Why we all need a healthy gut
Advances in medicine have led us to the realization that gut health is essential for overall well-being. Your gut – the collection of organs that make up the gastrointestinal tract – is home to some 40 trillion living bacteria from up to 1,000 different species, known collectively as the “gut microbiome.” Together, they weigh as much as 3 to 5 pounds, which is roughly the weight of the average human brain.
The gut microbiome is involved in almost every bodily function, from facilitating digestion to helping control blood sugar and more. In fact, signs of an unhealthy microbiome may show up in a multitude of ways not necessarily related to digestion or the gut itself, such as:
- Chronic pain
- Compromised Immune System
The vast and diverse ecosystem that lives within you and me is also closely related to our mental wellbeing. Mounting evidence suggests that the brain and the gut are tightly intertwined through what experts have begun calling the gut-brain axis or the mind-gut connection. Here are some facts you may not know about this powerful connection.
Your gut is in constant communication with your brain
You don’t need to be a doctor to suspect that the gut and the brain must be connected somehow. Just like you’ve heard phrases like “trust your gut” and “have butterflies in the stomach,” you’ve probably also felt the odd “fluttery” sensation in the pit of your stomach at times when you were nervous or excited.
The brain and the gut are connected both physically and chemically in a number of ways. For one, the trillions of microbes that live in the linings of the gut produce chemicals that affect the brain. They are part of the gut’s very own nervous system, called the “enteric nervous system” or ENS.
The ENS is sometimes referred to as the “second brain” because it contains about 500 million neurons that relay information to and from neurons in the spinal cord, which is the highway that connects the brain to the rest of the body.
The gut and the brain are also connected through the vagus nerve, a long cranial nerve that runs from the base of the brain all the way down to the colon. The brain and the gut talk to each other by sending messages along this nerve. And while this communication is bidirectional, meaning that both organs send and receive messages, nearly 90% of neurons in the vagus nerve are actually relaying information from the gut to the brain, not the other way around.
The gut houses over 90% of the serotonin in your body
Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, 5-HT) is a chemical that functions both as a hormone and as a neurotransmitter. It plays a role in several critical functions, like digestion, sleep regulation, and bone health. But its “main role” is mood regulation, which is why people often call serotonin the “feel-good” neurotransmitter.
Serotonin is one of several brain chemicals that contribute to an overall sense of well-being. An imbalance in serotonin levels can impact your mood negatively and may lead to depression. However, despite being a “brain chemical” recent research reveals that up to 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut. In fact, many people with severe IBS are treated with antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to improve pain and bowel symptoms.
Bacterial strains and diversity may influence your mood and cognition
Research suggests that bacterial biodiversity (having many different species of bacteria in your gut) is important for a well-balanced brain. Why? For starters, different strains of bacteria produce different neurotransmitters, like dopamine, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, and GABA, all of which are essential for mood regulation, concentration, and motivation.
Studies comparing the guts of healthy and depressed individuals show significant differences in the diversity of their microbiota. Whereas non-depressed folks typically exhibit diverse and robust microbial colonies, people with clinical depression and other mood disorders are sometimes “missing” several species of gut bacteria.
Similar evidence is emerging in neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease. For example, in animal studies where rats were predestined to get Parkinson’s, researchers found that gut bacteria were necessary for the disease to develop. In fact, when investigators transplanted the microbiome of patients with Parkinson’s into mice, the animals developed much worse symptoms than mice that received fecal transplants from healthy individuals.
Reduced biodiversity is common today
An imbalance of gut bacteria, known as dysbiosis, is a risk factor for several diseases, including IBS, heart disease, diabetes, mood disorders, and neurological conditions like late-onset dementia and Parkinson’s disease. And, unfortunately, dysbiosis is becoming an increasingly prevalent problem nowadays.
Even mild stress can cause an imbalance of bacteria. Other common causes include:
- Poor eating habits, especially eating too much sugar, processed foods, or additives
- Poor dental hygiene
- Certain medications, such as antibiotics
- Drinking more than two alcoholic beverages per day
- GI conditions like IBS and IBD
- Certain health conditions, like cancer, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems
How to improve gut biodiversity
The good news is that with some lifestyle modifications, you can easily boost your gut microbiome and have a healthy gut. Here’re some tips:
- Eat plenty of produce, especially high-fiber fruits and vegetables
- Take a probiotic or eat fermented fruits, like kimchi and sauerkraut
- Manage stress
- Exercise regularly
- Take antibiotics only when necessary
- Don’t smoke
- Avoid cleaning products with harsh chemicals
- Get enough sleep
- Eat less meat
The bottom line – maintain a healthy gut
Your gut health is directly correlated to your immune, heart, brain, and physical health as well as your digestive health. Take care of your gut. If your gut doesn’t work – you don’t work.
Learn more about maintaining a healthy gut!
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