Your digestive health impacts on your immune system, inflammation, hormone balance, mood and mental health, energy, skin, brain health and more. Discover how and why.
Here’s everything you need to know to improve your gut health for optimum wellbeing including:
- The bugs – the good and the bad
- What it’s so important – hint, it’s related to your immunity AND your mood – find out why below!
- How to promote good gut health
What Is The Gut Exactly?
Put simply, the digestive system is a hollow tube ranging from mouth to anus, and is actually a continuation of our skin (just in a different format). You can imagine it like you’re a donut! And think about this: everything inside your digestive tract is actually outside of your body. Along this tube the surface of the skin changes, e.g. in the stomach there is a thick coating of mucous which helps to protect against the strong acids that are created there, and in the intestines the surface changes, developing a lot of finger like folds and protrusions called villi.
Villi are designed to increase the surface area for both absorption of nutrients and room for immune cells. Almost like in a factory chain, other glands and organs will come into play, depositing enzymes and acids at various points that help us break down our food more effectively.
What Is Good Bacteria?
If I told you that your body contains 10 times more bacteria than human cells, would you be reaching for the soap? Well you don’t have to worry because the majority of these bugs are working to keep you healthy. They are actually so interconnected with us, that we are now considered to be a ‘super-organism’.
There are over 400 known types of bacteria within our digestive tract. In some people there are more, and in others who may be eating a processed diet or have had damage to their gut flora, the diversity of these bacteria are significantly reduced. Interestingly, the bacteria in our gut are different throughout the different stages of our life.
The majority of the (good) bacteria that exists in your digestive tract, works to:
- Detoxify harmful chemicals
- Process nutrients (and in some cases they actually create nutrients!),
- Control the unfriendly bacteria that live there (yes there are usually always some bad guys present, about 15%, but the state of your good bugs determines whether the baddies cause a problem),
- Control the immune system,
- Produce energy for the rest of the body and much, much more.
Our friendly bacteria can be damaged by certain medications and lifestyle habits. Antibiotics are one of the most well known causes of damage to our friendly bacteria, and recently it has been discovered that some of our good bacteria may never recover after a course of antibiotics.
Antibiotics, while often over used can sometimes be necessary and in some cases are life savers. Limiting their use and ensuring that if taken they are used correctly can help to prevent the development of antibiotic resistance. Consider your options before taking antibiotics, and if you do have to take antibiotics then see a practitioner who can guide you on how best to mop up at the damage.
What Is Bad Bacteria?
There are a huge range of unfriendly pathogens that if allowed to get out of control can cause all sorts of havoc in your digestive system. How? Not only can you feel moody mentally or frumpy physically, some can cause chronic infections within your guy that can result in a wide variety of symptoms that are often unexplained, such as:
- Aches and pains,
- Brain fog,
- Unexplained inflammation and recurrent infections
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
These are just a couple of conditions that can have a chronic infection as an underlying driver. Often you may take pills and potions to “fix” these problems, but you’re not treating the underlying cause.
There are a huge range of organisms that lie dormant in our digestion: many, many forms of bacteria, viruses, protozoa (e.g. malaria and giardia), fungi, yeasts and parasites can exist in our gut. Some of them can be deadly killers, and others may not be lethal but can result in a variety of nasty symptoms. Our immune system, digestive juices and the presence of our good bugs are what keep it all in check.
How Your Gut Health Impacts Your Immune System
If your immune system isn’t behaving itself properly, you might want to consider that your digestive system is the culprit.
Did you know? More than 80% of the immune system is located in the digestive tract, making a health gut a major focal point if you want to achieve optimal health.
Your digestive system has a special mucosal lining over the surface of your intestines, and the health of your gut flora (the complex, extremely important colony of bacteria within your digestive system, also known as the microbiome) has a huge amount of immune decisions to make on a daily basis – it has to deal with bacteria, viruses and food, and decide each time whether it is a friend or foe. It is via this mechanism that your gut health can contribute towards skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis as well as autoimmune conditions such as SLE (Lupus), Rheumatoid arthritis, Graves disease and more.
How does the gut reports to the immune system? There is a special type of cell within the digestive system called a dendritic cell. This cell is responsible for determining whether our immune system should be on high alert or not. Occasionally this cell will extend a little feeler (almost like a tentacle) and take a handful of whatever is in your digestive system to examine, to then report back to the rest of the immune system whether everything is okay or not. This can explain why your diet can have an effect on allergic conditions such as hay fever and eczema, as well as autoimmune conditions.
There are even immune cells in the gut, such as Immunoglobulin A (sIgA) and certain T lymphocytes. sIgA helps to protect the epithelial layer from being inhabited by bacteria and viruses. This helpful immunoglobin is actually produced by lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) which are actually created by Bifidobacteria (a good bacteria that exists mostly in the colon). Unfortunately, Bifidobacteria are easily damaged, especially by antibiotics.
Enzymes are pretty important too. When you think about digestive enzymes, you’ll probably be thinking that they’re there to break down your food so it’s primed for absorbing. They also have another important role to play, and that’s in breaking down substances that might be harmful to your immune system. Due to poor eating habits, the secretion of enzymes is compromised in a large proportion of people. Implementing habits such as chewing each mouthful more and taking time to enjoy and concentrate on your meal are helpful for stimulating the cephalic phase of digestion – where your brain tells the rest of the digestive system to get ready for food, and consequently more enzymes and acids are produced.
How Your Gut Health Affects Your Mood
The state of our intestinal lining and the balance of bacteria within our digestive system have a major role to play in the production of our neurotransmitters: chemical transmitters that tell our brain whether we should be feeling such ways as happy, sad, agitated, or calm.
When the balance of our gut bacteria (collectively referred to as the microbiome) is affected, this can affect your mood. Studies have found that gut health and anxiety are linked, as the microbiome can have a major impact on stress levels and anxiety. In fact, by treating imbalances in our microbiota, it is possible to support a wide range of mental health disorders.
The gut is actually like you second brain. The nerves in your digestive system are constantly speaking to your central nervous system. If your gut is irritated for some reason – say you’ve eaten something that you’re intolerant to (like gluten, for example), you’ve generally got a bad diet, there’s an imbalance in your microbiome (your collective gut bacteria) or you’ve got an infection – this can create an inflammatory reaction and will certainly make you irritated as well.
We know that gut health and depression can be interrelated, as depression is both associated with, and worsened by inflammation. This inflammation in the brain can be driven by inflammation in the gut, which can be caused by intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and bacterial imbalances (dysbiosis). Hence, treating leaky gut can help reduce the severity of depression.
Serotonin is produced in large amounts (up to 80%!) in our digestive system. In people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) there is too much serotonin in their digestive system. This is why antidepressants known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) can improve the symptoms of IBS: these act by reducing the amount of serotonin taken into cells in the rest of our body which allows more to get into the brain. However in some instances anti-depressants can affect the gut negatively, because if you weren’t making enough serotonin in the gut in the first place, you can end up with even lower levels in the digestive tract and so it can become irritated, effectively you’ll get a depressed gut.
How to promote good gut health
1. Feed the good bugs
Whereas Probiotics are the organisms, Prebiotics are their food. The use of prebiotics is often neglected, but it’s an important part of recolonising your gut. You can get various isolated prebiotics in supplement form, or you can consume a variety of foods which contain these compounds, particularly those high in soluble fibre.
Fermented foods are another key tool in keeping your digestive system happy. The act of fermentation allows beneficial bacteria that naturally live on the food to grow, and it also makes a whole host of nutrients within the food more bioavailable (meaning we can get more out of it). You can buy fermented food, or grow it yourself.
You should aim to include a variety of fermented foods( below with ‘~’) and prebiotic foods into your diet – consistently.
Regularly chow down on these foods to keep your good bugs thriving*:
- Banana (especially green)
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Sweet Potato
- Witlof and Wombok
- Yoghurt (free from added sugar and chemicals)~
* If you have Fructose Malabsorption, some of these foods may cause digestive discomfort. Seek advice from your health practitioner if you are unsure.
2. Avoid the vicious cycle
When your gut is upset, you feel upset. But stress can affect your digestive system just as much as it affects your mood. It can impair the secretion of digestive acids, slow down the motility of the gut, allows the unfriendly bacteria to grow, reduces your friendly bacteria and exacerbates intestinal permeability (leaky gut) . This is a recipe for an unhappy digestive system, and as you now know this can then go on to send more messages to your brain: so you can see how the cycle continues.
People with gut problems are more likely to experience anxiety and depression. Some studies have found a high proportion of anxiety in those with gut conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease and coeliac disease.
Ultimately, look after your gut and it will look after you.
The body has an amazing ability to heal, if given the means to do so. You can get on track and start healing your gut for better health and wellbeing by eating a predominantly plant based diet (see list of foods to eat above), occasionally adding in some good bugs with fermented foods and probiotics, and avoiding processed food. This will feed the good bacteria in your gut with prebiotics and have you on your way to a healthy digestive system.