The gut contains trillions of microorganisms, including beneficial and harmful varieties. Collectively, these make up what is known as our “gut microbiome.” It is very important to maintain a healthy microorganism balance within the microbiome. Factors such as diet, exercise, medications, and even genetics can affect various aspects of your health, for better or worse, by affecting its composition and diversity.
Gut health affects many different aspects of our well-being, from our mood to our immunity. But with all the hype surrounding gut health, it can be confusing to separate fact from fiction. That’s why we asked the experts what is really true when it comes to gut health, from good to bad.
What is gut health?
From the esophagus to the gut, gut health encompasses the health of the entire digestive system – the parts of our body responsible for breaking down our food into individual nutrients that we use to keep our bodies running.
Sue-Ellen Anderson-Haynes (opens in new tab)The gastrointestinal tract begins with digestion in the mouth, a registered dietitian nutritionist and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Live Science.
“It then continues through the stomach, small intestine and large intestine for further digestion and absorption before the waste goes to the final product where it exits through the feces,” he said.
Anderson-Haynes is a registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes care and education specialist, and a nutrition and diabetes educator at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Massachusetts. She received her BA in Food Science and Human Nutrition, Specialization Dietetics with a minor in Health Science Education from the University of Florida and her MA in Nutrition and Health from Andrews University, Summa Cum-Laude she.
Microorganisms in the gut play a vital role in the breakdown of food and facilitate digestion. There is evidence that the gut microbiome can affect longevity, as suggested by the unique gut bacteria of people who live to 100. Certain intestinal microorganisms may also provide an advantage to athletes.
Everyone’s gut microbiome is unique, so foods that help one person thrive may cause irritation in others.
Why is gut health important?
According to Anderson-Haynes, the gut is responsible not only for digestion but also for auxiliary functions such as hormone regulation and immune system activity.
“More than 70% of immune cells are found in the gastrointestinal tract,” he said.
Gut health is vital to immune function, according to a 2019 review published in Food Research International. (opens in new tab). The intestinal wall acts as a barrier against viruses, fungi and harmful bacteria. Unfortunately, this barrier sometimes becomes permeable and is colloquially known as “leaky gut,” allowing these scum to enter the bloodstream and make you sick. There is no single factor that contributes to leaky gut; instead, there is a combination of factors such as diet, inflammation, and antibiotic use that combine to affect the integrity of your gut barrier.
Conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and celiac disease increase the likelihood of leaky gut and make people with these conditions more prone to infections.
A 2014 review published in the Journal of Medicinal Food (opens in new tab)He also suggests that gut health has a knock-on effect on mental health. This communication between the gut and the brain is known as the gut-brain axis. Gut bacteria have the power to stimulate the nervous system by sending messages to your brain via the vagus nerve. Also, microorganisms in the gut release neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which can affect your mood.
Good gut health signs
So how do you know if your gut is healthy? Cristy Dean, dietitian and founder of Fettle and Bloom (opens in new tab)Based in Bath, England, he told Live Science there are several signs.
“Everyone is different, but defecating three times a day to three times a week is considered normal,” she said. “Too slow or too fast transit time may indicate that something is wrong with digestion. Stool should be medium to dark brown, smooth, sausage-like, and pass without pain, excessive bloating or gas.”
Symptoms of poor gut health
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, it is estimated that 60-70 million Americans suffer from digestive problems. (opens in new tab) Symptoms of a problem may include:
- loose stools
- Painful burning sensation in the chest
- Nausea and vomiting
Other, less obvious signs include:
- Fatigue and poor sleep: a 2020 review published in Sleep Medicine Reviews (opens in new tab) found that an unbalanced gut microbiome can lead to disturbed sleep and low energy.
- Skin irritation: Skin irritation can be a sign of poor gut health, according to a 2019 review published in the journal Microorganisms. (opens in new tab) daily.
- Halitosis/halitosis: Since the mouth is the gateway to the gastrointestinal tract, halitosis may be a sign that something is out of balance in the digestive system, according to a 2020 review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences. (opens in new tab).
Dean added that changes in bowel habits could be a sign that something is wrong. These may include increased bloating, gas, diarrhea, heartburn, or waking up at night to defecate.
“Sleep disturbances, increased fatigue, skin irritation, food intolerances and unintentional weight changes may be linked to an unhealthy gut,” he said.
If you experience symptoms, it is best to visit your doctor to discuss an appropriate intervention plan.
What factors affect gut health?
Optimal gut health is characterized by the diversity and abundance of the gut microbiota, with a balance in favor of beneficial strains. There are many factors that play a role in the composition of the gut microbiome.
mode of delivery
Did you know that gut health starts at birth?
“Factors often overlooked include whether a child was born by vaginal delivery or cesarean section, and whether he was breastfed or bottle fed,” Anderson-Haynes said. “Research (opens in new tab) It shows that babies born vaginally and breastfed have greater intestinal diversity.”
The exact mechanism behind this is unknown, but researchers believe the birth canal exposes the newborn to the mother’s vaginal bacteria before other environmental sources. They then specifically drink breast milk for a significant part of their development, which further enriches their microbial community.
Diet has a significant impact on gut health.
“Excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods can lead to a lack of microbiome diversity,” Anderson-Haynes said. Ultra-processed foods are defined as high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat.
He also said it’s vital to eat a “variety of fiber-rich foods”, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Prebiotics (foods that feed the good bacteria in the gut, including garlic, asparagus, and apples) and probiotics (live active cultures found in yogurt, tempeh, and sauerkraut) may also support gut health.
A 2019 review published in Frontiers in Nutrition (opens in new tab)It also found that a plant-based diet was linked to higher levels of beneficial bacteria, such as: lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. This is because the diet is often high in fiber, encouraging the growth of these friendly bacteria.
While they have the power to fight infections, antibiotics can compromise gut health. This is because they do not distinguish between beneficial and harmful bacteria, which depletes the overall gut flora and reduces diversity.
Lifestyle and environmental factors
According to Anderson-Haynes, genetics, lifestyle and environmental factors can negatively affect gut diversity. “These include exposure to toxins, insufficient sleep, uncontrolled stress, insufficient exercise, excessive use of antibiotics, smoking and alcohol consumption,” he said. “This weakens the intestinal wall lining leading to the compromise of the immune system.”
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide medical advice.