Why your gut is so important

The importance of the gut

Your gut is where most of your immunity and brain cells reside, which is why the health of your gut is crucial to your overall physical and mental wellbeing.

What is your gut?

Your gut, also known as your digestive tract, spans from your mouth to your colon. It includes your salivary glands and mouth, stomach, pancreas, liver, gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine (colon) and appendix. If your gut was unfolded and laid out flat, it would span half a badminton court.

How does your gut, or digestion work?

Digestion is the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food into molecules allowing nutrients to be absorbed and assimilated into your body’s cells.

  • Digestion begins in the brain with the sight and smell of food triggering the salivary glands in the mouth where food is mechanically and chemically broken down

  • Hydrochloric acid in the stomach breaks food down and gets rid of pathogens like parasites, viruses, bacteria, yeast and H Pylori

  • The food mix enters the small intestine where the pancreas releases enzymes, tagging the identity of food molecules to be rebuilt as your own cells (DNA)

  • When fat is detected, the gallbladder is triggered to release bile acids making it easier for the body to utilise it

  • The small intestine has villi or finger like projections that increase its surface area by 60-120 times for greater absorption

  • After travelling 6 metres along the small intestine, what’s left of your meal passes through a valve into the large intestine where, if the flora or microbes are healthy, they break down fibres that humans can’t digest

  • As a result of this, gut microbes produce a range of important nutrients as by-products, including short chain fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins and the other substances. Without the right microbes, the large intestine becomes acidic and produces gas

  • The ideal transit time for food is 15-17 hours.

The gut-brain connection

Were you aware that you have more neurons or brain cells in your gut than in your brain? This is known as the enteric nervous system. It’s how your experience 'gut feelings'.

Also, around 80% of your immune system is in your gut, meaning gut health is critical so good immunity. Immunity is so important to you that you have more immune cells in your brain than you have brain cells.

Mental health, including depression, has been linked to inflammation of the brain originating in the gut. Research is showing a strong connection between food and your mood.

Why is your gut flora or microbiome so important?

Gut flora, or the bacteria, yeast and parasites living in your gut, are essential for your health. The greater your gut flora diversity, the healthier you are. Unfortunately, the modern diet reduces and limits gut flora. Here are some facts about gut flora

  • You have 10 times more bacteria in our gut than cells in our body, weighing up to 2 kg. We can’t do the work of this bacteria so we outsource it to mirror the outside world in order to live in harmony with it. This is why some people describe our microbiome as another organ

  • Your gut flora is so important that you have 100 times more bacterial DNA in your body than your own DNA, which makes up only 10% of your body

  • The cells lining the surface of your intestine are in a constant state of renewal, being replaced every 2-8 days. The surface layer of your skin is replaced every 2 weeks and muscle cells every 15 years.

What can go wrong with your gut?

Many things that can go wrong with your gut or digestion, beginning with your state of mind or having too little stomach acid to an imbalance or lack of flora in your colon. Yet all aspects of your health depend on good digestion because your body requires nutrients from food.

Conditions that are associated with gut health include acne, dementia, obesity, asthma, anxiety, ADHD, depression, autism, autoimmune disease, brain fog, chronic fatigue syndrome, Crohn’s disease and ulcerated colitis, GERD, thyroid disease, diabetes, fibromyalgia, diverticulitis, eczema, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis, PCOS, PMS, psoriasis, rosacea and cancer.

Stress

Many of us live in a constant state of stress. This means our nervous system is permanently in fight and flight mode when it should be in rest and digest mode so that the right digestive processes can be triggered. Coffee and alcohol, which we use to either keep ourselves going or wind down, only make matters worse by further stimulating our nervous system.

Rushing to eat also means we don’t chew our food for long enough. Without the proper mechanical and chemical breakdown of your food in your mouth, the rest of digestion will be compromised.

Low stomach acid

Research shows that most of us have low stomach acid, in large part because we eat too many refined carbohydrates. Insufficient HCl means our first line of defence against pathogens is gone, which can lead to a cascade of digestive or gut problems further down the line.

In addition, if food isn’t broken down properly the rest of the digestive process isn’t triggered. This is a key cause of heartburn or GERD. The truth is that most people suffering from this have too low stomach acid, which antacids further exacerbate.

Leaky gut

Once in the small intestine, broken down food passes between the cells lining your small intestine where capillaries take up the nutrients taking it to the liver and around the rest of the body.

A leaky, or permeable gut, is where the junctions between the cells is too wide allowing compounds from partially digestive food to microbes and toxins to pass through.

This puts the immune system on red alert causing an inflammatory response. Inflammation heals our tissues, but when we have leaky gut it becomes chronic resulting in tissue damage leading to a number of conditions.

Potential signs and symptoms of a leaky gut include allergies, asthma, bloating, brain fog, burping, chronicle recurrent headaches, constipation diarrhoea or alternating between the two, difficulty gaining weight, difficulty losing weight, fatty liver, fluid retention, food intolerances, gas, heartburn reflux, hives, abdominal fat, joint pain, migraine, muscle pain, period pain and skin rashes.

Stress, a lack of sleep, some medications, toxins, giardia, parasites, low stomach acid, inflammatory bowel disease and diet, and refined carbohydrates along with sugar can all cause leaky gut.

Colon dysbiosis

Colon dysbiosis is a disruption or imbalance of the flora in your digestive system. This presents as an undergrowth or overgrowth of good bacteria and parasite infestations.

Imbalances can cause bacteria to produce waste, alter the acid alkaline balance in our intestines and tissues, cause leaky gut and affect your ability to sleep, think and defend yourself from infection. But it’s a two-way street with disorders of different systems and organs also disrupting your gut flora.

SIBO

Small intestine bacterial overgrowth is a little diagnosed but common digestive problem. It’s where bacteria that are mean to be in the colon move into the small intestine, which is a relatively sterile environment.

SIBO damages the structure and function of the small intestine, leading to leaky gut and nutritional deficiencies on top of those due to poor digestion or malabsorption. In particular, it can lead to vitamin b12 deficiency, which is implicated in Alzheimer’s, dementia, cognitive decline and memory loss, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, psychosis, learning or developmental disorders in kids, autoimmune disease and immune dysregulation. 

Other causes of gut problems

In addition to the above factors, alcohol, antacids, antibiotics, artificial sweetness, chemotherapy, coffee, environmental toxins, gluten (grains), lectins (found in non-soaked grains and legumes), herbicides and pesticides, the lack of sleep, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, parasites and pathogens, processed dairy, steroids, vitamin A deficiency and zinc deficiency are some other factors may contribute to gut problems. 

How to improve your gut health

  1. Increase your stomach acid
    - Take bitter herbs such as gentian, globe artichoke, hops and dandelion root to stimulated gastric acid. Ginger is also a great digestive stimulant
    - A simple Ayurvedic remedy is to slowly chew on a thin slice of fresh ginger with a pinch of rock salt 5-10 minutes before meals
    - Supplement with betaine hydrochloride and pepsin for 2-3 months, available from health food shops. Take one tablet with the first mouthful of food and increase the dose by one extra tablet at each subsequent meal until you feel a burning sensation in your stomach
    - Sip 1-2 tsp apple cider vinegar or the juice of 1/2 lemon in a small glass of water just before or with meals
    - Supplement with zinc as necessary to produce carbonic anhydrase, an enzyme involved in gastric acid production
    - Avoid drinking large amounts of water with meals as this will dilute gastric juices
    - Start a meal with a small salad of bitter leaves such as rocket, dandelion leaves from the garden or radicchio
    - Always add some acid to meals in the form of lemon or vinaigrettes and fermented vegetables
    - Avoid over-the-counter antacids and proton-pump inhibitors.

  2. Make whole food choices
    - Eat whole foods, meaning one-ingredient foods, usually cooked at home. Many so-called whole foods such as wholemeal bread are highly processed meaning they peak blood sugar, damage the gut and cease weight gain
    - Eat more fibre in the form of vegetables but also some fruit, which are also packed with minerals and vitamins
    - Get to know your body as it’s unique. Do gluten, dairy, grains, soy, legumes, nuts, eggs agree with you? You could try eliminating these one by one for two weeks before reintroducing to see how your body reacts
    - Eat 6 1/2 cups of tightly packed vegetables daily, around 2/3 of your plate.
    - Eat 40% raw foods
    - Eat a wide variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables that reflect the colours of the rainbow
    - Avoid foods with chemicals and other additives. The more ingredients on a food label, the more you should avoid it
    - Reduce alcohol and coffee
    - Eat bio-dynamic or organic where possible. This means eating grass-fed, pastured meats, eggs and diary products (that are antibiotic free), and wild-caught seafood. Healthy animal protein sources mean a healthy you

  3. Increase prebiotics or insoluble fibre to feed healthy bacteria
    - These include cold starchy vegetables such as pumpkin and sweet potato as well as onion and garlic, asparagus, artichokes, legumes and psyllium

  4. Add probiotics
    - The best form is cultured and fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kefir because they stay alive during the digestive process. But a good quality, targeted probiotic pill may also be needed. Most chemist-bought probiotics are dead

  5. Drink bone broth
    - It’s rich in minerals that support the immune system and contains healing compounds like collagen, glutamine, glycine and proline. Collagen heals your gut lining and reduces intestinal inflammation

  6. Eat good quality animal and vegetable fats
    – This includes cold pressed olive, avocado and palm oils, grass-fed butter, organic coconut oil, suet, tallow and duck fat. We eat way too many Omega-6 vegetable oils and trans fats (from hydrogenated or solidified fats)

  7. Eat in a peaceful, stress-free environment
    - The smell and anticipation of food triggers gastric acid release. Chew your food thoroughly as this primes digestion

  8. De-stress
    – Do yoga and/or pranayama, meditate, listen to music, get some quiet or alone time, read a book, turn off the screen, start a gratitude box/diary

  9. Move – Our bodily systems, including digestion, work like pumps and movement helps them function. It doesn’t have to be high intensity. Move according to your state of health but do so daily

  10. Drink good-quality spring or filtered and re-mineralised water
    - Hydration is important for good digestion

  11. Sleep – Get 8 hours of quality sleep a night

  12. Avoid unnecessary medications

  13. Seek professional advice
    - You may need assistance to get rid of conditions such as SIBO and to guide you on specific supplementation.

All disease starts in the gut. Hippocrates

Written by Nore Hoogstad

References

Digestive Wellness, Elizabeth Lipski, McGraw Hill, New York, 4th Edition, 2012

Gut, Guilia Enders, Scribe, UK / Australia, 2015

The Complete Gut Health Cookbook, Pete Evans with Helen Padarin, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2016