There has been much discussion of gut health and the microbiome (the ecosystem of bacteria that live in our digestive tracts), and for good reason – the condition of our gut is absolutely fundamental to our overall state of health. When considering health, everything from stress to diet to structural issues is connected, however the centre of that connection is most definitely the gut. I will go as far as to say that without a healthy digestive system, optimal health is simply not possible!
And what exactly do I mean by ‘gut’? The term can be misleading, many people associate ‘gut’ with just the stomach, however when we talk about ‘gut health’ it’s really referring to the whole digestive system collectively. This system includes the alimentary canal, which runs from the mouth all the way through the oesophagus, stomach, small and large intestine and ends at the anus. It also includes the accessory organs associated with digestion including the tongue, salivary glands, pancreas, liver and gallbladder.
Did you know that you produce around 1.5 litres of saliva per day, and even if you were standing on your head, food would still pass through your digestive system due to powerful muscle contractions in the gut wall? Digestion is a fascinating and complex process; one that commands respect. If your gut is unhappy, it will use symptoms to communicate that something is wrong. Listening to these symptoms can give you clues as to what needs support, and what you may need to change.
Let’s take a look at some of the top functions of your gut:
Your gut is part of your first line of defence
From a defence perspective, your gut has many powerful tools in its armoury. For example, stomach acid plays a crucial role in protecting from harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi you may have ingested in your food. The low pH of stomach acid is important to destroy the pathogens and prevent them from becoming established in your body (to give you an idea of how strong it is, stomach acid has a pH close to that of battery acid!). The intestinal wall, which consists of a layer of mucus and epithelial cells – provides a physical barrier to protect you from anything harmful, and to prevent bacteria from transporting out of the gut and spreading to other sites in the body.
Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria!
From birth, a complex community of different types of bacteria take up residence in your digestive tract and are collectively called the ‘gut flora’. They are here to stay – it is estimated we have 10 times as many bacteria as cells in the human body! These bacteria can either support the immune system response, or aggravate it. A healthy gut will contain a diverse range of beneficial strains of bacteria that play a vital role in supporting optimal health. These little guys help us in several ways, including production of certain B vitamins and vitamin K, and fermentation of dietary fibre into short chain fatty acids, which help protect against cancer and fight inflammation, and are vital for good colon health.
These busy bees communicate with your immune system to help keep the immune response strong, whereas an unhealthy gut flora will send the immune system haywire – hence why imbalanced gut flora has been linked to autoimmune diseases such as ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Your gut flora also keeps harmful bacteria, parasites and yeast in check – think of your gut like a car park, the more parking spaces that are taken up with the good guys, the less opportunity there is for any of the bad guys to rock up and purchase a long-stay ticket. Interestingly, research has also shown that your gut flora can influence your metabolism in a way that will help keep you slim (conversely, a lack of diversity of gut flora has been linked with weight gain).
Your gut is your food processing factory
Every time you eat, your gut gears up to break down then extract all the useable parts of that tasty salad or wholesome casserole, and discard the rest. In order to be able to get the best out of your food, your digestive secretions need to be firing on all cylinders. Hydrochloric acid, digestive enzymes and bile all play a part in the incredible symphony of digestion – if any one of these secretions is low, or impeded, then digestion will be impaired and you are unlikely to get the best out of your food.
Your gut provides a route for elimination of waste
Your body uses bowel movements as a method to eliminate dead bacteria, indigestible food matter, fats, cholesterol and toxic by-products from the liver and intestines. In a healthy gut, faeces won’t linger around and you will go for a bowel movement 1-2 times a day.
Your gut is your ‘second brain’
Inside your gut is the enteric nervous system, otherwise known as your ‘second brain’. The ENS consists of around 500 million neurons, which communicate with your central nervous system as well as being able to operate independently and make decisions on their own to initiate peristalsis and secrete digestive enzymes and mucus. Not surprisingly then, your gut plays a vital role in your mood. For example, around 90% of your serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps you to feel happy and in good spirits, is produced in your gut, not your brain!
So there we have it, a healthy gut is an absolutely vital part of good health. In my next article I’ll show you exactly what to do to get a happy and healthy digestive system and make symptoms a thing of the past.