It is well established that the billions of bacteria that reside in your gut are important for digestive health. In recent years, though, scientists have discovered that the state of health in your gut may be a window into your overall health status and risk for certain diseases down the road.
In a healthy person, the bacteria that live in your intestinal tract, primarily in the large intestine, are symbiotic with the other cells. This relationship is key to healthy digestion (i.e. keeping you regular), but also provides many important immune functions such as keeping toxins out of your body and allowing nutrients in (technically, your gastrointestinal tract, from one end to the other, is outside of your body! That’s a mind-bender, isn’t it?). When the bacteria are off balance, called dysbiosis, this otherwise well-run system doesn’t work as it should.
Typical symptoms of this dysbiosis can include gas, bloating, and other gastrointestinal upset, but it may not be limited to the gut. Emerging research suggests that this dysbiosis can allow proteins and other molecules to seep into the bloodstream. This intestinal permeability, more commonly referred to as leaky gut, can lead to inflammation. The inflammation that ensues can manifest in a variety of ways — skin conditions like eczema, autoimmune disorders including type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, and possible insulin resistance, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
New research also suggests a relationship between our microbiome and obesity. While a cause and effect relationship has not been well-established in humans, there does appear to be an association between major alterations in gut microbiome and obesity risk. The connection with diabetes is even stronger. Recent research has even shown that balancing bacteria in the gut can improve insulin sensitivity and may be an effective part of an intervention plan for type 2 diabetes. A relationship has also been established between metabolic syndrome, a series of risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, and gut health. Given the role of inflammation in all of these conditions, it is not a surprise that they are connected to the gut – a gatekeeper for molecules that can cause inflammation.
Health professionals also suspect a link between gut health and brain function. This relationship has led to some speculation that a bacterial imbalance may increase risk for depression.
While more research is needed in all of these areas, the evidence is convincing that a healthy gut can reduce risk for a variety of other health conditions and improve quality of life. To keep your gut happy, keep these tips in mind:
- Eat probiotic rich foods. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt, and miso can improve the good bacteria in your intestine. Some people may benefit from a probiotic supplement, but try food first.
- Eat lots of plant foods. Prebiotics, found in sweet potatoes, artichokes, asparagus, onions, and many other plant foods, are food for probiotics – keeping the good bacteria thriving.
- Limit processed foods and refined carbohydrates: diets high in these foods have been associated with poor bacteria balance.
- Bust stress. Stress (both physical and emotional) has been linked to reduced gut function.
- Limit antibiotic use. Some antibiotics can reduce the amount of healthy bacteria in the gut. While they are essential in treating bacterial infections, they may be over prescribed so be your own health advocate and ask questions to make sure they are necessary for your condition before you take them.
Want to learn more about keeping your gut happy? Read about the pros and cons of probiotics here.