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Why Gut Health Is Important
By Neel Choksi, MD
When we think of our gut, most associate it only with digestion. It is responsible for breaking down the food we eat to extract vital nutrients and energy while discarding waste. The gut’s role in our overall health and well-being extends far beyond digestion, though.
The gut is home to a staggering number of microorganisms, more than 100 trillion, collectively called the gut microbiome. The large majority of these microorganisms are bacteria.
Some of these microorganisms are associated with disease, while others impact metabolism and weight, the immune system, cardiovascular health, and many other aspects of our well-being.
Unique to each individual, the gut microbiome plays such an active role throughout your entire body that some healthcare providers and scientists consider it a separate organ.
How the Microbiome Affects Different Aspects of Our Health
The microbiome plays a significant role in digestion. It breaks down certain complex carbohydrates and dietary fibers that can’t be broken down alone. This process allows you to extract the maximum nutrition from your food. The bacteria also metabolize bile in your intestines to digest fats. Without this gut bacteria, we couldn’t digest and absorb fats, and the leftover cholesterol would build up in our blood.
The microbiome contributes to other aspects of your health, some of which you may find astonishing.
First is the strong connection between our microbiome and our immune system. The gut houses nearly 80% of our body’s immune cells. When your gut is healthy, it helps regulate your immune response and protects against various infections. If your microbiome is imbalanced, on the other hand, it can contribute to chronic inflammation, a common characteristic of many diseases, including autoimmune disorders.
The microbiome also plays a role in your nervous system, helping to stimulate the production of neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Serotonin regulates your sleep and wake cycles and enables you to stay focused. While researchers are still studying this area, there appears to be a link between an imbalanced microbiome and the development of mood and anxiety disorders.
Gut microbes also interact with your endocrine cells, secreting the hormones that regulate certain aspects of your metabolism, including your blood sugar, hunger, and satiety. Scientists continue to study how the microbiome may influence the development of metabolic syndrome, including obesity, insulin resistance, and Type 2 diabetes.
Believe it or not, the state of your gut can even impact the health and appearance of your skin. An unbalanced gut may contribute to skin issues such as acne and eczema.
There may be other ways the microbiome may impact our health. Researchers at the KRF-UTHealth Center for Microbiome are currently studying all the different ways in which the microbiome affects the human body.
Health Conditions and Disorders Related to the Microbiome
Scientists have concluded a direct link between an imbalanced microbiome and the development of temporary and chronic conditions, such as diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease.
They have also learned that an unhealthy microbiome can lead to atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. Having less desirable gut bacteria can negatively impact your cardiovascular health, producing a byproduct called trimethylamine N-oxide.
Many other conditions could potentially be linked to your gut health, including Parkinson’s Disease, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, anxiety, fatty liver disease, pancreatic cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis, to name just a few.
If you or your doctor suspect your microbiome is out of whack, you may have what is referred to as gut dysbiosis. Gut dysbiosis may present itself with a variety of uncomfortable symptoms, including:
- Gas and gas pain
- Bloated stomach
- Poor digestion
- Lower abdominal pain
Nurturing Your Gut Health
Given the impact gut health has on overall health and well-being, it’s imperative to take proactive steps to nurture your gut microbiome.
Here are a few ways to ensure your microbiome is working for you and not against you:
- Eating a diverse diet: A diet rich in fiber, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables supports a diverse microbiome. These foods provide nourishment for a wide range of beneficial microorganisms. In addition, try incorporating more probiotics and fermented foods into your diet. Probiotics and fermented foods include yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi, which can introduce beneficial bacteria into your gut. Prebiotics, like garlic, onions, bananas, and asparagus, are good options because they contain non-digestible fibers that nourish beneficial bacteria.
- Limiting or avoiding certain foods: On the flip side, there are certain foods you should limit or avoid, including those high in sugar and fat, as well as processed foods. Consider limiting the intake of artificial sweeteners, too. They can increase your blood sugar by stimulating the growth of unhealthy bacteria in your gut. Too much alcohol can also impact your microbiome, preventing certain beneficial microorganisms from thriving.
- Managing stress and prioritizing sleep: Not surprisingly, chronic tension can negatively impact our gut health. Keeping your stress in check by engaging in activities like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing can help reduce stress’s effect on your gut. Prioritizing quality sleep also supports your gut health as well as your overall health and well-being.
- Limiting antibiotics: While taking antibiotics is temporarily beneficial when sick, too many can disrupt the delicate balance of your microbiome. They not only wipe out the harmful bacteria but the good as well.
Researchers have only begun to touch the surface of the intricate relationship between our bodies and the microorganisms within us. Still, they do know that the microbiome not only aids in our digestion but also impacts health and well-being in so many other ways. As we journey toward a more holistic approach to understanding our health, taking good care of our microbiome should be a top priority. So, the next time you eat, remember you are not just satisfying your hunger but also nourishing the trillions of microscopic allies that contribute to your vitality and longevity.