In this article:
- The importance of a healthy gut
- How to recognize an unhealthy gut?
- Factors that affect gut microbiota
- How nutrition affects gut health & IBS
- Best supplements for gut health
How much do you actually know about your gut? If you believe that the gut is strictly connected to the digestive process and there’s not much to know about it beyond that function, you’ll be surprised to learn about its numerous roles.
If there’s anything that’s going to convince you to pay more attention to your microbiota and nutrition, it’s the fact that our gut directly affects our brain. In fact, science has revealed a whole new series of considerations for our unique microbiomes and the gut-brain connection, affecting everything from our thought-processes to our sleep, digestion, and mental health.
By improving our nutrition and making healthier choices, we can make drastic changes in all aspects of health - gut health included. Today we’re casting some light upon the importance of a healthy gut, signs of an unhealthy gut, and optimum nutrition for a balanced microbiome.
The main function of the gut we’re all familiar with is breaking down the food we eat, so it can ultimately reach our bloodstream in the form of nutrients. Basically, digestion. The gut encompasses organs such as the stomach, intestines, and esophagus - functioning as a system. However, in order for the digestive system to function smoothly, a balance in gut bacteria levels is necessary. Unfortunately, digestive discomfort isn’t foreign to many people - approximately 70 million Americans struggle with it.
The gut microbiota is home to many microorganisms (microbes), including viruses, fungi, and bacteria. In fact, there are roughly 1,000 species of bacteria present in the human gut. The gut microbes are so significant that they’re observed as an entirely independent organ, weighing up to 5 pounds!
It is safe to say that the microbe content of the gut, otherwise known as the microbiome or microbiota, dictates our gut health. The bacteria species in the microbiome can be categorized as good and bad - the good being the ones that generally improve the overall gut health. A healthy microbiome is imperative for a healthy gut, as it’s necessary for proper digestion, communication between intestinal cells, and managing the bad bacteria.
As we’ve already mentioned, gut health also has a great impact on other areas of health. According to a study conducted by J. Fu and colleagues, the gut microbiome plays a significant role in the management of cholesterol and triglycerides, hence its importance in heart health. What’s more, a study by A. D. Kostic suggests that an imbalance in the diversity of bacteria in the microbiome was detected right before the onset of type 1 diabetes.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing roles of gut health is its association with brain functions. The microbiome is very much involved in the production of chemicals, such as neurotransmitters. One of the neurotransmitters developed in the gut is serotonin, otherwise known as the happy hormone, which also functions as a natural antidepressant neurotransmitter.
So if the gut has an unbreakable bond with the brain through a network of millions of nerves, it’s no wonder that the gut is responsible for communicating certain signals to the brain. The importance of the diversity of microbes is also the subject of a study investigating the connection between the microbiome and mental health. The study finds that “microbes represent direct mediators” of certain psychological conditions, firmly establishing the role of the microbiome in mental health.
Speaking of important brain functions, the content and balance of the gut microbiome have also been found to influence the quality of sleep. According to an article by M. Gavidia, the brain-gut-microbiome axis also entails sleep, as promoting microbiome quality through a healthy diet may result in improved sleep quality.
How do we even know if our microbiome is balanced? A regular checkup is something that should always be on your agenda, but there are also signs of an unhealthy gut you should pay attention to. While some of these are pretty self-explanatory, other symptoms might not be as obvious at first.
Are you experiencing bloating, heartburn, diarrhea, or gas? All of these symptoms might develop as a consequence of an unhealthy gut and difficulty processing food. Of course, all of the mentioned signs might also be associated with food intolerance. The main cause of food intolerance likewise leads us back to the gut microbiota, as poor bacteria quality and a lack of diversity in the gut may cause this issue. What’s more, certain food allergies have also been associated with gut disbalance.
Additionally, signs of an unhealthy gut may appear on your skin. The underlying cause of many skin conditions, including eczema, seems to be inflammation in the gut. This inflammatory reaction is often caused by poor diet choices and food allergies, which may lead to leakage of certain proteins, ultimately resulting in skin irritation and skin conditions. While on the topic of gut inflammation, it is important to mention that an unhealthy gut may contribute to the overall systemic inflammation in the body, which is a big threat to the immune system and the main prerequisite for an autoimmune disease.
Unfortunately, failing to re-establish a gut balance for a long time may lead to chronic gut conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, simply known as IBS. This chronic digestive condition is also known as irritable colon, mucous colitis, and spastic colitis. Even though the manifestation of this issue is quite individual, the typical symptoms include constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, gas, bloating, and cramping. While some of these symptoms are periodic, others can persist for quite some time. There are numerous possible triggers of this condition, including stress, anxiety, and food intolerance. Let’s see what the main factors influencing gut health are, and what can be done to preserve it naturally.
We keep hearing about stress, especially chronic stress, being one of the common triggers of numerous health issues. Gut health is no exception, as stress certainly takes its toll on gut microbiota. According to a study on stress and the gut, stress has been found to increase gut sensitivity, compromise blood flow, and change the gut flora. Furthermore, a study on the role of stress on bacterial flora activity found that stress related to final exams changed the gut microbiota composition in 23 college students.
Are you getting enough sleep? As we’ve mentioned before, an imbalance in the gut flora may seriously jeopardize your sleep schedule. Unfortunately, it is also the lack of quality sleep that may negatively impact your gut. According to a study conducted by X. Liang, disrupting your sleep cycle, known as the circadian cycle, may disrupt your gut bacteria.
Poor lifestyle choices such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption represent one of the biggest health threats. Besides its highly toxic content and the fact it may develop into an addiction, alcohol may significantly impact the gut microbiota, leading to dysbiosis (unbalanced gut bacteria). Comparably, smoking has been found to decrease gut flora diversity and increase the risk of numerous health conditions. What may also disrupt the balance of your gut flora is the use of antibiotics, hence the recommendation of probiotics while on this kind of therapy.
One of the most obvious effects of nutrition on gut health is the fact that you can easily recognize the foods that create an uncomfortable feeling in your stomach. When it comes to digestive discomfort, professionals will often advise you to keep a food diary, such as the macronutrient balance diary, tracking all the foods you eat and the way each of them makes you feel.
However, if you’re not too excited about the idea, you could just follow a scientifically-backed plan known as the FODMAP diet. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols, all belonging to the categories of short-chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols. These groups of nutrients are usually what causes abdominal pain and uncomfortable bloating in the stomach area, and these include dairy, legumes, artificial sweeteners, fructose (present in some fruits and vegetables), and fructans (in some fruits and grains).
The way that the FODMAP diet functions is that it limits the consumption of ingredients and foods that have been proven to cause digestive discomfort. On the other hand, it also offers a list of favorable foods that have been recognized as highly beneficial, especially when it comes to gut health. As this diet plan relies on scientific facts, it is commonly recommended when dealing with the aforementioned IBS, as well as other gastrointestinal disorders.
In the case of IBS and similar issues, patients are mostly advised to go on a highly restrictive “FODMAP elimination” diet which excludes or severely restricts the foods high in FODMAPs. On the other hand, a “low FODMAP” variation of this diet simply entails lowering the amount of these foods instead of excluding them completely.
When it comes to blacklisted foods that are to be avoided, the list includes vegetables such as onions, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, sweet corn, and mushrooms; as well as fruits including peaches, apricots, plums, prunes, pears, apples, mangoes, and watermelon. Just like the majority of diets, the FODMAP menu also limits the consumption of wheat and rye such as pasta, bread, and cereals, as well as products high in lactose, including soft cheese, pudding, and cottage cheese. Needless to say, sugary drinks such as alcohol, soda, and sports drinks are off-limits.
The list of preferable foods while on a FODMAP diet includes vegetables such as potatoes, green beans, olives, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, carrot, and bell pepper; and fruits including oranges, strawberries, grapes, bananas, blueberries, lemons, and limes. When it comes to dairy, you should aim for lactose-free products and matured cheeses such as feta, brie, and camembert, as well as non-dairy milk options including almond, rice, and coconut milks. As far as meat is concerned, your FODMAP menu will usually entail beef, pork, chicken, and fish, and you won’t have to give up on grains such as rice, quinoa, oats, and gluten-free pasta and bread.
What’s more, fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, plain yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut should be incorporated into your daily nutrition for a healthy gut. Fermented foods have been found to benefit the gut flora by enhancing the structure and the function of microbiota. Also, in order to develop and maintain a healthy gut flora, it is essential to consume foods that promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria. These foods are known as prebiotics, and they’re mostly complex carbs or fiber that are not digested, but rather used as a fuel for the beneficial bacteria.
Probiotics are definitely the most talked-about supplementation when it comes to regaining and retaining the microbiota balance. According to a study conducted by M. E. Sanders, these microorganisms can alter the structure of the gut flora and support the metabolic functions. While studies certainly do support the finding that probiotics may alter the microbiota in a compromised state and aid in regaining its balance, it seems that they don’t have much power when it comes to microbiota composition of healthy people.
Zinc is one of the essential macronutrients for optimal health, and gut health as well. When it comes to gut disorders and conditions such as ulcers and Crohn’s disease, what they seem to have in common is a zinc deficiency. Zinc deficiency has also been linked to damage to the gut barrier, while promoting zinc levels with adequate supplementation has been shown to boost the barrier function and restore the integrity of the gut lining.
Gelatin, the degraded form of collagen, offers all the health benefits of collagen and its powerful amino acids. Collagen is the main, predominant structural protein, found in all connective tissues, including skin, bones, muscles, joints, and teeth. It is precisely the structural role of collagen that makes gelatin so important when it comes to gut health. Gelatin is essentially 98-99% collagen, and the most abundant source of the amino acid glycine - one of the most important anti-inflammatory agents. As inflammation represents one of the primary causes of numerous digestive disorders, it’s no wonder supplementing with glycine is a priority for gut health.
Furthermore, gelatin has been shown to protect the gut barrier from damage, aiding in the management of conditions such as leaky gut. Having a leaky gut means that the gut wall has become too thin, enhancing intestinal permeability and allowing the waste from the digestive tract to enter the bloodstream, which could also lead to IBS. What’s more, glutamic acid (an amino acid found in gelatin) is converted to glutamine, which is a vital element when it comes to the integrity of the gut wall.
It is clear that gut health represents a complex system affecting more than just digestion. A healthy gut means a constant connection with the brain and all its functions, optimal sleep quality, healthy skin, and much more. The saying, you become what you eat, is certainly more than just a phrase, so make sure to choose the best foods and supplementation for your gut, even if you’re not on the FODMAP diet. Looking for more non-GMO, natural supplementation? Check out our full assortment.