“All disease begins in the gut.” That is what Hippocrates, Greek physician and father of medicine, taught, but what exactly does that mean? What exactly IS gut health? And how do we know whether our guts are healthy or not? How do we figure out the best way to balance and restore the digestive system? As daunting as the task may seem, it is imperative to figure gut health out. For, Hippocrates was correct; digestive issues don’t only affect the gastrointestinal tract, but are the root cause of numerous health issues, including brain and mental health.
The Gut’s Function
So, what is the gut and how do our everyday habits affect our digestive health? Well, the first question we need to contend with is, what is a human? According to Professor and Research Scientist, Justin Sonnenberg from Stanford University, we are “an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.” He has dedicated his life and work to studying from a gut-centric view of human physiology. His studies conclude “there are 10-100 trillion microbes that reside in our gastrointestinal track” and “the gut bacteria is a control center for multiple aspects of our biology including our immune status, metabolism, and neurobiology.”
While all humans have similar DNA, our microbes are vastly different. Preliminary findings indicate that our microbes are increasingly imbalanced due to increased consumption of processed foods, increased exposure to antibiotics from both medical treatments and residues in food, as well as the increase of C-section deliveries, which deprive infants of exposure to vital micro-organisms which lie in the birth canal and seed the gut at birth. The real value of learning more about one’s microbiome is learning how important it is to focus on how we live, and, especially, what we eat to gain better and balanced gut heath, and therefore better overall health.
How does Digestion Work?
Just what is happening inside those guts, you might ask? Your microbiome (bacterial community) flourish in the digestive system, making up a person’s complex internal ecosystem.
The digestive system is the group of organs that work together, converting food into energy. The health of your digestive system and the balance of the microbiome is dependent upon many factors. The way and what you eat, how much exercise and how you handle stress all play a crucial part of having a balanced digestive system. The digestive system works together with all the other body systems including the nervous, endocrine (hormones), and immune systems.
While many think digestion begins in the stomach, it actually begins in the brain. The metabolic process begins in the hypothalamus, which stimulates the appetite. The hypothalamus decides how you digest what you eat. It can decide to digest it with ease or with stress–depending on the health of your organs and the state of your mind.
Once the food enters the body, all the organs in the digestive system begin to work together. By looking a little closer at what our bodies do with the food we eat, we learn just how important the microbiome system is in the body and in the digestive process.
Mouth Chewing begins the process of breaking down the food. Chew well!
Spleen Lymphatic organ which filters the blood, protecting the body from infections.
Stomach Storage tank for food, working as a mixer and grinder with enzymes and acids, further breaking down the food.
Small Intestine After the stomach, the food moves to the small intestine, where most of digestion occurs. Most the nutrients are absorbed here.
Liver Produces bile into the small intestine to break down fats and fatty acids, and detoxifies blood sent from the small intestine.
Gallbladder Holds leftover bile left over from the small intestine for future meals.
Pancreas Secretes digestive enzymes to the small intestine to complete chemical digestion of foods. Digests lipids and carbohydrates to create energy, proteins, and nucleic acids. Insulin is also a product of this spongy, tube shaped organ.
Colon Part of the large intestine, the colon is the last stop for the foods you consume. After what remains leaves the small intestine, it moves to the large intestine where naturally present bacteria will continue digestion. These particular bacteria are called flora. They finish breaking down wastes, leaving only the remnants for excretion.
As we see, we rely on many different organs and they all need healthy bacteria in order for us to have a healthy gut. If one of these organs is not in top shape, they whole system can be disrupted.
Now the question is, how do you know if you have a healthy gut and digestive system? Most the time, digestive issues will show up through constipation, bloating, diarrhea, nausea and heartburn. Craving sugary foods is also indicative of an imbalance of gut bacteria. Of course, some symptoms have nothing to do with the gut at all. Imbalanced bacteria growth can also cause feelings of anxiety or depression, insomnia and chronic fatigue, skin conditions to flare up, and a lowered immune system.
Digestive issues are a tricky issue to deal with. Some people find themselves with painful symptoms, while others digestive issues remain hidden and in silence.
“Digestive disorders are placing a growing burden on Americans, causing an unprecedented number of clinic visits and hospitalizations.” says Stephen Bickston, Professor of Internal Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University. He also mentions some common digestive issues plaguing people all over the country: reflux, peptic ulcers, gallstones, lactose intolerance, diverticulitis, inflammatory disease, celiac disease, and constipation. The good news is, with some lifestyle and dietary changes, you can help heal and prevent these digestive disorders from happening to you.
What About Probiotics?
Probiotics are everywhere these days and being touted as the answer to digestive health. You can find them advertised in yogurts, fruit juice, frozen treats, and other random food products, but, do these products work? And, are there other methods to help balance the digestive system?
One thing is for sure: it all begins with what we put in our mouths. According to Ali Keshavarzian, MD, Professor and Director of the Division of Digestive Disease and Nutrition at Rush University, eating right is the first step in improving your microbiome, and the foods we eat can change our gut bacteria in as little as 24 hours—whether for the good, or the bad. He stresses the need to focus on feeding your good bacteria and starving the less desirable ones.
Not only are probiotics important, but even more so is the removal of processed foods, breads, and sugars from the diet, and replacing them with better alternatives that work in feeding good bacteria. Keshavarzian says to consider adding more plants and seeds to the diet, as well as fermented foods like kimchi, yogurts, and kefir, when looking for natural probiotics. He says one of the most important things, though, is filling up on prebiotic foods. This is vital component in a healthy and balanced digestive system.
What are Prebiotics?
Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that act as food for probiotics. When prebiotics and probiotics combine, they create a wonderful beneficial harmony inside your digestive system. Prebiotics are found in whole and ancient grains, green bananas, onions, tomatoes, artichokes, oats, and pistachios, to name a few. Not only do these prebiotic foods aid in feeding probiotics and good bacteria, they are full of much needed fiber, which helps with constipation, and other digestive issues.
With the combination of high fiber, prebiotic foods, along with fermented, probiotic foods, a symbiotic relationship occurs, helping good bacteria flourish and outpower the bad bacteria which wreaks havoc on our well-being. The benefits of pre and probiotics is not only a healthier gut, but they are also known to help bone health, cardiovascular health, weight control, sharpened brain function and better sleep.
Stay tuned for part two of this article where we will take a closer look at prebiotic and probiotic sources, and whether supplements work. Also, is there an easy answer to getting enough every day, and what times of the day should they be consumed? Learn which prebiotic foods are essential to your health. For now, start making some small changes like swapping out processed or sugary foods for healthier, prebiotic carbohydrates and add more veggies and plants to your every day diet.