The expression “listen to your gut” may have more truth than you know. Your gut is infinitely complex and vitally important for your overall health.
As the body’s largest endocrine organ, the gut digests your food to extract and absorb energy and nutrients before it expels the remaining waste. Commonly referred to as the gastrointestinal or GI tract, the gut is also considered the “second brain” due to a mesh-like network of neurons that line the entire digestive tract. When you feel nervous butterflies or have a pit in your stomach, these are psychological stress responses; and up to 90 percent of the cells involved in these responses carry information to the brain.
The gut has been a topic of increasing research within the medical and health communities in the last two decades. Many studies have found links between gut health and the immune system, mood, mental health, skin conditions, autoimmune diseases, endocrine disorders, and even cancer.
Good vs bad bacteria
Your body contains more than 100 trillion microorganisms including bacteria, viruses and fungi (and about 300 to 500 different species of bacteria lie in the digestive tract). Collectively they are known as the microbiome and while some microorganisms are associated with disease and poor health, many are beneficial and even necessary to a healthy body.
According to Cayman-based holistic nutrition educator Andrea Hill, not all bacteria are inherently bad or good. “Issues in health arise when ‘bad’ bacteria become out of balance and multiply, due to poor diet, environmental toxins, stress, and prolonged antibiotic use, to name a few. This puts the body in a state of disharmony or dysbiosis,” she says, adding that “good” bacteria helps the body break down food and absorb nutrients and protect the body from diseases by crowding out harmful microorganisms.
“Healthy gut bacteria help the body produce nutrients vital to well-being such as essential amino acids, feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin, and vitamins K and B12. The ideal healthy-gut scenario is to strike a fine balance between both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys,” Andrea says.
There are common signs to look for when your gut is out of balance, including abdominal pain, discomfort and bloating; bowel irregularities such as constipation and diarrhea; and indigestion including acid reflux and heartburn. Andrea says many factors can also cause damage to your gut, such as stress, antibiotics, genetically modified foods (GMOs), a highly processed/sugar-filled diet, and weakened immune systems.
“Many studies show that stressful life events are associated with the onset or worsening of symptoms in several digestive conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and even peptic ulcer disease,” she says, noting that if unrelenting stress is not dealt with it can compromise efficient digestion.
While antibiotics are sometimes necessary, taking them can kill good bacteria in the gut leaving us more susceptible to pathogens and yeast.
“Keep in mind that this also includes antibiotics in meat and dairy products, as animals are often treated with antibiotics and hormones,” says Andrea.
Genetically modified foods (GMOs) can change the gut microbiome and because their long-term effects aren’t known, Andrea often advises people to try and avoid them. And highly processed diets filled with sugar and refined carbs can encourage Candida and fungal overgrowth.
Lastly, depending on exposure to toxins and the general health of the immune system, individuals can start to develop food sensitivities and allergy symptoms, bloating and gas, brain fog and malabsorption of nutrients.
“Autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, adrenal fatigue, Hashimoto’s, and hypothyroidism are also more likely when gut health is less than optimal,” says Andrea.
Optimal gut health
To build a healthier gut microbiome, nutritionist Andrea Hill suggests the following:
Avoid foods that irritate the gut, like dairy, eggs, soy, and gluten;
Reduce sugar intake as it’s inflammatory and kills good gut bacteria, suppresses immunity, and compromises vitamin and mineral absorption;
Eat a diverse range of foods, including fiber-rich, fermented and prebiotic foods, like legumes, fruits, beans, yogurt, raw sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, asparagus, oats, onions, artichokes, bananas and apples.
For her own clients, Andrea addresses poor gut health by implementing elimination diets. While the results are different for everyone, she says that people start to feel much better within a few short days, and studies suggest that you can heal a not-so-perfect gut in as little as two weeks or as long 12 weeks if you’re healthy and don’t have any chronic conditions like autoimmunity or food sensitivities.
“Unfortunately, most people trying to heal their guts also tend to have other health issues, so the process of turning things around might take a little longer,” says Andrea.
If you want to begin building a healthier gut microbiome on your own, start by making better food choices and managing stress levels as listed above.
“Deep breathing, meditation, yoga — even taking a walk in nature with your dog — can all have a positive impact on health,” says Andrea. “If it seems impossible to fit any of these into your lifestyle, then you probably need it more than ever. Schedule them into your busy calendar if you need to so that you can follow through regularly.”