It’s All in Your Gut

gut microbiome

Over 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates stated that “all disease begins in the gut.” The primary function of your GI tract is to break down food and to absorb nutrients, but it does so much more than that. In order to have a true appreciation for the digestive system and why it is so important, let’s review some important facts. First, if you were to take your entire small intestine and stretch it out, it would cover the surface of a basketball court. The digestive tract has 10 times the number of cells found in the rest of the body. In addition, the lining of the GI tract contains 70-80% of the immune system to protect against the many potential pathogens that pass through your gut every day. Your gut contains 100 trillion bacteria made up of 500 different species, and research shows that optimizing gut function helps to improve overall well-being. Gut function is connected to and influences the health of the entire body.

Although some microbes are harmful, many positively impact your health. The microbes help with digestion of fiber, production of some vitamins such as vitamins K and B12, regulation of metabolism, detoxification of chemicals, regulation of the immune system, and prevention of the growth of dangerous pathogens. The proper balance and diversity of these microbes is essential for health.

We know that the number of digestive complaints and diseases are increasing. According to the National Institutes of Health, 60-70 million people are affective by digestive diseases resulting in over 200,000 deaths annually. The imbalance of gut microbes, called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, occurs when there is a reduction in beneficial microbes, increased harmful microorganisms, or loss of overall diversity. Many conditions have been linked to this disruption in microbial balance including allergies, eczema, acne, celiac disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus, asthma, autism, cancers, cystic fibrosis, gastroesophageal reflux disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, mental disorders, obesity and cardiovascular disease. The real question seems to be, “Is there any condition not associated with the balance of gut microbes?”

The gut microbiota varies from person to person, but depends on many factors, including your age, genes, your mother’s microbiota, environment, exercise, sleep, stress, and your diet. Microbial colonization of the gut begins at birth. Interestingly, diet during the first three years of life likely has the biggest impact on the gut microbiome.

Your gut is sometimes referred to as your “second brain” and is involved in many important functions. It has its own nervous system, known as the enteric nervous system, containing 50-100 million nerve cells. In fact, there are more neurons in the gut than the spinal cord or peripheral nervous system. This “second brain” controls peristalsis and enzyme secretion that fuels the digestive process. It can also influence the way we feel. For example the feeling of having “butterflies” in your stomach is the gut’s signaling during a stress response. There is an emerging understanding of how the gut can influence mood and psychiatric disorders due to the fact that 75% of your body’s neurotransmitters and 95% of your body’s serotonin are produced there. A neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger released by a nerve. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in sleep, appetite, pain sensitivity, and mood. Oftentimes, people with depression who have inadequate levels of serotonin often have gastrointestinal issues. On the other hand, irritable bowel syndrome can arise in part from too much serotonin in the intestines. The connection between the gut and the brain is truly integrated and complex and is called the brain-gut axis. Research is demonstrating the important role of the gut microbiota and the microbe’s ability to communicate with the gut to influence anxiety, pain, cognition and mood.

Engaging in activities that will improve the ability to handle stress can have a significant impact not only on the quality of life, but also helps to reduce inflammation caused by the stress response. There are many ways to help to control stress, including meditation, acupuncture, yoga, and deep breathing exercises.

There are several things you can do to promote a healthy gut microbiome. First, switch from an animal-based to plant-based diet. Regular intake of a diet high in animal fat can trigger persistent low-grade inflammation. Inflammation is a defense mechanism triggered by your immune system that helps your body to heal. When you have an infection or wound, the inflammatory response is beneficial and necessary to help to heal tissue. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is harmful and can cause damage to your body. In order to manage inflammation, an anti-inflammatory diet, including lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plant-based proteins (beans and nuts,) plant-based fats (olive oil, canola oil and avocado,) and fatty fish is helpful. Avoid pro-inflammatory foods, such as processed foods and excessive amounts of sugar. The World Health Organization recommends no more than 6 tsp of sugar per day, or 25 g. The top anti-inflammatory foods are: fiber, turmeric, green and black tea, omega-3 fatty acids (fish), onions, apples, citrus fruits, berries, and purple grapes/red wine.

You’ve probably heard of The Mediterranean Diet, which incorporates the traditional cooking style of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It is a heart healthy diet and is very similar to the anti-inflammatory diet. The Mediterranean Diet incorporates fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant based proteins and fats. This diet recommends that you consume fish (which is anti-inflammatory) 2-4 times/week and red meat (which is pro-inflammatory) no more than once/week. Furthermore, this diet encourages a moderate intake of red wine if desired, enjoying meals with family and friends, and getting plenty of exercise. Physical activity is a wonderful way to reduce stress and to reduce inflammation.

Include a diet high in prebiotics, probiotics, and fermented foods to maintain gut microbial diversity. Prebiotics are a non-digestible fiber that promote the growth of beneficial gut microorganisms. They essentially act as food for probiotics. Foods that contain prebiotics include: artichokes, greens, garlic, leeks, onions, asparagus, wheat bran, wheat flour, and banana. Probiotics are good bacteria that keep your digestive system healthy by controlling the growth of harmful bacteria. Fermented foods contain probiotics. Kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso soup, kefir, and yogurt are examples of probiotic containing foods to include. Look for live and active cultures on the label of your yogurt.

There are other lifestyle changes you can besides your diet to decrease inflammation and to promote a healthy gut microbiome. In order to decrease stress, practice mindfulness, which is a “non-judgmental attention to experiences in the present moment.” This technique helps you to gain control over your eating habits and to develop a healthy and satisfying relationship with food. In our culture, we often eat mindlessly while being distracted by televisions, computers and smartphones. This is problematic and can lead to overeating, especially since it takes your brain up to 20 minutes to realize that you are full. By eating mindfully, you intentionally slow down and will learn to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger. Mindful eating includes:

  1. Before eating, ask: “Am I hungry? Am I thirsty?” It is important to distinguish between hunger and non-hunger triggers for eating, such as stress, boredom, sadness and anger.
  2. Eating slowing without distraction. Eat at a table and not in front of the TV or computer.
  3. Take 3 deep breaths. Be in the present.
  4. Engage your senses by noticing colors, smells, sounds, texture and tastes of the food you are eating.
  5. Check your hunger cues every few minutes and stop eating when you feel full.
  6. Focus on how food makes you feel
  7. Enjoy your meal!You can incorporate mindfulness by practicing mindful eating. At the beginning of each meal, practice taking a mindful bite by following the steps below:
  1. Close your eyes
  2. Imagine you are holding a piece of food (orange, raisin, chocolate.)
  3. Imagine what the food looks like. Examine the shape, color, texture.
  4. Imagine bringing the food to your nose and smelling it.
  5. Imagine placing the food on your tongue. Notice the response of your salivary glands.
  6. Imagine taking a bite. Pay attention to the sounds in your mouth and the texture on your tongue. Notice how the texture changes as you chew.
  7. Imagine swallowing the food. Pay attention as the food travels down your throat to your stomach.
  8. Say the name of the food silently to yourself.
  9. Practice taking a mindful bite once each meal.

To sum things up, science is rapidly evolving and we are gaining a greater understanding of the complex relationship between the gut microbiome and your overall health and well-being. Your diet is one of the most modifiable determinants of your health. Start incorporating some of these nutritional modifications, and you will soon notice a difference in your overall health.

Check out the video below for more information:

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