It finally feels like science is catching up with the notion that what we eat directly affects our physical and mental health, and not for the obvious reasons of weight gain and malnutrition. Rather, it’s because processed and fast foods simply don’t support gut health. Your gut is your whole gastrointestinal tract — a long tube that begins at the mouth and ends at the anus. In addition to being in charge of digestion, the gut also supports the body’s second brain, the enteric nervous system.
“The ENS is complete with a matching number of nerve cells as the spinal cord in its entirety, and also like the brain, it both sends as well as receives nerve impulses, documents happenings that affect the body, and even reciprocates to emotional cues.”
This comes as no surprise when you consider that about 90% of the serotonin produced by the body actually comes from the gut, which suggests that when you have a healthy, supported gut, your mental health will be in check as well. So what is it exactly in the gut that ensures a healthy body and mind?
There are billions of essential bacteria that literally share the human body and help it function. These microorganisms are collectively known as the microbiome.
Microorganisms outnumber our own cells 10 to 1. And rapid gene-sequencing techniques have discovered that the biggest and most diverse of the bunch live in the large intestine and mouth. Microbes live in various parts of the body and according to the United States National Library of Medicine, we harbour more than 1 trillion of them. These microbes are associated with regulation of digestion, protection from disease-causing organisms, and the development of a strong immune response.
We build our microbes straight from birth, our first experience being from our mother’s bacteria, and some claim that being born from a C-section can cause digestive issues later on in life, as the beneficial bacteria that would normally be passed to the baby during birth is bypassed. Environment also plays a role as we age.
A few studies have also compared the intestinal bacteria in obese and lean individuals, and found that the gut community in lean people is far more diverse than in obese people. Lean people also tended to have a wider variety of Bacteroidetes, which are a large tribe of microbes that work to break down bulky plant starches and fibers into smaller molecules in order for the body to use them as a source of energy.
This further demonstrates the correlation between a healthy gut ecosystem and a healthy weight.
Researchers at Western University, the Lawson Health Research Institute, and the Tianyi Health Science Institute have found a potential link between healthy aging and a healthy gut.
They collected and examined the gut microbiota of a cross-sectional cohort of more than 1,000 very healthy Chinese individuals between the ages of 3 and over 100 with no known health issues and no family history of disease.
They found a direct correlation between health and the microbes in the intestine.
“It begs the question — if you can stay active and eat well, will you age better, or is healthy ageing predicated by the bacteria in your gut?” says Gregor Reid, a professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and a scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute. “By studying healthy people, we hope to know what we are striving for when people get sick.”
According to their study:
Our results show that the microbial composition of the healthy aged population is remarkably similar to that of younger adult cohorts and that the major differences between cohorts in microbial composition occur prior to age 30 years. While our cross-sectional cohort precludes the assignment of cause and effect, our results suggest that diet and lifestyle choices consistent with healthy aging even into the 10th decade of life include a healthy and diverse microbiota.
Below are some ways to determine if your gut needs attention and how you can fix it, taken from our article Nourishing Your Gut Bacteria Is Critical For Health and Mental Well-Being.
How Do You Know If Your Gut Needs a Health Boost?
Digestive issues such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, heartburn/acid reflux
This is probably the most apparent one, but before you reach for pills to alleviate the symptoms, consider getting to the root of the problem first, as these symptoms could be trying to inform you that your gut health is out of whack. The gut bacteria naturally produces gas, but when gas becomes excessive, it could be a sign that the gut is lacking the acid needed to break down protein. When protein isn’t broken down properly, it ferments and decays.
A vitamin deficiency
In order for your digestive system to function properly, it needs the essential vitamins A, C, D, and B. In most cases, you can simply get them through your diet. Find out which foods will give you the best source of each one, and perhaps you’ll be able to pinpoint what you’re deficient in.
Mental health issues like anxiety, depression, mood swings, OCD
Because the gut microbiota impacts the body’s level of serotonin, your mental health can be at risk when your gut health is not at its best.
Skin conditions like acne, eczema, and rosacea
It’s easy for us to play off skin conditions as something we just have to live with or get through during a period of our lives, but truly, our bodies work diligently to inform us when something is wrong. There have been many studies linking gut health to skin issues, and as far back as 1930, studies have shown how the health of the gut, the brain, and the skin are all related.
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What Can You Do to Improve Your Gut Health?
Because bad bacteria thrives on sugar, you’ll want to be mindful of your food choices. Steer clear of refined sugars and high fructose corn syrup. You should also limit your consumption of starches, and you should be mindful of how you prepare your grains (think: soaking, sprouting, and fermenting).
Eliminate unhealthy oils
Because overconsumption of Omega-6 fatty acids can trigger inflammation and other digestive issues, a good place to start is avoiding yellow seed-based oils such as corn oil, soybean oil, vegetable oil, and canola oil.
Stay away from trans fats
Studies have found a link between gut diseases and trans fats, so avoid partially-hydrogenated oils and foods fried in the unhealthy oils discussed above.
Consume fermented foods
Aside from warding off bad bacteria, it’s important to promote good gut bacteria as well. This means incorporating fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, lacto-fermented fruits and vegetables, and non-pasteurized yogurt, cheese, and kefir into your diet.
Manage your stress
Long ago, Hippocrates said “all diseases begin in the gut,” and stress has been found to wreak havoc here. One study published in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology found that stress causes negative effects on intestinal microflora, changes in gastrointestinal secretion, an increase in visceral perception, and more. And Harvard researchers noted that, “Psychology combines with physical factors to cause pain and other bowel symptoms. Psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as symptoms. In other words, stress (or depression or other psychological factors) can affect movement and contractions of the GI tract, cause inflammation, or make you more susceptible to infection.”
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