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What is gut health, and why is it important?
Gut health and you
- What the gut is
- What is the use of the gut
- How the process begins
- What lives in the gut
- So why maintain a healthy Gut? And how it affects the body
- Signs of a healthy gut
- Signs of an unhealthy gut
- Causes of poor gut health
- How to improve gut health
What the Gut is
The long tube, sometimes referred to as the gastro-intestinal tract. It starts at the mouth (buccal cavity) and ends at the anus. It comprises of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, duodenum, small intestine, the large intestine, the rectum and the anus, effectively covering the entire digestive system
What is the use of the Gut?
The movement of food from the mouth to the stomach and unto other areas of the gastro-intestinal tract for break down into nutrients, to be absorbed into the body and energy released for bodily processes.
How the process begins
The breakdown of food begins in the mouth by a process called mastication. This is when food is broken down into smaller pieces by the help of the teeth and mixed with saliva to form a paste known as bolus that is easier to swallow.
Once swallowed, it begins its journey along the gut where the different parts help to break down the food into vital nutrients required to power our body processes. Saliva itself contain enzymes (amylase, lysozyme and lingual lipase), which begin the breakdown of the food by acting on the carbohydrates and sugars.
What lives in the Gut?
The gut is home to millions if not billions of micro- organisms, referred to by the term microbiomes, particularly bacteria that thrive in the different parts of the gut. Different kinds of bacteria inhabit different sections specialized in the effective breakdown of different types of foods into readily absorbable nutrients for the overall health of the human body.
Almost 500 types of bacteria live in the human gut. Most of them are beneficial to the body, while a small part are harmful. The kinds of food we eat has a direct impact on the types of bacteria present in our gut.
So why maintain a healthy Gut? And how it affects the body
Maintaining a healthy gut is important for several reasons and we shall be looking at some of them -
- Body immunity – The gut plays a vital role in the immunity of the human body. This is so because the walls of the gut provide an impermeable barrier to undesirable microbiomes from passing into the blood stream and making us ill. The only way the gut can effectively do this is if it is healthy.
Conditions such as Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis brought about by bad bacteria can leave the gut walls vulnerable to the passage of undesirable microbes into body system and manifesting as a host of other diseases.
- Human Mental Health - Medical research has shown that there is a connection between our gut and our brain. This is referred to as the gut–brain axis. It is believed that the gut bacteria are able to stimulate the nervous system to send information through the vagus nerve to the brain.
This can affect things like our mood, emotions and appetite. The bacteria in our gut are also able synthesize homes which regulates our body processes.
- Obesity – A healthy gut has the right balance of microbiomes helping to keep our food intake optimal. An unhealthy balance however, can lead to conflicting signals sent to the brain, resulting in an over indulgence in food consumption and unnecessary cravings, leading to an unhealthy waist line.
- Heart Disease – A healthy gut contains bad bacteria that can act on certain kinds of food. Red meat for example, when eaten, these bacteria produce a chemical that the liver converts into TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide) – a molecule produced from betaine, choline and carnitine through the process of microbial metabolism.
Signs of a healthy gut
- How often you use the loo, yes, how often you poop- There is no standard chart for how often one poops. What we have instead is a rage within which it is considered normal.
Different people also have different patterns. Generally however, going to the loo between one and three times per day, and up to three times per week, is considered normal.
The time of day you poop is also indicative of a healthy gut system. Pooping should usually be done during the day. Pooping at night, especially when you have to wake from sleep is indicative of a problem
- Gut transit time – This refers to how long it takes food to travel through the gut during the digestive process. This bowel transit time varies from one person to another, however the average transit time through the colon is between 28- 40 hours.
- Nature of the poop – The nature refers to the shape, the colour and consistency of the poop and can tell a lot about the health of your gut.
The colour of poop from a healthy gut is usually brown, ranging from medium to light brown. A different colour such as black, green or red, if not as a direct result of food factor, might be indicative of an issue that requires medical attention.
The shape of the poop should be sausage like, in a single lump or come in smaller pieces. It should also be smooth in texture and firm, being neither too hard nor too soft.
- Easy pooping- without pain – Pooping with ease, comfortably without much strain is a sign of a healthy gut. You should not have to force yourself to get it out.
- No excessive bloating and gas – The breakdown of food in the gut asides the release of valuable nutrients for the body also produces gases as a byproduct. This gas is released by farting. An average person farts between 10 to 20 times per day.
Gas that is trapped in the gut can lead to bloating and can cause abdominal pain. While a bit of bloating is normal, a healthy gut is free from bloating persistently.
Signs of an unhealthy gut
Sometimes the processes in the gut do not go the way they are supposed to go. Digestive problems stemming from an unhealthy gut afflict quite a number of people every year for which they need to seek medical help.
The more common signs that point towards this are
- Stomach discomfort – This can result from conditions such as constipation, heartburn, diarrhea, nausea, bloating and gas. Food is not being properly processed and eliminated.
- Skin irritation – Our gut health affects the overall health of our body. One way in which we can tell from the appearance of an individual is through the skin. A smooth glowing skin indicates good health.
Skin conditions such as eczema, rosacea and inflammation, are tied to imbalance in gut microbiome.
- Food intolerance – Develops from the inability or difficulty of the body to digest some types of food. This can be caused by an unhealthy balance of good bacteria necessary to act on the different types of food we consume. Symptoms of food intolerance include diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain and bloating.
- Sleep disorders – Because bacteria in our gut can stimulate our nervous system, and also produce serotonin, a hormone affecting sleep and mood, an unhealthy gut will produce a reduced amount. This can lead to insomnia, irregular sleep patterns and mood swings.
- Weight fluctuations – An unhealthy and imbalanced gut will have a diminished ability to absorb nutrients, store fat and regulate blood sugar.
Decreased absorption of nutrients may lead to weight gain due overeating, while the body may gain weight due to bacteria overgrowing in the small intestine.
- Autoimmunity – Some school of thought believe that an unhealthy gut disrupts the proper functioning of the body’s immune system. This can trigger an autoimmune response, leading to autoimmune diseases, which causes the body to attack its own cells instead of harmful pathogens.
- Bad breath (halitosis) – An overabundance of bad bacteria living in the gut, especially in the throat can result in the production of foul smelling breath.
Causes of poor gut health
Poor gut health basically indicates a lack of balance between the microbiome in the gut. An overwhelming presence of bad or harmful bacteria over beneficial bacteria is a condition known as dysbiosis.
Causes of poor gut health include-
- Restricted diet – The variety of foods that we consume helps to develop a healthy gut microbiome. A wide variety ensures a good balance of grains, vegetables and fruits, providing a diverse range of nutrients, thereby encouraging a more diverse and healthier gut flora. A restricted diet does not allow this.
- The use and abuse of antibiotics – Antibiotics are drugs used to treat bacterial infections, by killing harmful and stopping them from multiplying. The down side however is, the antibiotics also kill good bacteria. This causes a change in the types of bacteria present and upsetting the ideal balance of good and bad bacteria.
- Smoking – The harmful chemicals found in cigarettes and tobacco can inflammation in the digestive tract, leading to the development of certain diseases, such as, inflammatory bowel disease. Smoking also increases the risk of heart disease and lung cancer.
- Excessive intake of alcohol – Large quantities of alcohol taken consistently over time can be toxic to the body, leading to an imbalance in the gut microbiome.
- Stress – Excessive stress from the daily activities of life impacts the whole body, the gut inclusive. It can reduce blood flow and heighten sensitivity in the gastro intestinal tract.
How to improve gut health
- Adjust your diet – What you eat has an impact on your gut health. Lean protein, plant based foods that are rich in fiber helps maintain a healthy gut. Prebiotic foods such as oats, bananas, legumes and asparagus should also be included in the diet.
Probiotic foods which help to increase the number of good bacteria by encouraging their growth are also important. Examples include yogurt and kimchi.
- Staying hydrated – Water helps to keep the mucus lining of the intestines in shape ensuring easy bowel movement. It also aids in providing a healthy balance of good bacteria in the gut.
- Get enough sleep – Sufficient sleep is beneficial to the overall health of the body, the gut inclusive. Between 7 to 8 hours of sleep is recommended.
- Reduce stress level – Raised levels of stress impacts gut health negatively. Find ways to lower the level by perhaps engaging in some form of relaxing activity, for instance, massage, meditation or yoga.
- Eat healthy – Avoid unhealthy foods such as fried foods, artificial sugars and too spicy foods.
Over the years, studies have shown that the human gut plays a more important role in the overall wellbeing of an individual than was previously thought. Many of the illnesses that afflict us are now thought to be a direct or indirect result of the conditions that exist within the gut.
What we eat, what we don’t eat, how we eat it and when we eat it, all have a factor to play in the health of our gut, and ultimately our body.
The key word here is BALANCE. The microbiomes that exist in the gut need to be in optimal proportions for good health.
Lastly our lifestyles and habits should not be such that are harmful and detrimental to our health. There should be moderation in all we do.
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