Gut Health: What is it? Why is it important?
Gut health is a hot topic these days. Studies suggest gut health can affect numerous other aspects of your health. But what is gut health exactly? Why is it important? How can you improve your gut health?
What is the microbiome?
The microbiome is a fancy term for all of the microorganisms that exist in your gastrointestinal tract. There are a lot of different kinds of microorganisms, and they can be divided into two categories — the good bacteria and the bad bacteria.
Facts about the gut
Before we get into the discussion of how we can improve the health of our microbiome, the health of our gut, we're going to talk about some interesting facts about the gut.
- There are more microbes in our gut than cells in our body, 10 to one. That's a lot of cells in our microbiome compared to the amount of cells that we consider our own human body cells.
- Roughly 70% of our immune system is in our gut. This has always been important, and this year it might be even more important, because a healthy immune system will keep us out of a lot of trouble.
- A person has 100 times more DNA inside the microbiome than in the cells of your body.
- Your gut has a brain of its own. We know that the gut has always talked to the brain through the vagus nerve, but now we know the gut has its own brain called the enteric nervous system.
Related to this is the fact that the gut makes neurotransmitters, serotonin especially. 80 to 90% of the serotonin in your body is created in the gut. The serotonin neurotransmitter is pretty much called the peaceful, satisfaction neurotransmitter. More of that is almost certainly going to be better, and most of it is made in the gut by a healthy gut.
What problems can an unhealthy gut cause?
There is something called gut dysbiosis, which is when the bad bacteria in the gut outnumber and outcompete the good bacteria. This can cause a lot of problems, including:
- autoimmune illnesses like muscular sclerosis
- chronic fatigue
- low immunity
- leaky gut
- thyroid issues
- nutrient deficiency
Say you have an issue in the gut. Usually it's competition between good bacteria and bad bacteria. When the bad bacteria outcompete the good bacteria, we get the dysbiosis. When the good bacteria outcompete the bad bacteria, our gut is healthy and our bodies are usually healthy.
What can impact your gut health?
Antibiotics, when we take them for bad bacteria, they can also kill the good bacteria, which makes the competition right afterwards extremely important.
At that point, it might be a good idea to take a very high-quality probiotic supplement or to always think about eating really healthy probiotic foods. We'll talk about that at the very end.
Stress can impact the gut health. If there's too much stress, if there's too much negative stress I should say, there's a chance that food spends more time in the belly, which can cause gas and discomfort.
And also if there's a lot of stress, the gut can become more permeable. The tight junctions in the intestines can loosen up and let small particles of food enter into the bloodstream, which can cause a lot of those problems, a lot of the autoimmune problems, especially.
And we now know that the microbiome can determine how much we eat. If we have a healthy microbiome, our appetite might be lower. If we have an unhealthy microbiome, our appetite might go up.
How can we improve our gut health?
So, what can we do to improve the health of our gut? There are two categories of things we consume that can help our gut — prebiotics and probiotics.
Prebiotics would be fiber. There are two types of fiber — soluble and insoluble. When we think of soluble fiber, it's fiber that we can think of in oatmeal. If you have a good, gelatinous oatmeal — I'm thinking of steel-cut oats that you simmer on the stovetop for that 20 to 25 minutes and it is really gelatinous — that is soluble fiber. Very important.
The other type of fiber is insoluble fiber. We can think of celery. So when you chomp down onto the celery, you make a lot of strings and the strings don't really go anywhere. They don't turn into anything. You just swallow the strings. And the combination of the soluble fiber and the insoluble fiber is incredibly beneficial because it provides a good home for all of the good bacteria.
Now, probiotics, we hear a lot about the pills that we can take, but they can also be found in food. A lot of traditional foods are super high in probiotics because that was how we preserved them throughout human history.
We can think of refrigerated sauerkraut. That is full of probiotics. The South Korean culture has a kimchi, which is a usually spicy fermented vegetable dish and very high in probiotics.
We can also think of yogurt or kefir. Kefir is a kind of variety of yogurt with more strains than yogurt. It's usually drinkable, but they're both dairy-based probiotic foods. And then you can think about tempe, which is a fermented soybean cake. If you're looking for a lot of protein on a plant-based diet, tempe is probably one of the healthiest options. It's soy, but it's fermented, which makes the probiotics and it might help the soy be a little bit better for our own digestion.
And kombucha is becoming very popular. It's a Russian or a Chinese drink, very unique, but tea. You add a lot of sugar to it. You add a yeast-bacteria combo to that. The combo eats the sugar and some probiotics are left in the drink.
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