By Florencia Tagliavini, the NutraMilk nutritionist.
More and more people are talking about gut health. That is because over the past two decades, numerous studies have demonstrated links between gut health and the immune system, mood, mental health, autoimmune diseases, endocrine disorders, skin conditions, and cancer. ¨Gut health¨, is a term increasingly used in the medical literature and by the food industry. It covers multiple positive aspects of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, such as the effective digestion and absorption of food, the absence of GI illness, normal and stable intestinal microbiota, effective immune status and a state of well-being. However, most people think of gut health solely as the gut microbiota (that complex system of about 100 trillion bacteria both good and bad that live inside your digestive system). This is because this enormous system of organisms is so important to health that science is looking at the gut microbiota (AKA microbiome) as an additional organ system. However, a healthy gut microbiota is a healthy gut all around, so anything that happens in the entire digestive tract influences the microbiota starting with the important task of digestion.
Did you know that eighty percent of our immunity lives in and around the gastrointestinal tract, which means immune health is intimately connected to gut health? So much goes on in our GI tracts!
So, we consider various aspects that affect overall gut health, such as:
Is food being properly broken down?
The process of digesting the food we ingest to small molecules that are absorbed into cells to be used for the various functions, is a complex process that needs to work properly. Often many of us put a lot of effort into eating healthy, but if we are not properly digesting and absorbing those foods, no matter how healthy they are, we can’t benefit from those nutrients they offer. Furthermore, a food that is not properly broken down and absorbed goes down the whole GI tract irritating the gut lining, damaging the intestinal villi which can lead to a permeable gut, AKA ¨Leaky Gut¨ resulting in a whole host of issues including inflammation.
Is there a pathogen present?
This can be an overgrowth of fungus, bacteria or parasites.
We used to think that intestinal parasites were only an issue in developing countries. Now, with global food distribution, foods grown in developing countries are finding their way onto our plates. What about opportunistic bacteria? When you consider that most people eat a highly-processed Standard American Diet, low in beneficial fiber, and have used multiple rounds of antibiotics, the result is a dysfunctional intestinal terrain – an ideal habitat for opportunistic bacteria to overgrow. And since most Americans are overeating starch and sugar, yeast and candida can also establish a cozy place to live in our imbalanced digestive tracts.
Is there dysbiosis in our microbiome?
We need abundant beneficial flora to keep not only our colons healthy but our entire organism. The gut microbiota plays an important role in nutrient and mineral absorption, synthesis of enzymes, vitamins and amino acids, and production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that are crucial to health.
Many of us are missing important strains of beneficial flora (the flowers in our garden), allowing for even more overgrowth of dysbiotic bacteria (the weeds taking over the garden) that are associated with various health conditions.
So, overall gut health depends on various aspects, starting with choosing which foods you introduce in your body. Since we know that junk food and foods that are high in sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, and too many refined grains can feed those unhealthy/dysbiotic bacteria, eating a healthy nutrient-dense diet is essential to gut health. However, even with the healthiest nutrient-dense diet, making sure that you are digesting and absorbing food properly is another key aspect. On the contrary, this can lead to a leaky gut, inflammation and an unhealthy gut terrain that creates the perfect environment for pathogens to set up house, making it hard for your microbiome to stay balanced and carry out all the important functions it has.
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