Note: As you work towards better gut health, always speak with your physician and/or a licensed Registered Dietitian before making any changes to your diet or health.
A new wave of interest has emerged on the topic of gut health. Supplements and cures abound, and social media is abuzz with chatter about the effects of various foods on the microbiome within. So, what’s the deal? What is gut health? What does gut health have to do with overall health? How can gut health be achieved easily and naturally? We’ll answer all those questions and more today.
What is Gut Health?
Gut health refers to a healthy digestive system, particularly that of the stomach, duodenum, and bowel. Within the gut, an enormous and complex community of bacteria survives and thrives, allowing the digestive system to break down foods and extract necessary nutrients. While bodies can handle an impressive number of bacteria, they are negatively affected in some substantial ways by imbalances and a lack of bacteria.
Gut-Brain Connection: The Link Between Gut Health and Mental Well-Being
The gut and brain live on a two-way street, constantly sending signals back and forth. Whether it’s an indication of hunger, an upcoming meal, or a painful blockage, the two communicate regularly and rapidly. For some people, feelings of anxiety, fear, depression, or stress can lead to messages that cause cramping, diarrhea, or increased heartburn. While some medicinal treatments may provide temporary relief, treatment for the underlying stress, anxiety, depression, or fear is imperative.
Immune System and Gut Health
According to a professor emeritus of medicine at UCLA Health, 70% of the immune system is located in the gut. The immune cells within the gut interact constantly with the microbiome, leading to contrasting responses depending on the presence of certain foods and bacteria.
Those who consume diets high in animal proteins, sugars, processed foods, and saturated fats alter their gut biome, triggering immune responses that can lead to inflammation and later auto-immune conditions.
Conversely, a fiber-rich diet of colorful fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, wild-caught fish, lean meats, and natural herbs and spices supports the immune system’s function, improving overall health.
IBS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome
For up to 15% of the population, the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome are a daily part of life. Abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and other bowel movement changes often arrive with no warning due to an unknown cause. While the exact cause still evades scientists, some studies have suggested that an imbalance of gut bacteria may be to blame. Substantiating this theory is the fact that some individuals can manage their symptoms through diet and lifestyle changes that balance the gut microbiome.
Constipation and diarrhea are a normal part of life for most people. They can happen as a result of dehydration, stress, ingestion of certain foods, or illness. However, for those with an unhealthy gut, these symptoms can become life-altering and painful. Whether they are a symptom of Irritable Bowel Syndrome or occur on their own, these symptoms can be life-threatening when not managed well. Fortunately, maintaining a healthy microbial balance often decreases the number of times one is afflicted.
A myriad of factors can trigger autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s Disease and Sjogren’s Syndrome. However, a widely accepted belief is that gut health plays a significant role. Scientists haven’t yet narrowed down the exact balance but are working towards determining the specific bacteria required to maintain a healthy gut environment.
Allergies & Intolerances
Altered gut health may also trigger certain allergies and intolerances. Researchers at Mount Sinai recently discovered a notable difference in the gut microbiome of children who go on to develop a peanut allergy and those who do not. While this doesn’t prove a causal relationship, it does bring us one step closer to identifying how gut health affects and possibly determines allergies.
Promoting a Healthy Gut
Gut health is affected by many factors, none expressly more important than the others. Let’s review just a few.
Diet & Nutrition
The relationship between diet and gut health is complex. In some ways, the gut can graciously accept and process most of what it is presented with, but in others, it is sensitive to changes and sometimes struggles to recover from a lack of healthy input.
While each individual’s nutritional requirements, allergies, and physical needs are different, there are some generally accepted truths about feeding the gut that most can follow.
- Start with whole foods, such as colorful fruits and vegetables
- Enjoy lean proteins regularly
- Eat foods high in fiber
- Consume prebiotic foods and those containing probiotics
- Limit foods high in sugar or saturated fats
- Limit processed foods
Consuming a healthy diet contributes immensely to maintaining healthy microbial activity and overall health.
Studies have found that both physical and psychological stressors upset the gut’s microbial balance, possibly leading to various illnesses. Conversely, poor gut health also influences an individual’s ability to respond well to outside stressors. Therefore, it is not only important to develop skills and habits that reduce stress for good gut health, but it’s also essential to maintain good gut health to reduce stress.
The CDC reports that an average of more than 60 percent of adults in the U.S. do not engage in the recommended amount of daily activity. While rest is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, spending too much time sitting increases the pressure on the digestive tract, decreases blood flow to the area, and affects the microbiome within. A study funded by the American College of Sports Medicine found that when all other factors remained the same, a change in activity level directly affected the level of bacteria in the gut. Simple changes, such as walking after eating or getting up to move around throughout the day are direct and positive impacts that are easily implemented.
A life-saving measure often necessary for healing infections, antibiotics have a downside. They don’t discriminate. The antibiotic taken for a sinus infection cannot differentiate the healthy bacteria from any other and can cause a significant imbalance in the gut. Unfortunately, in many cases, antibiotic treatment is unavoidable. Those undergoing antibiotic therapy must take steps to maintain a balanced gut during treatment, including eating probiotic-rich foods, taking probiotic supplements, eating prebiotic foods, and getting plenty of rest and exercise.
Probiotics & Prebiotics
What’s the difference between Probiotic and Prebiotic foods? Understanding these terms and their symbiotic relationship is vital if you’re working towards good health. Let’s start with probiotics.
Probiotics are supplements or foods containing live organisms that contribute positively to the healthy flora within the gut. Common probiotic foods are yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, pickles, buttermilk, kombucha, certain cheeses, and tempeh. When possible, probiotic foods are encouraged as part of a well-balanced diet.
For the probiotic foods to be fully effective, they also need food. This is where prebiotic foods come in. Prebiotics are high-fiber foods that act as sustenance for the bacteria within the gut. Many of these foods, such as garlic, onions, leeks, oats, bananas, asparagus, apples, and even cocoa, can easily be incorporated into a balanced diet.
Creating a Gut-Friendly Workplace
Gut health is relevant for absolutely everyone. To create a fully functioning workplace, employers must ask themselves, “How is the workplace affecting each employee’s gut health, and what beneficial changes can I make to impact employee health positively?”
Some ideas for maintaining a gut-health-friendly environment include:
- Ensure employees have access to health insurance.
- Ask if your employee health insurance coverage offers dietary counseling, and if it does, encourage its use.
- Educate your employees on the mental health coverage available to them and encourage its use.
- Take steps to ensure that the working environment is as low-stress as possible. This may include increased breaks, flexibility, or staff engagement in stress-reduction activities.
- Offer healthy foods in any cafeterias or vending machines on the property. Ensure that probiotic-rich and prebiotic foods are on the menu.
- Encourage physical activity throughout the day through reminders to be active, designated walking trails, or the provision of gym memberships.
Taking these steps toward encouraging good gut health within the workforce will lead to healthier, happier, and more capable employees in the long run.
Tammy McKinney, RN, founder of HelpfulHospiceNurse, is a healthcare writer and seasoned registered nurse. Drawing from her extensive experience in acute care, long-term care, rehabilitation, drug & alcohol, and hospice & palliative care, she seamlessly merges her medical expertise with her love for writing. You can view a snippet of her portfolio here or contact her directly on LinkedIn!
RESOURCES: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection https://www.uclahealth.org/news/want-to-boost-immunity-look-to-the-gut#:~:text=Immune%20cells%20in%20the%20gut,in%20turn%20affect%20immune%20cells. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6039952/ https://gi.md/test-colonoscopy/the-statistics-of-ibs-how-many-people-suffer-from-the-condition#:~:text=It%20is%20estimated%20that%20it,a%20chronic%20yet%20manageable%20condition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6039952/ https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/changing-gut-bacteria-crohns-disease https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmed.2022.887044/full