Updated: Sep 3, 2019
Gut health. This term is being used more and more often, and you may be wondering, "What even is that?" The term 'gut' refers to the gastrointestinal tract. The GI tract is responsible for transporting food from the mouth to the stomach, converting it into energy and transporting it back out of the body. The gut is extremely important to human health and much more complex than we previously knew.
The health of the gut is associated not only with digestion, but immunity, emotional stress and chronic illness. The gut is filled with trillions of bacteria that help us process food as well as maintain our overall well-being. These bacteria make up what is known as the gut microbiome. The microbiome of every person is unique and is determined partly by your mother's microbiome when you were born (what you were exposed to), and from your diet and lifestyle.
The gut microbiome often becomes damaged or imbalanced (referred to as dysbiosis). This caused or exacerbated by poor diet and other lifestyle choices, and can lead to many different health problems.
Some signs of an unhealthy gut include:
-Upset stomach including gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and heartburn. A balanced gut will process food and move bowels more efficiently (YAY!)
-High Sugar diet including processed foods
-Unintentional weight changes
-Poor sleep or constant fatigue
-Skin irritations including conditions such as eczema
Some diseases that have been linked to an unhealthy gut include:
-Type II Diabetes
-Inflammatory bowel diseases including Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn's
The food you eat plays a major role in the health and balance of your gut bacteria, but there a other factors that also come into play.
The gut and the brain are so closely connected and are in such constant communication with each other that the gut is often referred to as the second brain. There is a nerve in our body called the vagus nerve, that directly connects the brain to the body. Through this nerve, signals in the gut can effect neurotransmitters in the brain and vice versa. The majority of the body's serotonin is produced in the gut, so if you struggle with mood disorders or sleep it could be due to an imbalance in the gut!
Pain killers, drugs to treat acid reflux, diabetes and emotional disorders are all causes of changes in the gut microbiome. The biggest culprit of this is antibiotics. Antibiotics are used to kill bacteria, but unfortunately they do not work exclusively; meaning they not only kill bad bacteria but they wipe out good bacteria as well. Antibiotics are known to be over-prescribed and a huge reason many people feel like they are in an endless cycle of drugs-sick again-drugs-sick again.
Cool, this is me. My gut is a MESS. What do I do?
The first step is quite simple: change your diet. For many people, the simplest solution is often the most challenging. Hopefully you have realized by reading this information thatit is in the best interest of your health to make changes that can lead to the improved health of your gut.
The path to improving gut health IS NOT A DIET. You may have a weight issue, but that is not the focus here (to lose weight, eat the suggested healthy foods in amounts that allow you to be a calorie deficit and include regular exercise into your life). This truly is a lifestyle change. That does not mean you have to cut out a bunch of stuff you love and never eat it again. It means that by regularly incorporating a more diverse variety of foods (i.e. not so much chicken-broccoli-potatoes every day) into your diet, those times when you decide to 'eat whatever' won't affect you as much in the long-term (it could make you feel not-so-great in the short-term thought).
I talk about fiber constantly and that is because it is such an essential part of the human diet and a nutrient that is often overlooked. The recommended amount of fiber for people to get per day is 25-35 grams. HOWEVER, THAT IS WAY TOO LOW. For optimal health and function, you should ultimately aim for much more - even up to 50-60 grams per day. Most people have no idea how much fiber they get each day, so I recommend tracking your food for 5 days to get a clear understanding of what you are getting and increase from there. Use a simple tracking app such as MyFitnessPal. If you find your fiber very low, do not make a sudden increase. Aim for a slow and steady increase in order to not bring about more intestinal discomfort. Over time your body will adjust and you will start to feel much better (especially if you have problems in the poop department).
Great - what do I eat?
-100% Whole grain bread
-Beans, legumes, nuts and seeds
*This is just the tip of the iceberg. You may even still experience some symptoms after making these changes, and in that case it would be best to consult a professional (HI!) regarding finding the best route specifically for you.*
**Notice these suggestions do not include animal products. This is not to say you need to become vegetarian or vegan, but limiting the amount of animal product you consume can greatly improve gut health (Don't worry about protein - you will get more than enough from the foods listed above). If you are extremely carnivorous, you can start by having one meatless meal per day, or week, or another slow approach to cutting back.
Surprise! Exercise is good for you! Studies have shown exercise to have positive effects on the gut microbiome. This could also occur because when we exercise we tend to feel good. When we feel good, the brain and gut communicate (mind-body connection, or brain-gut connection) and that message is shared. Regardless of the health of your gut, regular exercise is essential and beneficial to your health. So, choose something you think you will enjoy and try it! If you hate it, move on to something else. The important thing is to not allow yourself to live a sedentary lifestyle.
I hope this helps you start to realize that digestive problems are not normal and sometimes can easily be eliminated. Even if you do not experience any symptoms listed above, it is best for you to get ahead of any potential problems and follow these suggestions.
Change can be overwhelming, so start slow. Commit to ONE WEEK of more diverse meals including more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Assess how you feel at the end of the week, and go from there! Remember - all health starts in the gut!