What is Gut Health and Why Does it Matter?
When we think of food, we tend to think of it as the protein, carbs, and fats that nourish our bodies. But more and more research is emerging that indicates that what we eat also impacts our gut health.
When we say “gut health” we are really talking about the size, density, and health of our microbiota and microbiome.
What is a microbiota and microbiome?
Microbiota is the collection of microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other tiny critters) that form a community inside our bodies.
Microbiome describes all the microbes in addition to their genetic and physical potential in our bodies. It describes the entire ecosystem.
All humans carry a huge host of microorganisms which we are born with. They change over time and they influence everything from immune function to blood sugar regulation and obesity. They are tremendously influential on our health.
Our microbiomes can provide enormous health benefits or they can become disrupted and trigger a cascade of chronic disease including asthma, autism, obesity, diabetes, arthritis, heart disease and even mental health disorders. We have discovered that diet has the largest impact on our microbiome which means we need to set up our lives to reinforce the basic principles of healthy eating.
A disrupted microbiome can start to break down the lining of our intestines eventually leaking some of these normally good microbes into our bloodstream and tissues leading to a condition called “leaky guy.” Leaky gut describes the systemic inflammation that results from our immune response to these microbes. Symptoms can range from minor to severe.
We inherit our microbiome from our mothers and develop a fully developed adult microbiome by the age of 3. Research suggests that mothers who consume a high quality diet during pregnancy tend to pass on higher amounts of healthy bacteria to their offspring when compared to mothers who consume a low quality diet during pregnancy.
Does that mean we are doomed to ill health simply because our parents didn’t like vegetables? Not necessarily. Enter Pre and Probiotics.
Probiotics are most readily recognized and purchased by the public. They are live microorganisms which can be taken orally and confer many health benefits and help restore and build a healthy and balanced microbiota. But only if they are nurtured properly through the diet!
Prebiotics are specific substrates used selectively by our host-microorganisms. Essentially they are the food that feeds our critters.
Used appropriately, they are very useful tools in fighting against many diseases and conditions. In 2017, a study was completed that compared the gut microbiota of a group of overweight children given either a prebiotic supplement or a placebo. The prebiotic group showed higher numbers of healthy bacteria as well as a drop in body fat % when compared to the placebo.
While pre and probiotics will certainly not cure diseases, they are useful tools in prevention and symptom management.
The gut microbiota feeds mostly on dietary fiber left over from our food, derived from the cell walls of plants that we can’t digest. So your doctors and parents and nutrition coaches are on to something when they encourage you to eat your fruits and vegetables! They are good for you AND your tiny passengers.
Given that many fad diets tend to omit entire food groups and have yet to be evaluated for long term implications, it is best to avoid them in order to keep our guts healthy. Instead focus on a diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, is low in fat, high in whole grains, nuts, and seeds. A diet high in fiber.
Other things that can keep your little critters happy include eating fermented foods, staying away from high density processed foods, avoiding a diet high in saturated fats and refined sugars, keeping alcohol consumption to an absolute minimum and (big shocker) getting 8+ hours of sleep per night.
Exercise also seems to promote a higher level of diversity in our microbiota making it an unexpected positive influence on our gut health as well!
Take care of yourself and your microbes and your body will thank you!