When was the last time you thought about your gut health? If you’re like most people, you probably don’t think much about it until you experience bloating, cramping or indigestion. But more and more research is showing that great health begins in the gut. While there are many reasons for this, here are five of my favorites:
1. Nutrient Absorption: Nutrients that are needed to build every cell in our body are absorbed through the walls of the gut. When you eat food, it is broken down into the foundational nutrients, which include: amino acids (from protein), fatty acids (from fats), sugars (from carbohydrates), vitamins, minerals, enzymes (specialized proteins that aid digestion and other bodily functions) and phytonutrients (which literally means plant nutrients, such as lycopene in tomatoes or proanthocyanidins in blueberries to cite only two of the possible thousands of phytonutrients in our food).
When these nutrients reach the gut, they travel directly across the intestinal walls into the bloodstream where they continue their journey to our bones, brain, heart, liver or other part that needs replenishing. If the gut is compacted with waste products or if the gut wall has become damaged, then no matter how many nutrients you obtain in your food or supplements they won’t make their way in sufficient amounts into your blood.
2. Inflammation Prevention: The gut determines whether we’ll experience inflammation there or somewhere else in our bodies. That’s in part due to the permeability of the intestinal walls and the bacteria that reside there, which we’ll discuss momentarily. If the gut wall becomes excessively permeable as a result of antibiotic use, excessive hormones, stress, poor diet or other potential causes, whole food molecules (not just the nutrients) or waste matter can travel into the bloodstream. Since these food molecules and waste materials are not supposed to be in the blood, the immune system goes on alert, attacking them, causing low-grade, ongoing inflammation which can damage the cells and tissues in the body, making them more vulnerable to illness.
3. Specific Probiotic Benefits: The gut houses the bulk of the bacteria in our bodies. And, we have more bacteria than cells in our bodies. The average person has approximately 100 trillion bacteria in her body while she has about 50 to 100 trillion cells. While that may sound scary, these bacteria are largely beneficial or neutral in nature. Without these beneficial bacteria, we could not live. These probiotics, as they are known, fight disease, ensure the digestion of food, manufacture nutrients, and kill nasty intruders that intend you harm.
According to research in the medical journal Internal and Emergency Medicine, some of these bacteria help us to maintain a healthy weight. Other research published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology shows that some probiotics kill harmful infections even ones that reside in other parts of the body like the lungs. Still other probiotics in the gut have been shown in the International Archives of Allergy and Immunology to prevent or reduce allergic reactions. Check out my blog “25 Ways to Get More Fermented Foods in Your Diet” to give your gut probiotics a boost.
4. Disease-Prevention: Harmful infections in the gut can cause widespread inflammation. Consider rheumatoid arthritis, a body-wide auto-immune disorder in which the body attacks its own joints. Researchers at the New York University School of Medicine linked the disease to infectious intestinal bacteria known as Prevotella copri. The researchers link the infection to the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, speculating that the disease may begin in the gut, setting off an inflammatory response that spreads throughout the body.
5. Brain Health Protection: The gut is increasingly becoming known as the “second brain” in medical circles. That’s because more and more research shows that gut health plays a significant role in brain health. Some probiotics, found in the gut, can function as antioxidants—nutrients that quell harmful free radicals before they can cause damage to the body’s cells. These antioxidant probiotics may help to protect the fatty parts of our brain from damage and this, in turn, may help us prevent brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, dementia or others. The research into the effects of probiotics on brain health is still fairly early, but the promise and wide-reaching implications it holds is exciting. One preliminary animal study published in BioMed Research International found that certain naturally-occurring probiotics in the gut can have a protective effect on cognitive function.
If you want to keep yourself healthy or improve your health, go with your gut.
Dr. Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, DNM is a registered nutritionist and international best-selling and 19-time published book author whose works include: The Probiotic Promise: Simple Steps to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out.