Everyone knows that the gastrointestinal tract is important to your health—it transports food from your mouth to your stomach, converts it into absorbable nutrients and stored energy, and shuttles waste back out of your body.
In recent years, your gastrointestinal tract has been linked to numerous aspects of health, like emotional stress and chronic illnesses such as cancer and diabetes. We now know that the GI tract is full of trillions of bacteria that not only help us process food, but that also help our bodies maintain overall well-being.
The key to many health issues may lie in your gut, which is the bacteria and other microorganisms in the stomach and intestines. Studies have found that certain environments, foods, and behaviors can influence gut health. Here’s why your gut health matters.
Why is gut health important?
All food is ultimately broken down in the gut to a simple form that can enter the bloodstream and be delivered as nutrients throughout our bodies. This is only possible with a healthy digestive system.
A healthy gut contains healthy bacteria and immune cells that ward off infectious agents like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. A healthy gut also communicates with the brain through nerves and hormones, which helps maintain general health and well-being.
How your gut health affects your whole body
- Helpful Germs – You have many bacteria in your body. In fact, you have more of them than you have cells. Most are good for you. The ones found in your gut not only help you digest foods but also work all over your body and can be good for your physical and mental health.
- Gut Microbiome – This is the home base for the bacteria in your digestive tract. Here, they help you break down food and turn nutrients into things your body can use. They stop growing when they run out of food, so you’ll only have what you need.
- Healthy Balance – In the gut microbiome, the “good” bacteria do more than just help with digestion. They help keep your “bad” bacteria in check. They multiply so often that the unhealthy kind doesn’t have space to grow. However, an overgrowth of bad bacteria can occur from a diet high in sugar and processed foods.
- Gut Bacteria and Your Brain – Your brain sends messages all over your body. Researchers believe your gut may talk back. Studies show that the balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome may affect your emotions and the way your brain processes information from your senses, like sights, sounds, flavors, or textures. Scientists suspect that changes in that balance may play a role in conditions like autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, and depression, as well as chronic pain.
- Gut Bacteria and Obesity – An unhealthy balance in your gut microbiome may cause crossed signals from your brain when it comes to feeling hungry or full. Researchers think there may be a link to the pituitary gland, which makes hormones that help set your appetite. That gland can affect the balance of bacteria in your gut, too. Some studies on treating obesity are exploring this link.
What are signs of gut health problems?
When your gut is thrown out of balance, it’s normally easy to tell. You’ll likely be experiencing bloating, gas, diarrhea, stomach pain or nausea. These imbalances often fix themselves after a short time but, if they become chronic issues, they might require medical attention. Gastroenterologists can test for specific conditions associated with your microbiome, like an overgrowth of certain bacteria.
For people curious about their microbiome, commercial testing kits will analyze a stool sample and provide information about the strains of bacteria detected. We normally don’t recommend doing these, as we don’t know enough to make results from these tests meaningful yet. It’s best to just save the money and see your doctor instead.
How to maintain gut health
Dr. Miral Subhani tells her patients to follow a balanced diet, stay hydrated, exercise regularly, and get a good night’s sleep—basically all the things you need to do for overall health. Staying healthy will help you maintain a healthy gut.
The same habits that are bad for other parts of your body—like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption—can also hurt your microbiome. Avoid taking unnecessary medications and talk with your doctor about how your current drug regimen might be affecting your gut health.
Limiting dairy, red and processed meats, and refined sugars can also improve your gut health. It’s also important to get the recommended amount of fiber—20 to 40g a day, depending on your age and gender. Things like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are sources of healthy fiber that you can add to your diet. Most Americans don’t meet these guidelines, so we normally recommend keeping a food diary to track your intake.
Eat, sleep, and be healthy
The human gut is more complex than previously thought and has a huge impact on whole-body health. A healthy gut contributes to a strong immune system, heart health, brain health, improved mood, healthy sleep, and effective digestion, and it may help prevent some cancers and autoimmune diseases. There are a number of lifestyle changes you can make to positively affect your gut health and your overall health as a result.
If you suspect your gut is impacting your overall wellness, it’s time to see your local gastroenterologist. Dr. Miral Subhani and the gastroenterology team can provide GI screenings, diagnostics, therapeutics, as well as nutritional guidance. Please call us at 561-622-6111 or use digital scheduling on our website to book your appointment.