We’ve long known that the gastrointestinal tract is crucial for health and survival. We need it to digest foods, absorb nutrients, and eliminate waste. But digestion is not its only purpose.
In the past few decades, scientists have discovered that the gut impacts overall health. For example, poor gut health has been linked to conditions seemingly unrelated to the digestive system like type 2 diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, anxiety, depression, autism, asthma, and many more.
How is this possible?
The Gut Microbiome
Trillions of microbes live in the human gut, most of which are bacteria. Collectively called the “gut microbiome,” they are responsible for breaking down carbohydrates, extracting nutrients from foods, producing several hormones (including the hunger hormone ghrelin), synthesizing specific vitamins, making chemicals that affect health, and more.
How Your Gut Health Affects Your Entire Body
To do its job correctly, the gut requires a precise balance of good and bad bacteria. If this balance becomes upset — i.e., the good bacteria levels are too low, and the harmful bacteria are too high –it can cause numerous health problems.
This can, of course, negatively impact digestion. However, it can also affect your health due to the gut-brain axis.
The Gut-brain axis refers to the two-way conversation between these two major organs. Specifically, the neurons in the brain and those in the gut talk to each other constantly.
Leaky Gut Syndrome and Illness
Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS) is another way your gut can negatively affect overall health.
Typically, the semipermeable intestinal barrier allows nutrients and other substances to enter the GI tract while keeping potentially toxic substances inside.
But if it becomes weakened, it allows partially digested food, bacteria, toxins, and other unhealthy substances to penetrate the intestinal wall and escape into the bloodstream. This is called “leaky gut syndrome,” and it generates widespread inflammation that can damage your immune system, potentially leading to numerous conditions, including: (1)
- Celiac disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Crohn’s disease
- Type 1 diabetes
- Multiple sclerosis
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- And more
Signs of Poor Gut Health
Signs of poor gut health can be varied. However, here are a few of the most common symptoms of imbalanced gut bacteria or leaky gut.
Cravings for Sugar Foods
Bacteria in your gut have food preferences, so if you’re constantly craving pastries, cookies, candy, and other sugary foods, you may have too many sugar-craving bugs in your gut!
Issues like excessive gas, belching bloating, stomach ache, heartburn, constipation, and diarrhea can be a sign that your gut is not processing food correctly, which is one of the jobs of your microbiome.
Being Overweight or Obese
There appear to be differences between the microbial community of thin and obese individuals.
The human gut primarily contains two families of friendly bacteria – Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes. Research suggests that obese individuals show a higher ratio of Firmicutes/Bacteroidetes than those of normal weight, leading researchers to theorize that the balance of these bacteria is an essential biomarker of obesity. (2)
If you have insomnia or have difficulty getting quality sleep, your gut may be to blame. That’s because the gut produces two hormones essential to sleep — melatonin and serotonin.
Melatonin regulates the sleep-wake cycles. Scientists used to believe melatonin is produced primarily in the brain’s pineal gland, but more recent research shows “gastrointestinal tissue produces 400 times more melatonin than is found in the pineal gland.” (3)
Seratonin acts as a hormone in the body and a neurotransmitter in the brain. It is known as the “happiness hormone,” as it supports mood and mental health. Serotonin is commonly thought to be a product of the brain. However, approximately 95% of it is produced in the gut. (4) The brain produces the other 5% for its usage. (5)
But how does it help sleep?
It turns out that serotonin is an essential part of the body’s sleep-wake cycle. While darkness triggers the body to start producing melatonin, sunlight activates serotonin production. Thus, melatonin eases you into sleep, and serotonin helps you feel alert in the morning. Serotonin does double duty, however, as it also converts to melatonin in the brain.
Since both of these crucial hormones are produced in the gastrointestinal system, it’s easy to see how gut damage may impact your sleep habits.
How to Improve Your Gut Health
Adjust Your Eating Habits
Routinely eating a poor diet contributes to imbalanced gut bacteria (a condition called dysbiosis) and leaky gut syndrome.
Heavily processed foods, junk foods, sugar, and trans fats negatively alter the gut microbiome. Therefore, reducing the intake of these foods in favor of a high-quality diet that includes plenty of plant-based foods, high-quality proteins, and healthy fats is the way to go.
Please be sure to eat a variety of fiber foods, i.e., whole grains and vegetables, as they are prebiotics that feeds beneficial bacteria. Research shows that fiber is vital for gut health. When good bacteria eat (ferment) fiber, they excrete butyrate, a postbiotic short-chain fatty acid shown to support a healthy colon. (6)
In addition, fermented foods like sauerkraut and yogurt contain loads of good bacteria that, when ingested, can improve digestion.
Digestion starts the minute you put food in your mouth. When you begin chewing, glands release saliva that liquefies the food, making it easier to digest. Therefore, the simple act of thoroughly chewing your food can help prevent digestive upset.
For best results, try to chew each bite five to 10 times. If the food is firmer, like crisp vegetables and meats, try to chew each bite 30 times. Your stomach will thank you!
Take a Good Postbiotic Supplement Every Day
As previously mentioned, butyrate is produced during the bacterial fermentation of fiber in the lower colon. Though many different postbiotic metabolites exist, Harvard doctors call butyrate the “optimal” one for gut health.
For example, numerous studies suggest that butyrate has an anti-inflammatory effect on the digestive tract and can relieve inflammatory bowel disease symptoms. (6a) Research also shows it may help maintain a strong gut barrier, (6b) support regular bowel movements, (6c) expand the population of butyrate-producing bacteria, (6d), and more.
You can get butyrate from eating loads of fiber, of course, but significantly increasing your fiber intake can cause gas, bloating, and other signs of digestive distress. That’s the unfortunate price of colonic fermentation.
But taking a postbiotic butyrate supplement every day can help support gut health without unpleasant digestive symptoms.
Get More Exercise
We all know exercise is good for health. But can it improve the balance of gut bacteria? A recent study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism says, “Yes.”
Testing participants’ cardiovascular fitness on a treadmill, researchers found that those ” with the best cardiovascular fitness had higher Firmicutes to Bacteroides ratio.” (7) Firmicutes are associated with butyrate production that supports gut health and may defend against leaky gut.
So, if you’re concerned about your gut health, you might want to get regular cardiovascular exercise. Jogging, running, hiking, aerobics, swimming, biking…all of these can give you a great cardiovascular workout!
Drink More Liquids
Staying hydrated supports digestion and is another excellent way to improve gut health. Liquids help guide food through the digestive tract. It also eases the elimination of wastes. Dehydration is a leading cause of constipation.) (8)
How much fluid do you need each day?
Well, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that a woman should get 11.5 cups, 15.5 for a man. This includes the estimated 20% of fluid intake from foods. (9)
Being stressed to the max is a common condition among people in modern society, and it’s not harmless to your health and wellbeing. For example, stress can contribute to asthma, heart problems, high blood pressure, arthritis, depression, anxiety, and more. (10)
Research shows that stress can also alter communication between the brain and the gut, eventually leading to various gastrointestinal disorders. It can also change the composition of microbes in the gut and increase intestinal permeability. (11)
The solution? Try to destress regularly. Here are some activities that can help you relax.
- Deep breathing exercises
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Watch a comedy show or movie. Laughter really is the best medicine, and research suggests it can relieve stress and soothe muscle tension. (12)
- Take up a hobby.
- Meet friends for lunch or dinner.
- Get a pet. Pets, especially dogs and cats, have been shown to reduce stress and improve mood.
1.- Campos M. Leaky gut: What is it, and what does it mean for you? Harvard Health Publishing. Aug 22, 2019. Accessed Sep 27, 2021. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/leaky-gut-what-is-it-and-what-does-it-mean-for-you-2017092212451
2- Magne F, Gotteland M, Gauthier L, Zazueta A, Pesoa S, Navarrete P, Balamurugan R. The Firmicutes/Bacteroidetes Ratio: A Relevant Marker of Gut Dysbiosis in Obese Patients? Nutrients. 2020; 12(5):1474. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12051474
3- Naturopathic Doctor News & Review. Melatonin and the Gut: The Untold Connection. Oct 13, 2006. Accessed Sep 28, 2021. https://ndnr.com/pain-medicine/melatonin-and-the-gut-the-untold-connection/
4- Banskota S, Ghia JE, Khan WI. Serotonin in the gut: Blessing or a curse. Biochimie. 2019 Jun;161:56-64. doi: 10.1016/j.biochi.2018.06.008. Epub 2018 Jun 14. PMID: 29909048.
5- El-Merahbi R, Löffler M, Mayer A, Sumara G. The roles of peripheral serotonin in metabolic homeostasis. FEBS Letters. Vol 589 IS 15 SN – 0014-5793 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.febslet.2015.05.054
6- Hamer HM, Jonkers D, Venema K, Vanhoutvin S, Troost FJ, Brummer RJ. Review article: the role of butyrate on colonic function. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2008 Jan 15;27(2):104-19. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2036.2007.03562.x. Epub 2007 Oct 25. PMID: 17973645.
6a – Chang P, Hao L, Offermanns S, Medzhitov R. The microbial metabolite butyrate regulates intestinal macrophage function via histone deacetylase inhibition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Jan 3, 2014. Vl 111. DO 10.1073/pnas.1322269111.
6b- Ma X, Fan PX, Li LS, Qiao SY, Zhang GL, Li DF. Butyrate promotes the recovering of intestinal wound healing through its positive effect on the tight junctions. J Anim Sci. 2012 Dec;90 Suppl 4:266-8. doi: 10.2527/jas.50965. PMID: 23365351.
6c- Canani RB, Costanzo MD, Leone L, Pedata M, Meli R, Calignano A. Potential beneficial effects of butyrate in intestinal and extraintestinal diseases. World J Gastroenterol. 2011 Mar 28;17(12):1519-28. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v17.i12.1519. PMID: 21472114; PMCID: PMC3070119.
6d- Facchin S, Vitulo N, Calgaro M, Buda A, Romualdi C, Pohl D, Perini B, Lorenzon G, Marinelli C, D’Incà R, Sturniolo GC, Savarino EV. Microbiota changes induced by microencapsulated sodium butyrate in patients with inflammatory bowel disease. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2020 Oct;32(10):e13914. doi: 10.1111/nmo.13914. Epub 2020 May 31. PMID: 32476236; PMCID: PMC7583468.
7- Dorcas A. Exercise Can Improve Your Heart and Gut Health. Med India. Jul 12, 2018. Accessed Sep 28, 2021. https://www.medindia.net/news/exercise-can-improve-your-heart-and-gut-health-180936-1.htm#:~:text=Exercise%20Can%20Improve%20Your%20Heart%20and%20Gut%20Health.,Cardiovascular%20fitness%20had%20higher%20firmicutes%20to%20bacteroides%20ratio.%E2%80%99.
8- Fulghum Bruce D. How Drinking Fluids Can Help You Manage Constipation. WebMD. Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on Jan 25, 2020. Accessed Sep 28, 2021. https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/water-a-fluid-way-to-manage-constipation
9- News Release. Report Sets Dietary Intake Levels for Water, Salt, and Potassium To Maintain Health and Reduce Chronic Disease Risk. The National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine. Feb 11, 2004. Accessed Sep 28, 2021. https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2004/02/report-sets-dietary-intake-levels-for-water-salt-and-potassium-to-maintain-health-and-reduce-chronic-disease-risk
10- Casarella J. The Effects of Stress on Your Body. WebMD. Dec 14, 2019. Accessed Sep 28, 2021. https://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/effects-of-stress-on-your-body
11- Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011 Dec;62(6):591-9. PMID: 22314561.
12- Mayo Clinic Staff. Stress relief from laughter? It’s no joke. Mayo Clinic. Jul 29, 2021. Accessed Sep 29, 2021. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456