Gut Health: An Overview

Gut health is extremely important because the health of your gut directly impacts both your physical and mental well-being. Researchers are fortunately always discovering new ways to improve gut health. A healthy digestive system has always been known to be imperative for our well-being when it comes to feeling good. The scientific community, however, has only recently begun to grasp just how important gut health is for our overall health.

The effects of an unhealthy gut extend beyond our stomachs to include our other vital internal organs, our skin, and even our cognitive functioning.

In fact, it has been suggested that poor gut health might be an underlying cause of a variety of mental health conditions including mood disorders and ADHD. Researchers have spent the better part of the last decade investigating the unique relationship between the gut and the brain, and some of the evidence suggests the health of our microbiome directly affects neurotransmitter activity, particularly serotonin, dopamine and GABA.

This is very promising for people living with mental health disorders who have been unresponsive to medications such as antidepressants. Perhaps a change in their gut health could improve their mental health.

What exactly is ‘good’ gut health, what does poor gut health look like, and what steps can we take to improve our gut health? We’ll discuss all of these questions and more, below:

Why is Gut Health Important?

“Gut health has been making headlines lately, especially when it comes to the gut microbiome,” says Dr. Vanessa Méndez, a triple board-certified gastroenterologist and founder of the telemedicine practice Planted Forward.

To explain what gut health is all about, Dr. Méndez says, “Our microbiome is about 30-100 trillion microbes in our gut made up of bacteria, viruses, fungi and single-celled organisms which have evolved with us through time and are now known to have essential effects, not only [on] our gut health, but on the health of our entire body. These play a major role in breaking down fibre and using the by-products from this process to keep our colon wall healthy and not [allow] toxins and harmful microbes from crossing over.”

Méndez goes on to say that the health of our gut actually plays a huge part in our overall health.

“The microbiome is in constant communication with our immune system (70-80% of our immune system is in our digestive system) and helps the immune system in differentiating harmful vs non-harmful substances that we ingest or come in contact with. Our microbiome has other crucial functions such as regulating our metabolism, communicating with the brain through the gut-brain axis and even turning our genes on and off. Therefore, gut health really means whole-body health.”

“Poor gut health and microbiome imbalances can cause not only digestive problems but also chronic diseases that result in disability and [negatively] impact [the] quality of life. Microbiome imbalances have been linked to asthma, allergies, skin issues, autoimmune conditions, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, anxiety and depression. So by optimizing our microbiome we are really improving ouroverall health.”

What Does It Mean to Have ‘Good’ Gut Health? “We all want good gut health,” says Dr. Méndez. “There’s nothing worse than having to deal with digestive issues. These take the joy out of eating and ultimately out of life, leaving you feeling anxious and depressed about eating or going out and living your life.”

What Does it Mean to Have ‘Good’ Gut Health?

Essentially, what good gut health comes down to, is achieving a balance by having a wide variety of bacteria living in your microbiome.

Most of the bacteria that live in a healthy gut are beneficial to you, but there is a small percentage of gut bacteria that promotes disease. There’s no way to completely rid your gut of pathogenic bacteria, but in a healthy gut, both kinds of bacteria are able to coexist without causing digestive distress. If the healthy bacteria outnumber the bad bacteria, your microbiome is in balance and can support a wide variety of bacteria.

However, when there aren’t enough good bacteria in your gut, pathogenic bacteria thrive and multiply, causing your microbiome to become unbalanced, a condition known as dysbiosis. The effects of dysbiosis aren’t only felt in your gut.

Dr. Méndez explains, “Poor gut health can lead to a myriad of other problems even including anxiety and depression. Good gut health means having a well-functioning digestive system that processes, digests foods and extracts the right amount of nutrients to keep you energized, mentally sharp and functioning at your highest capacity. Good gut health means not having chronic or debilitating digestive conditions like bloating, diarrhea, constipation, heartburn or abdominal pain.”


Signs of Poor Gut Health

Poor gut health can negatively impact much more than just your digestive system.  Signs of poor gut health can show up all over your body.

People often think ‘the obvious’ when it comes to poor gut health – bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain and constipation. While these are definitely signs of poor gut health, other, lesser-known symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Brain fog
  • Fatigue
  • Mood swings
  • Inflammation
  • Joint pain
  • Weight changes
  • Acne
  • Eczema
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Bad breath.

How to Help Keep the Gut Healthy

Now that we know the importance of gut health, what can we do about it? “There are many evidence-based lifestyle habits that can be implemented for optimal gut health,” advises Dr. Méndez. “Studies show that fibre is essential for a healthy gut. Fibre from plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds feed our gut microbiome and help keep our gut in tip-top shape.”

We know that our gut influences our mental health, but did you know that it works both ways? The state of your mind can affect your digestive system, too. That’s why some of us experience an upset stomach when we’re stressed or anxious. Stomach pain is one of the physical side effects of stress. Dr. Méndez advises getting plenty of sleep and exercise, and doing things that are good for your mind, like spending time with loved ones and getting outside in the fresh air.

Dr. Méndez goes on to explain, “Additionally, we want to avoid harmful substances like overly processed foods, smoking, alcohol and unnecessary supplements. These have all been shown to be harmful to the gut.”

You might be wondering if you should be taking supplements to support your gut health.

Well, as Dr. Méndez points out, that really depends on the person. “When it comes to recommending supplements it really needs to be through a personal mixed approach after a thorough evaluation of the person’s underlying issues, health needs and goals. Because supplements are not regulated by the FDA the same way as prescription medications, we really need to be careful and be wise consumers when considering taking them. Additionally, supplements are not without harm and there have been many cases of liver and colon injury after taking protein prowlers, cleanses or detoxes. My recommendation is to have a conversation with your doctor and review the pros and cons of each supplement you’re considering taking.”

Gut Health: The Bottom Line

The health of your gut directly influences your physical and mental well-being, and the scientific community is, fortunately, finding new ways we can improve our gut health all the time.

However, some people have a genetic predisposition to poor gut health that makes it more difficult to achieve that perfect microbiota balance.

Genetic conditions such as Celiac disease, food sensitivities and variations of specific genes can cause digestive issues that lead to dysbiosis. You can find out more about the health of your gut and your genetic risk factors for developing digestive disorders via the results of a DNA test from CircleDNA.

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