You ever get a gut feeling something isn’t right which then influences your brain to stop whatever it is you’re doing? Interestingly enough this isn’t some freak super power we just happen to experience. Humans actually contain a cranial nerve called the “Vagus Nerve” that extends from our brain stem all the way down to our abs/stomach. The truth is our gut is responsible for a lot of awesome things – and some not so great things depending on how you take care of it.
So what exactly does our gut do for us? When most of us think of our gut, we think of the long twisty intestinal tubes that allows us to digest our food (and put out waste), but the gut is also a major key player in our immunity, brain health and physical state. The human gastrointestinal tract is the largest organ inside of our body and arguably the most complex.
Acting as one of the body’s first defense mechanisms, our intestines play the vital role of processing harmful bacteria/substances through the cells in its inner lining. The influx of bad bacteria alarms (and affects) the brain while ultimately determining the state of health we are in. In fact, about 70% of our immune system lies inside of our intestines along with 95% of the chemicals needed to produce a healthy functioning brain. This suddenly gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “We are what we eat”.
Best explained by neuroscience researcher Dr. Sarah Adaes, “The gut actually has a nervous system of its own – the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS controls the functions of the gastrointestinal tract, pancreas, and gallbladder. The human ENS is estimated to have around 100 million neurons, maybe more than the entire spinal cord. It contains local sensory and motor neurons, as well as interneurons establishing local connections.”
She goes on to explain that, “The vagus nerve is a major player in this brain-gut connection. The gastrointestinal tract is densely innervated by the vagus nerve, which plays a crucial role in food intake, digestion, and intestinal barrier functions. It contains sensory and motor fibers contributing to a bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain. 80-90% of the nerve fibers in the vagus nerve are dedicated to communicating the state of the viscera up to the brain. Interestingly, the vagus nerve is also closely associated with stress and anxiety responses, and is responsible for the heart rate and breathing pattern, for example.
If a change occurs in the gut that somehow affects the survival of our microbiota, the brain will most likely be readily informed. And the extent of this connection is pretty amazing. Data suggest that the gut microbiota may be a key player in the communication between the immune and neuroendocrine systems. Recent data has been showing that our buddies in the gut may even influence our perception of the world and alter our behavior…”
Whoa. That’s some pretty important stuff. To summarize it simply, our gut is responsible for a host of fascinating things that includes: digestion, absorption of nutrients, exportation of waste, sending information to the brain, immunity/state of disease and our body’s ability to physically and mentally function optimally.
How then do problems start to arise in the gut?
Problems In The Gut
In order to understand gut health, we must first look into our understanding of the word “bacteria”. Traditionally the term comes with a negative connotation – something we try to avoid and rid ourselves of. While there certainly is bad bacteria we should be avoiding, there’s also GOOD bacteria that should be sought. In order for our gut to function properly to keep disease (and other issues) at bay, a healthy balance of gut bacteria (or Gut Flora) should be maintained at all times.
To make it easier to understand let us think of our gut as a battle field. The good flora in our gut are our soldiers while potentially harmful pathogens, pesticides, parasites and other bad bacteria we consume (and come across daily) are the enemy. Our flora’s job is to line the gut with a layer of cells (epithelial cells) that keep us protected from the bad guys, while also creating antimicrobial substances that fight infectious bacteria. The problem is, much like any army, we need to supply them with the right weaponry to do their job effectively. When we eat a poor diet and lead unhealthy lifestyles we are basically sending out our army onto the battle field defenseless. This is when the enemy – sickness, disease, infection and a plethora of other bad guys win.
Here are a few of examples of those “bad guys” linked to poor gut health:
- Acne/problematic skin
- “Leaky gut” syndrome
- Irritable bowl syndrome
- Yeast infection
- Respiratory infection
- Metabolic syndrome
- Food allergies/sensitivities
- Digestive issues (such as bloating, inflammation & gas)
- Poor immune system (frequently sick) &
- Irritability/mood swings
The list goes on but I think you get the point. Taking care of your gut is a pretty big deal and lucky for us there are a few good ways we can do just that.
To maintain a healthy gut there a few things we should try to avoid as well as incorporate in our daily routines. Here’s a list of a few good ones.
FOOD: Processed foods filled with preservatives, high amounts of sugar, artificial flavorings/sweeteners and color dyes are all huge contributors to bad bacteria growth as they literally feed off of these “foods” and over populate in the gut. These, plus fried greasy foods, large amounts of starches, soy and junk food are things you definitely want to avoid consuming regularly. Cutting down meat and dairy consumption is also a good idea as both are known to cause severe disruption in our gut flora. Try instead to incorporate raw whole organic (plant-based) foods into your diet as much as possible.
CHOOSE ORGANIC: Eating a healthy diet is number one for gut health but it’s also pretty important to consider buying organic. Most conventional foods are usually GMO (genetically modified organisms) as well as covered in pesticides. GMO’s are basically foods that have been altered in a way that does not occur naturally and simply put our gut is NOT designed to interact with this. Non organic foods sprayed with pesticides disrupt the balance of our good bacteria composition and cause a ton of problems beyond the gut. Choose organic as much as possible.
PROBIOTICS/PREBIOTICS: I’m sure we’ve all heard of the term (and taken) an antibiotic before right? Well these can be both good and bad. When you’re prescribed an antibiotic, it’s job is to kill off whatever infection you’ve got going on inside you. These can definitely be necessary sometimes but the problem is not only does it kill off the infection, it kills all the good bacteria too. If we go back to our battlefield analogy again, antibiotics are like atomic bombs. They’ll get the job done with the enemy but they’re also killing off the good guys too.
This is where Probiotics come in. They are the bacteria strands that are basically the good, skilled soldiers you want to recruit into your army. Taking a probiotic supplement (or eating rich fermented foods) daily is a fantastic way to build up gut health (even when you’re not sick) BUT is especially important when taking antibiotics. Some great brand options we use in my home are Garden Of Life and Renew Life.
p.s – try avoiding antibiotics as a first resort if possible as there are tons of medicinal herbs and plants that can usually get the job done ;).
As for prebiotics, they are like probiotics in that they help build up good bacteria. They come from components of certain foods that can’t be broken down when digested. When these components interact with our gut bacteria it helps to stimulate their growth. Some rich prebiotic foods include: bananas, fennel, garlic, raw nuts, legumes and chicory root.
LIFESTYLE: It should be of no surprise that our lifestyle can certainly impact our health. One very common contributor in particular is stress. When we are stressed out, our brain goes into flight or fight mode which then affects the amount of blood flow that is received in our gut. According to an article published by the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, recent studies show that experiencing stress regularly can weaken our gut microbiome thus making us more susceptible to illness, parasites and over all poor health. Other poor lifestyle choices that can severely impact our gut negatively is the over consumption of alcohol/drugs, sleep deprivation and lack of exercise.
So there it is! All the scoop on our gut health and what we can do to build it! I hope you guys found this post helpful and as always never hesitate to reach out with any questions.
Til next time,
**Disclaimer** Please note I am not a physician and am merely sharing my findings. Please consult with your doctor to find what works best for you.
*image credit: John Hopkins
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