Most people have heard the expression “you are what you eat”, but as we continue to learn more and more about the body evidence has become clear that in fact “you are what you absorb”. The gastrointestinal system is not only important for breaking down and digesting the food we eat, but it is largely important for the health of our immune system and overall well-being. It is now said that our gut health impacts everything from skin conditions to mental health and even obesity. In fact, many researchers believe that supporting gut health will be one of the most important medical goals of the 21st century. Therefore, it is now more important than ever to understand why your gut is a key to your health.
What is the “gut”?
The term gut does not refer to the belly above your pants, but rather it refers to the components of your digestive system that support health, namely your intestinal system. In fact, our gut is more than just a big long tube for digesting food, it is a complex system that absorbs nutrients, makes minerals, houses bacteria, protects from infection, relays messages to our brain and so much more. Our gut is a hard-working system that allows nutrients and water into our body while keeping toxins and antigens out.
In fact, the contents of the gut are actually considered to be outside the body. Sounds crazy, right? If you were to stretch it out, you would see the gut is actually a long hollow tube that runs from mouth to anus, and the role of the gut is to let the important stuff in and keep the dangerous stuff out.
The Importance of Gut Health
We have only recently begun to understand the importance of gut health and how it can impact us physically and emotionally, however, we do know that there are two important variables that impact the overall health of our gut; its microbiome and its barrier.
Our gut is home to approximately 100 trillion microorganisms, which is 10 times more than the entire human body, and over 400 different species. Although researchers are still learning more about the microbiome (also known as gut flora), we have begun to understand that our microbiome not only promotes normal gastrointestinal function but provides protection from infection, regulates metabolism, and comprises more than 75% of our immune system.
In addition to our gut’s microbiome, our gut itself is a barrier system that works as the gatekeeper for our body; determining what comes in and what stays out. Given the contents of your gut are technically outside of your body, it is the guts barrier system (or intestinal wall) that decides if what you ate comes into the body or gets expelled. In the digestive process, it is the lining of the small intestine that helps to regulate what is absorbed into the bloodstream and the body. The gut lining is made of up very tight junctions which help to prevent toxins or foreign invaders from entering the body. However, the tight junctions of our gut can become compromised, making them permeable, which can increase the absorption of toxins and antigens into the bloodstream and body which are not meant to be there. This intestinal permeability is sometimes known as “leaky gut” syndrome.
What Negatively Impacts Gut Health?
Unfortunately, many aspects of a modern lifestyle and the standard North American diet can negatively impact your gut’s microbiome and intestinal permeability including:
- Diet high in refined sugar and refined carbohydrates
- Diet high in processed foods and additives
- Diet low in fermentable fiber
- Long-term use of antibiotics or birth control
- Lifestyle with chronic stress
Not only can these factors negatively impact our gut health individually, but cumulatively they are even more problematic. Frequent use of antibiotics is particularly harmful to our microbiome (it’s all in the name anti-biotic = anti-bacteria) as they impact a profound and rapid impact on our gut flora. Once your gut flora has been compromised, and tight junctions have become inflamed and irritated, our gut’s barrier system can no longer defend us as it was designed to do. As the barrier becomes weakened, it becomes less selective; allowing bad bacteria inside and keeping vital nutrients out.
Gut Health is More than Just Digestion
With more than 20 million Canadians dealing with digestive issues every single year it is easy to understand how the health of our gut is important and how easily it can become compromised. However, what many people don’t recognize is that the health of your gut spans far beyond digestive symptoms. Although issues such as IBS, Chron’s disease, Celiac disease, and digestive disorders are clearly related to gut health, poor gut flora and intestinal permeability can many other things including; mood, mental health, energy, fatigue, headaches, migraines, skin issues, and food intolerances. In fact, you do not need to have digestive symptoms for your gut health to negatively impact you. Poor gut health can manifest itself as acne, psoriasis, poor concentration, anxiety, depression, or fatigue before you have a digestive issue.
Given that 75% of your immune system resides in your gut, the health of your gut has a large impact on the health of your immune system. When the intestinal barrier becomes permeable, protein molecules can escape into the bloodstream. However, since these molecules don’t reside outside of the gut, the immune system responds by attacking them as foreign invaders. This process ‘pollutes’ your bloodstream and creates an excess workload on your immune system and filtering organs as they attempt to cope with the unwanted invasion. Studies show that the link between gut health and the immune system plays a role in many auto-immune conditions as well as the increase in food allergies and food sensitivities.
Maintain Good Gut Health
Leaky gut and bad gut flora are common because of the modern lifestyle. If you have a leaky gut, you probably have bad gut flora and vice versa. While achieving and maintaining gut health can seem like hard work, it is vitally important to our health. The most obvious solution is to avoid all of the factors that contribute to gut health, although in some cases it is easier said than done. Depending on the degree of concern there are many different and complex nutrition and supplement protocols you can follow in order to improve your gut health (which I will cover at a later date), however, the first step is merely accepting the fact that what you eat affects much more than your weight and physical appearance. By focusing on a diet of whole foods, limiting refined sugars, food additives, and processed foods, and limiting stress, you will be taking the first steps to improve your overall health.
Think you might have leaky gut? Read part 2 and part 3 of my overview on gut health about the common symptoms of leaky gut to learn more.
Part 2: 10 Signs You Have Leaky Gut
Part 3: How to Heal Leaky Gut