What is gut health?

Gut health and the microbiome are currently popular topics in the health world.  But what exactly are they?

Gut health refers to the health of the gastrointestinal tract (GIT).  The GIT, also known as the gut, transports the foods we eat from our mouth to our stomach, into our intestines, and eventually expels any waste products via the anus (i.e. our poo).

Features of a healthy gut

  • Digests and absorbs food effectively
  • Contains a healthy diverse microbiome
  • Has regular bowel motions, with normal stool consistency and no abdominal pain
  • Rarely has nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation or bloating
  • Is free from infections, inflammation and gastrointestinal related diseases (e.g. parasitic infections, allergies and intolerances, inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac disease, ulcers, reflux, cancer, etc)
  • Contributes to a healthy immune system
  • Helps maintain a healthy body weight
  • Aids in control blood glucose levels and preventing diabetes
  • Assists in regulating our mood (our gut is considered to be our second brain)

women pointing to head, first brain, and pointing to stomach, second brain

 

The key factors to a healthy gut are a healthy microbiome and healthy intestinal barrier function.

What is a microbiome?

The term microbiome or microflora refers to the microorganisms (e.g. bacteria, fungi, viruses) that live on or inside of us.  Microbiomes can be found within the gastrointestinal tract, lungs and reproductive and urinary systems.  The microorganisms that make up the microbiome interact with us and with each other providing us with beneficial and harmful effects.  The gut microbiome is found mainly in the large intestine and consists of trillions of microorganisms, mostly bacteria.

Although everyone’s gut microbiome is unique to them, there are key factors that separate a healthy gut microbiome from an unhealthy one.  A healthy microbiome contains a diverse array of microorganisms with the majority providing health benefits.  In contrast, an unhealthy microbiome has low diversity and has a higher number of harmful bacteria associated with disease.  The term dysbiosis is used to describe an unhealthy and imbalanced gut microbiome.

magnifying glass showing cartoon gut microorganisms found in the intestines

What causes dysbiosis?

One of the main causes of dysbiosis is diet.  This is because what you eat feeds the bacteria in your gut.  Therefore, if you have an unhealthy diet that is high in processed and refined foods, sugar, artificial sweeteners and fats, then there is a high chance that you have dysbiosis and poor gut health.

Further factors that contribute to dysbiosis include:

  • Stress
  • Certain medications (For example, overuse of antibiotics, protein pump inhibitors, paracetamol, NSAIDs)
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Alcohol
  • Poor sleep
  • Lack of exercise
  • Constipation and diarrhoea
  • Genetics
  • Being overweight

What is intestinal barrier function?

Intestinal barrier function refers to the ability of the intestines to keep harmful substances within the intestines, while still allowing the absorption of nutrients.  The intestinal barrier includes the gut microbiome (a biological barrier), the intestinal immune system (an immune barrier) and the cells that make up the intestinal wall (a mechanical barrier).  A healthy gut has optimal intestinal barrier function that is effective at keeping the harmful contents of the gut from entering the bloodstream.  However, if you have poor gut health, your intestinal barrier function may be subpar, allowing harmful particles, such as bacteria, toxins and small pieces of partially digested food, to enter your bloodstream.  This phenomenon may be referred to as a ‘Leaky Gut’.

Research now suggests that a leaky gut may contribute to immune activation and inflammation, contributing to a range of diseases that affect our physical and mental health.  Conditions include Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, coeliac disease, IBS, allergies, autoimmune diseases, arthritis, fatty liver, depression, anxiety, and obesity.

What causes Leaky Gut?

Many of the same factors that cause dysbiosis also contribute to leaky gut, including;

  • Poor diet
  • Gut dysbiosis
  • Excessive alcoholLeaky bucket
  • Nicotine
  • Stress
  • Medications – e.g. NSAIDs, antibiotics, chemotherapy
  • Diseases that cause inflammation – e.g. food allergies and intolerances, gut infections, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, coeliac disease, HIV
  • Surgery
  • Poor digestion
  • Genetics

How can I tell if I am having problems with my gut health?

Signs of poor gut health include; bloating, gas, diarrhoea, constipation, abdominal pain and nausea.  Other signs include; reduced immunity, allergies, fatigue, irritability, poor concentration, joint and muscle pain.

A  path to optimum gut health

Diet is one of the main ways to ensure good gut health.  It is important to eat a diet high in fresh fruit, vegetable and whole grains to provide the food that beneficial bacteria thrive on.  Reducing stress and getting a moderate amount of exercise also help improve gut health.  For more information on ways to improve gut health, subscribe to my mailing list for a copy of my Guide to Good Gut Health.

If you would like more advice with what’s going on with your gut and some help discovering the cause of your symptoms, please book in to see me here, or email at annie@anniebarrettnaturopath.com.au, or phone me on 0416213055.

If you are uncertain how I can help and would like to know more about naturopathy and myself, book in for a free discovery call here.

 

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