The gut, or gastrointestinal tract in medical parlance, refers to the long tube that begins at the mouth and ends at the anus, or back passage. It is an indispensable part of the human digestive system. Solid and liquid food travel through this organ after they are swallowed, digested, and absorbed, and finally leave the body in the form of faeces. These gastrointestinal organs include the mouth, pharynx or throat, oesophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, rectum, and anus.
In conversation with TC46, Dr Anjali Kumar, MBBS, MD & Former CEO at Just Diabetes, educates us on what is gut health, its effect on immunity, weight loss, and metabolism, foods that are good and harmful for the gut, and much more.
What Is Gut Health And Why Is It Important?
A healthy gut comprises healthy bacteria and immune cells that specialise in driving away infectious agents like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. A healthy gut also establishes communication with the brain via nerves and hormones. This, in turn, helps maintain general health and overall well-being.
The gastrointestinal tract contains several trillions of bacteria. These bacteria not only assist with the processing of food but also enable bodies to maintain homeostasis and general well-being. The key element may be the microbiome, the makeup of bacteria and other micro-organisms in the stomach and intestines, also referred to as the gut.
There are certain bacteria that fight inflammation, while some others promote it. When the gut is healthy and functions as expected, these two categories of bacteria keep a watch on each other. However, when the delicate balance gets skewed, the inflammatory bacteria can win over the bacteria that ensure gut health. Together, they can produce metabolites that may make their way through the gut lining and into the bloodstream, spreading the inflammation to other body parts as well.
How Does Gut Health Affect Weight Loss And Metabolism?
The gut microbes exert an influence on energy metabolism by regulating fat storage, appetite, and glucose metabolism. Various studies have shown the transformation in the composition and function of gut micro-organisms are closely associated with obesity. The gut microbiota participates in the digestion of food that has been eaten. It also plays an essential role in the regulation of host metabolic functions. The gut microbiome consists of various bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that reside in the digestive tract, with their composition varying among individuals.
Some experts are of the opinion that the gut microbiome can have a significant influence on the overall well-being of an individual by adjusting metabolism and immune function. Some recent studies opine that gut microbiome composition has the potential to predict the response of an individual to weight-loss interventions.
How Does Gut Health Affect Immunity?
The gut microbiota in the gastrointestinal tract offers various health benefits to the human body, especially by regulating immune homeostasis. Recent studies have shown that changes in these gut microbial communities can lead to immune dysregulation, causing autoimmune disorders. The presence of pathogenic bacteria demands a strong and fully-functional immune system to ward off infections. Hence, the composition and nature of the gut microflora can have an influence on the immune system.
These beneficial probiotic bacteria can contribute to good health and immunity in different ways:
- Fight harmful foreign substances that enter the body through the process of detoxification and also help in easing their elimination
- Prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, which grow and thrive within a neutral pH environment, through the production of organic acids like acetic and lactic acids. These acids, in turn, reduce the pH of the large intestine
- This lower pH also acts as a barrier for the metabolism of cholesterol and bile acids in the colon
7 Signs Your Gut Health Is Compromised And Is Not Functioning Optimally
Here are the prominent signs that your gut health is compromised:
1. Stomach Upsets
Symptoms like bloating, gas, indigestion, and diarrhoea or heartburn are clear signs of gut dysfunction as a result of food fermenting in this organ. This occurs due to the health of the bacteria in the gut in terms of their number and diversity. Apart from bacterial imbalance, the inability to break down food or insufficient stomach acid may also cause gas and bloating.
2. Food Intolerances
Food intolerances occur when there is an inability to digest certain foods. This usually stems from food allergy caused by an immune system reaction to specific foods. Food intolerances may also be caused due to the low quality of bacteria in the gut or leaky gut.
3. Sugar Cravings
Gut bacteria secrete unique proteins that often affect our craving for food. The harmful bacteria secrete proteins that create sugar cravings and when you give in to those sugar cravings, they secrete more of these proteins to make you have more sugar. This way the vicious cycle continues. This, in turn, adversely affects the good bacteria in your gut.
4. Anxiety, Depression And Irritability
The gut does not only play an integral role in food digestion. It also plays an essential role in influencing your emotions. The gut produces a significant amount of serotonin and dopamine, which are referred to as happy hormones. When the gut is compromised, it automatically affects the production and utilisation of these hormones.
5. Fatigue And Sleep Disturbances
Gut dysfunction can change sleep and sleep patterns. It can alter the biological clock by disturbing hormones that regulate sleep. Thesis occurs as a result of a complex relationship between hormones and neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, cortisol, and melatonin.
6. Autoimmune Disease
A leaky gut may cause the right autoimmune conditions, wherein the body ends up attacking itself rather than harmful invaders. The unhealthy hut may raise the chances of inflammation and hamper the proper functioning of the immune system.
7. Bad Breath
Bad breath arises from odour-inducing microbes that inhabit your tongue or between your gum and teeth. Since your mouth is the beginning of your gut, the imbalance of good and harmful bacteria in your gut may cause bad breath.
8 Foods To Include In Your Diet To Improve Gut Health (And How Do They Help)
Here are 8 foods that can help you to improve gut health.
Well-known for being a good food source for your gut, this probiotic assists in the digestion of lactose or milk sugar.
These are fibres that serve as the food for the beneficial probiotics in your gut. You need to feed the probiotics for them to grow, nourish and keep developing more good bacteria. Prebiotic fibres include inulin, chicory fibre, etc.
Enriched with inulin, fructans and other prebiotics, they help in developing gut flora, apart from relieving constipation and lowering cholesterol.
4. Legumes And Beans
Beans and legumes like lentils, peas, chickpeas, etc. may cause bloating. However, don’t worry as it actually implies that the gut bacteria are doing a good job. When eaten, beans and legumes reach the large intestine completely intact for the gut bacteria to feed on them. This procedure is known as fermentation.
Garlic contains prebiotics, inulin and fructooligosaccharides, which help in digestive health.
Unripe bananas comprise resistant starch, a category of indigestible fibre. This helps in the development of good bacteria on the microbes feeding on it. Ripe bananas are rich in fibre too.
This prebiotic food contains pectin that is known for lowering cholesterol.
Naturally enriched with prebiotics, this fruit is also laden with Vitamin C—an antioxidant that fights inflammation. It also helps build collagen and improves iron absorption.
4 Foods That Are Bad For Your Gut Health And Should Be Avoided
The following foods are known to be bad for your gut health:
1. Red Meat
It contains a compound called carnitine that produces trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO) in its interaction with gut bacteria. TMAO is closely associated with atherosclerosis, which leads to a buildup of plaques in the arteries. It is not only the sodium and saturated fat in red meat that may cause heart diseases, but also its interaction with gut bacteria that is harmful to the heart.
2. Processed And Refined Foods
The lack of fibres in processed foods makes it harmful for gut health. What’s more, the presence of added sugars, artificial sweeteners, salt, additives, and preservatives affect gut health.
3. Artificial Sweeteners
Despite having zero calories and no sugar, artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin pass through your body without being digested. They come in contact with the gut’s microflora and may adversely change its composition.
Alcohol is believed to affect the intestinal microbiome. Hence, it is advisable that you drink in moderation.
Now that you know about gut health and its relation to various other bodily functions, follow the list of foods you should incorporate in your daily diet for a healthy gut. Also, avoid foods that are harmful to the organ and you will be surprised how it will improve the health of your gut, keeping away the health conditions that are associated with a bad gut.