Better health can’t be achieved without better digestion. Often referred to as our “second brain”, the huge neural network that controls the inner skin of the gut is a crucial aspect of health and quality of life. Fortifying the gut barrier and rebalancing our intestinal flora is the key to optimal digestive health.
Keep reading to learn the basics of Gut Health and how you can reclaim your microbiome.
The GI Tract
The digestive system, also called the gastrointestinal (GI) system or “gut”, is made up of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestine plus accessory organs that include salivary glands, pancreas, liver, digestive enzymes, and gallbladder. The gut is responsible for the large task of absorbing essential nutrients to support every cell in the body.
Many individuals are now realizing that if you have imbalances within the gut microbiome you’re more prone to compromised immunity. Intestinal bacteria influence many aspects of human health including the immune system, cardiovascular health, the brain and nervous system, metabolism, and much more.
Gut Bacteria: Friend or Foe?
What if I told you, when it comes to gut health, the more kinds of bacteria - the better!
As creepy as it may sound, bacteria inhabit our body within seconds of birth. From the moment we are born, the microbiome is influencing our health. The development of our gut flora and immune system first begins at birth with our mother and from every interaction we have with the environment.
The microbiome is an essential component of a healthy gut lining. It’s the collection of microorganisms that find a home inside our bodies: this includes trillions of different types of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses that live inside and on the human body. Your large intestine is not just made up of cells. Within the gut itself lives an entire universe of 38 trillion gut microbes – over 10 times the number of cells in the body!
The majority of these bacteria are located along the gastrointestinal tract, and can also be found on the skin, in the nose and ears. No one’s microbiome is exactly the same, think of it similar to your own fingerprint. Each person’s microbiome depends on age, stress levels, diet, and many other factors.
It may seem like your body is under constant invasion, but the truth is - a wide range of bacteria that live in the gut are friendly!
The Value of a Diverse Microbiome
Microbes play key roles in many important body functions and processes including:
- Regulating hormone balance
- Produce vitamin B12 & vitamin K
- Immune system support
- Control the growth of harmful bacteria
- Digestion & absorption of nutrients from food
- Weight management
- Regulating interactions between the gut-brain axis
It would be nearly impossible to digest many of the things we eat without the trillions of beneficial bacteria in our gut. Gut bacteria release enzymes that help us break down carbohydrates, fiber, and some starches and sugar. Once broken down, this friendly bacteria also assists nutrients as they pass through the gut wall and into the blood. Without the right balance of bacteria, digestion and nutrient absorption can easily become impaired.
Immune cells act as our bodies first line of defense when encountering a threat - identifying and neutralizing harmful substances that make their way into the body. When our immune system is working properly, this intelligent process often goes unnoticed. On the flip side, when the body becomes overworked or run down, bad bacteria can swoop in and wreak havoc.
The gastrointestinal system is essential to the body’s homeostasis, and actually contains around 70-80% of the immune system. The gut is the main route of contact with our external environment and is overloaded every day with stimuli that can sometimes include dangerous pathogens (bacteria, protozoa, fungi, viruses) or toxic substances. Intestinal bacteria send signals to initiate immune responses and populate the microbiome with beneficial bacteria. This symbiotic relationship helps to ensure the body’s protection.
With today’s increased use of antibiotics and highly processed diets, the body reaps the consequences. This can result in a microbiome that lacks the resilience and diversity to establish balanced immune responses. Since the immune system depends on the microbiome, one of the most important nutrients for the gut includes probiotics – especially if they are soil based.
It’s easy to imagine the gut and brain as two completely separate organs but they’re actually more connected than you’d think. The trillions of bacteria located in the gut have been shown to play a key role in gut-brain communication.
The vagus nerve is one of the biggest nerves connecting the brain and gut. This means your gut microbiome interacts directly with your central nervous system to regulate important functions and influence brain chemistry. This system of connections and communications between the brain and gut bacteria is called the gut-brain axis. Gut bacteria can directly affect our mood, stress levels, anxiety, and more.
Your gut and brain are connected through chemicals called neurotransmitters. Serotonin is often referred to as the feel-good neurotransmitter because it contributes to feelings of happiness. Research has shown that gut bacteria influences both serotonin and dopamine production, among many others.
Getting right with your gut has never been more important
The gut controls our internal ecosystem. It influences the brain, nervous system, immune health, and beyond. To balance it, it’s essential to nurture a diverse bacterial population - allowing us to live in harmony with our bodies.