lining becomes damaged and inflamed, and inflammation can lead to chronic disease. By removing processed foods, you can start the healing process.
Eat anti-inflammatory foods – Anti-inflammatory foods help nourish and heal the body. These include foods like whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and nuts and seeds.
Eat probiotic-rich foods – Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for you, especially your digestive system. Probiotic-rich foods include fermented and cultured foods like pickled veggies, sauerkraut. kimchi, kefir, yoghurt, pickled ginger and homemade pickles.
Eat prebiotic-rich foods – Prebiotics are basically foods for the friendly gut bacteria. Prebiotics are a starch/fibre that humans can’t digest but these good bacteria can. When you feed the good bacteria with these prebiotic-rich foods, they flourish and are able to do their jobs even better. Prebiotic-rich foods include onions, leeks, garlic, asparagus, apples, bananas and many others.
Eat a rainbow of fruits and veggies – Fruits and veggies are high in polyphenols, compounds that are found abundantly in natural plant food sources. Polyphenols have antioxidant properties, which are beneficial in many ways, but essentially fight inflammation and promote health.
Eat your fibre – Quality fibre is important for the gut and is a wonderful food for the ‘good’ bacteria. Quality fibre sources include beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and whole fruits and vegetables.
If you’re looking for specific foods to eat for gut health, check out this blog post >> Nutritious Foods for Gut Health.
Mindful eating is another interesting aspect to consider.
Our digestion starts the moment we put food into our mouths. We don’t just swallow and our stomach and intestines do the rest. Digestion starts in the mouth. As you start chewing, carbohydrates are broken down in the mouth. When you don’t chew, carbohydrates move down your digestive tract without being properly digested. This can cause adverse reactions.
There is a journey the body goes through from the start that impacts the rest of the process, with different food groups being digested at different stages. When you skip steps, like chewing, it affects the process. This can result in undigested carbs, proteins and fats basically moving through the gut undigested and rotting in the process, causing adverse reactions like IBS.
When you next have a meal, consider how mindful you are. Instead of grabbing something to eat and shovelling it down your throat as you fly out the door, take the time to mindfully enjoy your meal. Sit down, even just for 15 minutes, take a breath, be grateful for the food, and chew each bite calmly and with intention.
Instead of seeing eating as another chore to tick off your list, start to value it as an essential part of life. It’s what keeps you alive and functioning. It’s what gives your cells life. And in order to really absorb and benefit from the food you eat, you’ve got to give yourself a moment to be present and allow your body to properly digest it, without having to perform other tasks at the same time.
It’s like the productivity experts say – multi-tasking is a thing of the past. It’s all about doing one thing at a time and doing it well.
I hope this post has inspired you to put your gut health right at the top of your list. It’s a huge topic, with this post only covering the basics. So go and do some extra research and get even more clued up. One thing is for sure though, what and how you eat can greatly influence the state of your gut, and ultimately the state of your overall health.
What one thing are you going to do to improve or support your gut health? Let me know in the comments or send me a message on Instagram, I’d love to know!