Our bodies are home to trillions of bacteria. Keeping them company are millions of fungi and viruses. Together they form the microbiome of our bodies. While in common parlance we associate bacteria and viruses with diseases, the truth is that our microbiome plays a very important role in keeping us functioning and healthy. Far from the simplistic diagram of the digestive system in our school textbooks that showed a series of interlinked pipes, the digestive system and the gut microbiome are complex and have an important role to play in our overall health. Recent studies have found links between gut health and moods, immune system, endocrine health, skin conditions and even cancer.
What can an unhealthy gut do to you?
You know your gut is working at less than its best capacity if you suffer from chronic digestive issues. If you experience bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or heartburn on a regular basis chances are your gut is out of balance and is having difficulty processing food. A healthy gut ensures that the food we eat is well absorbed for all its nutrients and flushed out with ease and without discomfort. Unintentional weight loss or weight gain have also been linked to gut bacteria going off balance. Serotonin is a hormone produced in the gut and has an impact on our mood and sleep. An unhealthy gut can lead to disturbed sleep and constant fatigue.
Few people know that skin conditions such as eczema may also be related to a damaged gut. Research on the relation between immunity and gut health has found that our intestinal tract works as an immunological organ and when its balance is disturbed causes inflammatory response which in turn works as a trigger for auto-immune diseases. New research in psychology has also revealed that a sophisticated neural network is at work in our gut transmitting messages from trillions of bacteria from the gut to our brains. For this reason, the gut is also referred to as “the second brain”. It was found that chronic gastrointestinal (GI) disorders commonly accompanied by anxiety and depression, also appear to involve abnormal gut microbiota.
What are the causes for poor gut health?
An unbalanced diet high in sugars as well as unchecked food intolerances can decrease the amount of good bacteria in the gut. Eating refined sugars, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, have been found to cause increased inflammation in the body, which in turn makes us vulnerable to a host of diseases.
How can we improve gut health?
We can say conclusively that improving gut microbiome is key to maintaining physical and mental well-being. Here are some ways you can boost your gut health:
- Eat fermented foods: Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics. Eating and drinking fermented foods such as pickles, fermented vegetables, kefir, kombucha etc. can help improve gut health.
- Take prebiotics: Probiotics work best when they are complemented with prebiotic fiber found in whole grains, bananas, asparagus, onions, and garlic.
- Eat less sugar and sweeteners: As mentioned earlier, refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup can cause damage to the microbiome. Avoid fast foods, sugary foods, and drinks. Studies have found that artificial sweeteners too cause glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiome.
- Avoid antibiotics: While there are times when antibiotic need is imperative, avoid taking antibiotics when you can. Antibiotics can damage gut flora in such a significant way that it has been found that it can take upwards of six months to recover.
The microbiome may be complex to understand but it is simple to keep healthy- with a well-balanced diet that avoids refined sugars and alongside other well-established ways for a healthier life such as avoiding stress, getting enough exercise and rest, and staying away from smoking.