What's a "Healthy Gut" and Why Should I Care?
Updated: Oct 26, 2019
It’s like you can’t escape it. It doesn’t matter where you turn, you see some form of advertisement about attaining a healthy gut, or pushing a probiotic product. Do we ever stop to ask ourselves, “Why do I care?” In fact, I have intentionally sparked up a conversation about a healthy gut recently, just to gauge interest among different demographics and have personally found that the only thing most general population knows about the gut is “it helps you poop.” While your gut definitely influences your trips to the loo, that’s not where its impact ends. For those of you that question why you should give a damn about a healthy gut, or why it's important, this one is for you! First, let’s start off by addressing “the gut” and what we are referring to when we say “the gut.”
Most often in the literature, “The Gut” references the Human Gut Microbiota which according to Ursell LK et al (2012) is composed of 10-100 trillion microbial cells, primarily located in the gastrointestinal tract (mouth, pharynx [throat], esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum and anus). The gastrointestinal tract is comprised of more than 70% of the microorganism colonization in the body. The number of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi) is called the Microbiota (as mentioned before) and the genes that house these cells make up the human Microbiome. Healthy intestinal flora is characterized by a majority of potentially beneficial species, mainly Firmicutes and Bacteroides, with a lower presence of potentially harmful pathogenic species, called Proteobacteria.
Remind Me—Why Should I Care?
The intestinal flora activity has a great influence on an individual’s health and ability to accept and overcome the disease. In fact, a constantly growing number of studies in the field have demonstrated the influence the gut microbiota has on chronic illness such as obesity, digestive disorders, inflammatory responses in the body, endocrine as well as autoimmune disorders. A Microbiota rich in diversity, meaning one that contains a diverse variety of different microorganisms has been associated with good health. Conversely a low diverse and decreased presence of beneficial bacteria has been associated with indications of disease. While there are other factors such as exercise, stress and other lifestyle factors that influence this, diet plays a major role in maintaining good gut health. Additionally, a 2017 study out of the Journal of Clinics and Practice has shown a direct correlation between a healthy, diverse gut and the prevalence of depression/ mental illness. This correlation while proven is tough to understand whether depression/mental illness leads to poor gut health or vice versa. What we do understand is subjects with improved gut health, have displayed improved mental health. This is true even in the case of pregnant women, and the evidence is clear that fetuses exposed to prenatal stress in the form of maternal stress develop a gut microbiota with decreased Bifidobacterium. This means that the fetuses developed a weakened gut lacking in very important gut bacteria showing a link between the maternal stress and the gut-- showing that there is a connection between the two.
So Now What?
Okay, so you understand why we care about good gut health. We know that it directly influences different aspects of your physical and mental health. We understand that a more diverse population of microorganisms means better gut health. The question remains, what do I do to achieve this? Do you choose to pop pills and consume probiotic supplements? Do you eat a diet entirely comprised of Activia yoghurt (please if you haven’t seen a commercial- they’re hysterical)? While neither of these is a bad option to help boost your probiotic intake here are a few quick changes you can make, to ensure you set yourself up for the future.
1. Increase your Fibre intake! Fibrous foods can also be referred to as prebiotics. Prebiotics are defined as non-digestible food ingredients that promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the intestines. Studies found evidence of fibre-influenced differences in the microbiome and metabolome as a consequence of habitual dietary intervention in both long-term and short-term interventions. This means consuming a diet high in (soluble and insoluble fibre) fruit/legume fibre, oat fibre, vegetable fibre etc., you’ll experience an increase in microbial diversity, and therefore closer to a healthier gut.
2. Exercise Regularly. Reviewed literature shows the connection between exercise, performance, immune function and the microbiome. This shows that a healthy gut in part, stems from the presence of exercise stress and benefits the performance in exercise, improves the body’s ability to create antibodies and fight pathogens.
3. Probiotic Supplementation. Probiotic supplementation has shown in a systematic review of randomized controlled trials to provide negligible alterations in faecal microbiota composition in healthy adults. This means that the samples of the Gut have not been able to show repeatable results that benefit the microbiota diversity in healthy adults, however, the effects of probiotic supplementation on the diversity of intestinal microbiota has shown repeatable, reliable evidence of effectiveness in those struggling with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) symptoms. THEREFORE-- Oral Probiotic Supplementation has not shown consistently to be beneficial to growing microbiotic diversity in the body. Not all hope is lost on supplement marketing! There has been plenty of research that displayed circumstances where probiotic supplementation has proven effective, some of those are:
- Traveller's Diarrhoea
- Antibiotic-associated Diarrhoea
- Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC)
- Ulcerative Colitis
If you're looking to increase your probiotic intake Naturally and easily-- try increasing your intake of the following foods:
Fermentation is a process that introduces live active bacteria to foods which can further increase the body's exposure to a more diverse group of bacteria and therefore act as a strong probiotic.
4. Hydration Intervention. Good mucosal hydration is necessary for a normal protective intestinal barrier. The mucus layer overlies the intestinal epithelium (outer layer of the intestine) and forms the anatomical site at which the microbiota first encounters the host. In addition to its relationship with the protection, lubrication and hydration of the intestinal epithelium, mucus (and therefore hydration) plays a critical role in the maintenance of homeostasis by promoting microbial interactions with bacteria, acting as a decoy for pathogens within the gut and therefore enhancing immune regulation. For these reasons, it is important to ensure you are constantly and consistently consuming adequate fluid intake.
Hopefully, you leave this with a better understanding of the power and influence your gut has on the life you live. The influence your gut health has on your body goes far beyond your comfort levels when visiting your throne. Diet alterations can have a significant impact on the gut bacterial composition in as little as 24 hours so find a way to implement these changes as quickly as possible! Next time when you see a belly dancing commercial from Activia, or some Instagram ad for a new supplement, I hope you think to what you’ve learned today, and get ahead on improving your gut health today! As always, if you're looking to fact-check, or do a little extra light reading, I've left my sources down below, most of which should be free and accessible to the public for your perusal. Please feel free to leave your feedback here, or via social and give me a follow on Instagram @edinsehovicnutrition. I really appreciate it!