Gut’s Going on? Getting to the Bottom of Gut Health
One of the more recent health phenomena of the last few years has been gut health and the benefits of maintaining our microbiome. Admittedly, it can be challenging to keep up with all the latest health “trends” and evaluate whether they actually work or are simply myths. You may even be thinking: What exactly is gut health referring to, why is it so essential to maintain and how is this the first time I’ve heard about this? Here’s all you need to know about the human microbiome, poor gut health risks, science-backed studies, and the truth about gut health remedies.
What is Gut Heath?
Understanding gut health requires knowledge about the human microbiome. Gut health refers to the digestive system, home to trillions of microbes. Microbes refer to the trillions of bacteria and fungi that inhabit our entire body, primarily the digestive tract. According to The NIH Common Fund Human Microbiome Project (HMP), there are more microbes in a human than there are cells. Organizations from around the world have devoted countless hours to uncovering the complexity of our microbiomes. Every individual possesses a microbiome of numerous bacteria, viruses, and fungi species that differs from anyone else’s.1 Don’t panic, though! Most of these microorganisms do good and are essential for great health and maintaining many bodily processes.2
Humans develop their unique microbiome ecosystem during the early stages of life. These ecosystems are developed from contact with a mother during birth or breastfeeding. Whether a baby is born via the vaginal canal or a Cesarean section has a high impact on its microbiome.3 Additionally, other environmental factors such as the individuals we were exposed to during the first few months after birth combine to form our distinct microbiomes.4
From increased risk of depression, irritable bowel syndrome, skin issues, and trouble sleeping there is a laundry list of negative side effects that can be attributed to poor gut health. Maintaining a happy gut increases the chances of leading an enhanced lifestyle. Listed below are symptoms of an unhealthy gut.
The brain and gut have a very codependent relationship with each other, so the foods and substances we ingest directly affect our mental health. Various signals that tell the brain to produce hormones and neurotransmitters are sent from the gut as a response to what is being metabolized. Director Jay Pasricha, M.D., Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology says, “Researchers are finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger mood changes.”5 Eating highly processed, refined and artificial foods for example lacks the nutrients our bodies need to maintain a healthy microbiome. Mental health side effects due to poor gut health include anxiety, depression, migraines, and even brain fog due to inflammation.6 An in-depth understanding of brain fog can be found here.
In addition to declining mental health, an unhealthy gut also increases an individual’s risk of mild to life-threatening diseases. Similar to mental health issues, these diseases are developed due to inflammation and can be traced back to a lack of vitamins and essential minerals from a poor diet. Additionally, the microbiome and immune system also have a codependent relationship. This ecosystem in our gut communicates with and sends signals to immune cells.7 A combination of a poor immune system, lack of sleep, and stress causes the microbiome to produce more harm than good. Irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s, gastroesophageal reflux, ulcerative colitis and even cancer can be linked back to an unhealthy gut.8
A healthy and happy gut is primarily affected by one’s diet. In addition to consistent sleep and minimal stress, the types of food we eat in our diets directly affect the well-being of the microbes in our digestive system. Including a variety of nutritious foods in our day-to-day meals increases diversity within the species in our gut.
Pre vs. Probiotics
First, let’s define the difference between prebiotics and probiotics. Prebiotics are non-digestible dietary fibers that are a direct food source for the microbes in the digestive system. These fibers are found in most fruits and vegetables as well as legumes and whole grains including oats, flax seeds, and wheat.9 Probiotics on the other hand are live good bacteria that help to maintain bodily processes like the bacteria within our microbiome. Probiotics can be found in many different foods like yogurt, olives, pickles, and especially fermented foods like tempeh, kimchi, and kombucha.10
It is important to note that most gut-health supplements are not substantially effective for many individuals. As mentioned before, each of us has a unique microbiome ecosystem, so what improves one individual’s gut health may not benefit another’s. Additionally, the study of the microbiome is still fairly new, and more research is needed to accurately support most remedies.
There is a hidden truth behind most supplements marketed to improve gut health. Probiotics can also be taken in pill form, but most of these dietary supplements are not FDA-approved. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, probiotics labeled as nutritional supplements do not require FDA approval. These nutritional supplements are allowed to “make claims about how the product affects the structure or function of the body without FDA approval, but they aren’t allowed to make health claims, such as saying the supplement lowers your risk of getting a disease, without the FDA’s consent.”11
Happy Gut Happy Life
Understanding the human microbiome is essential for understanding the cause of many digestive and mental diseases as well as preventing and even combating these ailments. It is exciting to not only learn about the intricacies of the human body but also improve our personal well-being. It is crucial to remain cautious and educated on remedies and supplements marketed towards health trends like gut health. As studies of this once-foreign, yet revolutionary topic of human health continues to develop, the emergence of science-backed remedies for a happy gut will hopefully manifest into improved, happier, healthier lives.