It is a common saying that “You are what you eat”. Your physical health is largely dependent on the food you consume and this may be a given fact, but this food is going to even affect your mood, feelings, and emotions.
The day you eat your favorite pizza or that ice cream flavor you wanted to eat for such a long time, it makes your day and you get that feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment. If food is influential to such an extent, imagine how important is it for your body to process and digest food properly. For this to happen your gastrointestinal system should be healthy enough.
In this article, you will find the basic necessary information you need to look after your gut.
Gut And Its Functions
The gastrointestinal (GI) tract stretches from the mouth to the anus. The gut is a term that includes the stomach and small and large intestines. It is the primary site of nutrient absorption and is densely populated by microorganisms (1).
The gut is a major gateway to the rest of the body but it plays more than just a supporting role in health and wellbeing – it is vital for keeping other body systems functioning optimally.
The following are the important functions of the gut (2)
- Digestion of food and assimilation of essential nutrients, energy, and water.
- Prevention of potentially harmful substances, antigens, and pathogens from entering the body
- Protecting itself from damage through rapid regeneration and protective secretions.
- Connection with other organs, including the brain, via the vascular, neural, and endocrine pathways
- Control of metabolism of extra-intestinal tissues, inflammatory responses, and immune system functio.
As well as digesting food, the stomach is also responsible for helping to let you know when to start or stop eating. For example, the nerves in the stomach wall are sensitive to stretch stimuli. As the stomach fills up with food and fluid, the nerves send signals to the brain telling you to stop eating.
The stomach also releases a hormone called ghrelin, which among other things, stimulates appetite by telling your brain that it is time for food. The gut also releases other hormones in response to nutrients, such as dietary fiber and protein, which may suppress appetite and increase satiety (2).
Gut Health And Gut Microbiota
In recent times, the term ‘gut health’ has become increasingly popular. There is no proper definition of gut health but considering the definition of health given by the World Health Organization “gut health “ may be defined as a state of physical and mental well-being in the absence of GI complaints that require the consultation of a doctor, in the absence of indications of or risks for bowel disease and in the absence of confirmed bowel disease (3).
Now the gut cannot carry out all the above-mentioned functions on its own. It needs the help of the microbes that live in the gut. These microbes are mostly bacteria and a few yeasts. Altogether, they are called the “gut microbiota.” Believe it or not, there are trillions of microbes that live in the gut. This is more than the number of cells in the entire human body! We as human beings evolved a complex relationship with these microbes. We now depend on each other to live. It’s true – your life depends on the microbes in your gut!
Science is discovering that gut microbiota plays a central role in how gut health affects the rest of the body. How does this happen, you might ask?
- Healthy competition- There are some “helpful bacteria” and also “harmful bacteria” that live in your gut. It is not necessary to have 100% helpful bacteria but a good balance is necessary (4).
- Intestinal barrier- The cells that line the intestine may tighten or become leaky based on the body’s needs. Helpful bacteria tell the intestines to keep the cells nice and tight, so it’s not too leaky (5).
- Mucus layer- On top of the intestinal cells is the mucus layer as it works as a kind of barrier, where the bacteria live and a lot of digestion happens. Helpful bacteria help to keep this mucus layer nice and thick (5).
- Immune system- Between the intestinal cells, the cells of the immune system interact with the different bacteria and the things we eat. The immune system then produces signals which are passed throughout the body.
- Nutrition- The bacteria in your gut help break down food into nutrients that can be absorbed and even use these breakdown products to build new nutrients, such as vitamins.
- Metabolism- Gut bacteria make products that signal the hormone system. These hormone signals then affect metabolism – including appetite, hunger, and whether we store or burn fat (6).
- Repair- The bacteria in your gut also affect how your body repairs damaged cells (7).
The imbalance in this gut microbiota has been shown to have ill effects on the body resulting in various systemic disturbances and diseases. The gut microbiome has been associated with several intestinal and extraintestinal disorders. Many large studies investigating the gut microbiome and its relevance have been performed in specific gastrointestinal (GI) disorders such as intestinal bowel diseases (IBDs), coeliac disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), colorectal cancer (CRC), chronic liver diseases or pancreatic disorders (8). Gut healthy is also important for weight loss and weight maintenance because of the role it plays in digestion, nutrient absorption, and appetite regulation (2).
How to Optimize Your Gut Health?
Here are certain things you can do to improve and promote your gut health.
Eat brightly colored foods fruits and vegetables, beans, and nuts. Stick to healthy oils for cooking. Nonvegetarians can consume fatty fish that is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Keep dairy products in moderation and meat in small amounts. High-fiber, plant-based foods help create a healthy mucus layer and support good bacteria in the gut. Processed foods, refined grains, and added sugars wear grow unhealthy bacteria so their intake should be minimized.
Regular physical activity/exercise
The body’s movement also helps the gut to move regularly and healthfully. Regular exercise decreases inflammation in the body and balances how the body handles sugars, fats, and other nutrients. Exercise also helps to manage stress and improve mood. These systems are all communicating with the gut.
Like the brain, the gut works best when it has time to rest. Healthy sleep helps to set a regular sleep-wake cycle. The gut then adjusts what it does, based on whether it is day or night.
Stress changes the way the gut moves, causing diarrhea or constipation. Practicing relaxation techniques, mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other mind-body practices can help manage stress and keep your gut working healthily.
Pre and Probiotics
Probiotics are actual living microbes usually certain yeast. You can eat or drink them to help create a better balance between helpful and harmful bacteria in your gut. Prebiotics are foods that feed the good bacteria in your gut and encourage the good bacteria to grow. Supplementation of this pre and probiotics are also available. You can use them at the discretion of your physician.
This article is meant to increase your awareness regarding gut health. Watch out for this space for more such informative articles and let us know your views in the comments section below.
Author: Dr Pooja Nilgar (Content writer and editor)
- Clifford, J. and Weir, T., The gut microbiome and health. Fact sheet (Colorado State University. Extension). Food and nutrition series; no. 9.390.
- Belobrajdic, D., Brownlee, I., Hendrie, G., Rebuli, M. and Bird, T., 2018. Gut health and weight loss: An overview of the scientific evidence of the benefits of dietary fibre during weight loss.
- Bischoff, S.C., 2011. ‘Gut health’: a new objective in medicine?. BMC medicine, 9, pp.1-14.
- SL, A.L. and Finlay, B.B., 2010. Gut microbiota in health and disease. Physiol. Rev, 3, pp.859-904.
- Turner, J.R., 2009. Intestinal mucosal barrier function in health and disease. Nature reviews immunology, 9(11), pp.799-809.
- Tremaroli, V. and Bäckhed, F., 2012. Functional interactions between the gut microbiota and host metabolism. Nature, 489(7415), pp.242-249.
- Sommer, F. and Bäckhed, F., 2013. The gut microbiota—masters of host development and physiology. Nature reviews microbiology, 11(4), pp.227-238.
- de Vos, W.M., Tilg, H., Van Hul, M. and Cani, P.D., 2022. Gut microbiome and health: mechanistic insights. Gut, 71(5), pp.1020-1032.