Gut Health

Understanding gut health

What is gut health?

Your gut is an important part of who you are as a physical being. Humans' guts – or, more correctly, their gastrointestinal tracts – are formed early in our development, ready to consume the energy and nutrition we'll take on board through our food. If you think about the evolution of all mammals, then you will soon see that our guts are one thing that has been around for a very long time indeed. Guts in creatures pre-date limbs, hot-bloodedness, visions and even brains as we understand them. As such, your gut health is something that is very, very basic or fundamental to us as living beings. Although humans have much more complex gastrointestinal tracts than some – not all – other animals, what goes on inside is thousands of millions of years old. Essentially, your gut is a microbiome in which specific microbiota – types of bacteria – perform tasks to break down food. If this environment is out of kilter, then it won't perform so well, something we call poor gut health.

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 Why is good gut health important?

As mentioned, guts are a natural environment in their own right in which many specialist bacteria, microbiota, archaea and even fungi reside. Some of these are essential to our good health, and we pick them up usually because we ingest them in our food and drink. They reproduce within us and often perform very helpful tasks, such as helping us to digest and pass unwanted material into our poo. However, if certain bacteria are missing or found in too great quantities, then it can mean that our guts don't function as they should. Sometimes this means not being able to get sufficient energy and nutrients from food. Sometimes, it will result in stomach cramps and sickness. What is desirable is a good balance of the useful bacteria in our guts so that we feel fit, strong and healthy. This is what nutritionists will refer to as the health of your gut.

Which foods improve gut health?

This will depend on your overall diet and the sort of things that might be missing in your gut. Generally speaking, human gastrointestinal tracts will make a safe haven for any required bacteria unless you are unlucky enough to suffer from a condition that prevents this. Therefore, a healthy, balanced diet is all that you need to maintain a good level of health in your gut. In the main, however, Westerners do not eat sufficient whole foods in their dietary intake. Consequently, the best way to improve the health of your gut is likely to be to eat more fibre in things like wholemeal bread, fruit, nuts, pulses and, of course, vegetables. Consuming five a day is a good way to start. Try not to boil vegetables for too long, however, since this can be counterproductive. Another important aspect of maintaining better health in your gut is to never skip meals and to eat more slowly without gulping down food.

Which foods are bad for gut health?

Foods that contain no fibre and which have little nutritional value are generally regarded as being poor for gut health. If you like to eat processed foods, such as burgers or tinned meat, then you are more likely to suffer from ill health in your gut. Of course, it is okay to consume such foods but not if you fail to balance them with the foods that are known to be good for the maintenance of a healthy microbiome in your gut. Switch to wholemeal bread if you only eat white loaves. Consuming less salt is also another good way of enjoying better health in your gastrointestinal tract. Sugar, which is a very simple form of carbohydrate, is also something worth considering cutting down on, especially if you consume it in drinks. Although the evidence varies, foods with additives in them are generally regarded as undesirable for good gut health, too.

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How do microbiota impact on gut health?

Microbiota can exist outside of the gut, but this is where they are happiest and healthiest. After all, these bacteria have evolved to eke out an existence in this specialist environment. What you need is a blend of all the different, so-called 'good' bacteria while doing away with those which do not promote good health. If you ever take a course of antibiotics, then nearly all the bacteria in your gut – good and bad – will be destroyed, and you'll need to build them up once more. This is why they can sometimes lead to stomach cramps if you've had them. After all, microbiota help you to digest healthy fibre, deal with the sugars in milk, provide functions that impact positively on the central nervous system and have a role to play in your immune system's function, too. Conversely, unhealthy microbes in your gut can lead to diseases and to different outcomes in weight gain and loss.

What are gut health supplements?

Often referred to as probiotic and prebiotic supplements, gut health supplements are designed to boost the health of your gut by introducing some of the sorts of bacteria you will need to digest your food and maintain all-around good health. There are numerous products on the market, some of which come in tablet form, others of which are drunk, usually in a yoghurt-based format. However, you do not need these sorts of health supplements for your gut if you already have a good, well-balanced diet. Once your gut has the bacteria it needs, these will keep reproducing unless there is a specific medical condition that prevents them from so doing. Many people consume these health supplements without needing to. However, they can be beneficial for some people with underlying health conditions. Seek professional medical advice if you are unsure whether they're right for you.

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How can gut health affect mental health?

Scientists are only recently working out just how interconnected the gut, and the brain are. As parts of the body that have been around for long in the evolutionary process, some scientists will even refer to the gut as the 'second brain' of animals, including humans. Therefore, it is possible to say that poor health in the gastrointestinal tracts can have a negative impact on mental health. This is more than to say that stomach cramps cause mental anguish, however. Some studies directly link poor gut health to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Whether there is a causal link remains a point of conjecture, however. In some cases, poor mental health can lead to a greater level of stress hormones which end up making the guts function less effectively. It appears that gut and mental health outcomes are linked but that it is a two-way street.

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How does gut health impact on weight loss?

With thousands of different bacteria in a healthy gut, it is often possible to maintain a good weight by simply eating a balanced diet and taking sufficient exercise. However, nutritionists know that a gut microbiome that is out of kilter – an imbalance that is usually called gut dysbiosis – may lead to weight gain in certain people. In twin studies, one twin has shown greater weight gain than their sibling even though they have consumed the same number of calories. All that was different was the type of foods that were consumed, leading to differing outcomes with gut health. The healthier microbiome tended to digest food that was needed and discard that which was not, whereas, in the unhealthy one, more energy was stored in the form of fat reserves. When the diets were reversed in mice studies, the weight gain and loss among the twin mice also changed over.

Which vitamins help gut health?

Good digestive health requires certain bacteria to be alive and well inside your gut, and bacteria also need vitamins and other nutrients in order to thrive. Most medical professionals would agree that a balance of vitamins is essential for a healthy gut to be maintained. However, some vitamins are particularly associated with gastrointestinal health. A prime example is Vitamin B1, or thiamine, which helps regulate appetite and turn carbohydrates into usable energy. Vitamin B3, or niacin, also helps to break down certain sugars, including alcohol. Lacking it often leads to diarrhoea. Vitamin C is known for all-around good health in the gu; it helps to extract iron from food. Vitamin D in the gut helps you to absorb calcium and also helps to promote a stronger nervous system. Although it plays little part in digestion, Vitamin A can be deficient in people with poor gut health, so it is worth eating dark greens, such as kale, to help build it up.

Can poor gut health affect sleep?

Yes, it can. Firstly, poor sleep patterns – for whatever reason – can wreak havoc on our digestive rhythms, and this means the two are interconnected to a great extent. However, people with poor digestive health are often found to complain about struggling with sleep even if they go to bed at the same time every night feeling tired. Poor gut health is related to a hormone called leptin. This affects both the sense of feeling full when eating as well as sleepiness. Furthermore, the vagus nerve is known to connect the gut to the brain. If it is sending sensations of discomfort from your gut, then your brain may be stimulated, which, in turn, makes it harder to drop off. Equally, if your gut is inflamed due to a poor level of health, then this can lead to sleep deprivation until the inflammation dies down. To get better sleep at night it could be worth looking into your eating habits.

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How do probiotics work with gut health?

Probiotics try to give us more of the bacteria we need to maintain a healthy gut microbiome and to, therefore, provide the associated health benefits. However, the method for doing so is rather crude. We simply ingest probiotics in certain foodstuffs that have been artificially laden with them. In many cases, maintaining a balanced diet would achieve the same result. That said, people who take probiotics will often notice beneficial outcomes, such as weight loss. However, the sort of results you can expect from consuming probiotics are marginal. Some studies have shown that they contribute only about a kilo of weight loss among obese people, even when they are taken for some time. That said, there is a discernible, if limited, effect from them promoting better gastrointestinal health.

Gut health in summary

Although our all-around health is important for us all, maintaining a healthy gut is of particular note because the health, or otherwise, of our intestinal tracts plays a big role in so many other parts of our well-being, both physical and mental. If you think about it from a physiological point of view, the gut is the part of our body that actually interfaces with the outside world the most. We literally put things from the outside into it and leave them there for hours on end to be digested, broken down and consumed. Consequently, your gut is exposed to good things and bad things each and every day, and it is important to be mindful of what you put in your body.

The main aim of promoting better digestive health is to get more goodness and all the benefits out of the food we eat and to ensure we don't suffer from any digestive problems that could have been easily avoided. Nevertheless, good health in our guts goes much further than simply our gastrointestinal system because it plays a part in our mental health, immune system health and even the function of our nervous systems. Even better, maintaining good digestive health is not complex – it merely takes a rounded approach to healthy eating and leading a lifestyle with reasonably healthy habits overall. Whether you're into veganism, vegetarianism, or follow a raw food diet, it is important to make sure you are feeding your body more of the good stuff and less of those that are less beneficial for a healthy gut.

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