How to Improve your Gut Health
The term “gut feelings” couldn’t have been more accurate and it’s only recently that we have begun to understand its true implications. There is such a close co-relation between gut health and the overall physical and mental wellbeing of our body, that if compromised, it can manifest in the form of a wide range of disorders like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, skin disorders, obesity, depression and even autism.
The gut plays the role of a guardian, allowing nutrients and water to enter the body while blocking the entry of toxins. A distressed gut is unable to carry out its protective function and lets in dangerous compounds into our body. The right kind of nutrition helps preserve gut health and facilitates in its defensive role.
An incompetent gut upsets the body’s natural rhythms and throws it completely off gear. Gut health depends on the following:-
- Optimal intestinal bacteria
- Intact mucosa (gut lining)
- A healthy immune system as up to 70% of the immune system cells live in the gut
The gut flora and the gut barrier are the two major factors that define gut health and an imbalance in either of these affects every aspect of our health, both mental and physical. Let’s explore each of these in detail.
The Gut Flora or the “Intestinal Microbiota”
More than a hundred trillion microorganisms reside in the gut which is more bacteria than is found in all the cells in the human body. These “good” bacteria protect the body from infection, promote smooth gastro-intestinal function and regulate metabolism. An erosion of this gut flora has been linked to several diseases like type 1 diabetes, autism, auto-immune disorders, and inflammatory bowel disease.
These beneficial bacteria are not inexhaustible and need to be continually replenished through the right diet. They help manufacture many of the vitamins in the vitamin B series, enhance absorption of minerals fight pathogens and assist in digestion. Unfortunately as is the case with several other health problems, it is the ills of the modern times that have contributed to the disruption of the intestinal flora:
- Antibiotics and birth control medications
- Excessive consumption of a diet high in refined carbs, processed foods and sugar
- Insufficient intake of fermentable fibres
- Low levels of iron
- A diet too high in carbohydrates
- Chronic stress
It’s the rampant use of antibiotics that leads to quick deterioration of the gut flora, making the environment conducive for the growth of yeast that can lead to inflammation and irritable bowel. In addition, our diet today consists of foods that were unknown to us only a century ago. Refined sugars and processed carbs irritate and burden the gut, disturbing the delicate balance of the protective intestinal flora.
The all-important Gut Barrier:
The gut, which is a hollow tube extending from the mouth to the anus, has one of the most important roles to play – it blocks harmful foreign substances from entering the body. So technically speaking, all the contents of the gut are in reality, outside the body as anything that is not digested will be eliminated at the other end.
When the gut barrier becomes permeable, it’s known as the “leaky gut syndrome” and lets escape large protein molecules into the blood stream. As these proteins are alien to the body, it responds by signalling the immune system to launch an attack. Research has shown that such attacks lead to the development of autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s and rheumatoid arthritis and experts also believe that all autoimmune diseases in fact have their origins in leaky gut syndrome.
A leaky gut shows erratic behaviour as it may prevent the entry of essential nutrients but allow harmful bacteria into the body. Food toxins like gluten, wheat allergies and food chemicals are the main causes of the breach of the intestinal barrier. The auto immune response triggered by the leaky gut affects other surrounding organs like the pancreas, kidneys and liver and even the seemingly unrelated areas like the brain and skeletal system. An interesting point worth noting is that leaky gut may or may not give rise to any particular symptoms confined to the digestive system, and instead could manifest as a host of other problems like skin disorders, heart failure, autism, depression, and autoimmune conditions that affect the thyroid and joints.
Leaky gut and bad gut flora are usually each a consequence of the other and are caused by the same factors linked to our modern lifestyles. It is also associated with conditions such as autism, allergies, type 1 diabetes, mental illnesses, skin disorders, asthma and reduced sensitivity to insulin. Although unconfirmed, there is a certain hypothesis about compounds like gluten and casein that cross the leaky gut and trigger dysfunctions of the central nervous system.
How the gut controls our emotions
The gut influences every cell in the body and therefore an imbalance in the gut has similar repercussions in the brain and the reverse also holds true. Our emotions also affect the smooth functioning of the gut which is why in stressful situations or when we are scared and anxious, it usually lowers our appetite as well. Stress hampers the blood flow to and the enzyme production in the gut. The symptoms of a disturbed gut could manifest in the following ways:-
- Joint pain
- Sleep disturbances
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Fatigue & Anaemia
- Skin disorders
Causes of Gut disturbances (apart from sugars and processed foods)
- Lectins: proteins found in seeds such as grains, nuts, legumes
- Gluten and proteins found in barley, rye and corn
- Cassein and lactose found in dairy
With the true significance of intestinal health being revealed, experts are now convinced that restoring gut flora and the optimal functioning of the gut barrier could be the key factors that pave the way for better health in the 21st century. Keeping this aim in mind, we need to make conscious changes to our diet and limit all foods that could interfere with the smooth functioning of the gut.
Dietary changes to promote a healthy gut
- Eliminate toxins from your diet
- Consume fermentable fibres in abundance (sweet potatoes, yams)
- Add fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir to your diet along with a multi species probiotic supplement
- Treat intestinal pathogens like parasites, if any
- Keep stress levels under control by engaging in positive, productive activities