When you think about digestive health, you think about how your stomach and intestine functions, however, your gut can have positive and negative effects not just on your digestive system but on many organs in your body. May is Digestive Health Month, and Dr Rishi Goel, Consultant Gastroenterologist at New Victoria Hospital, talks about the importance of digestive health for your overall quality of life.
The gut microbiome
The gut contains trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses, that live in our digestive tracts. Collectively, they weigh about a kilogaram and are referred to as the gut microbiome. We are still learning about their function and how they interact with our bodies, but they help you break down food, turning it into nutrients your body can use, but their function is not solely limited to digestion.
They have an impact on your immune system, your mood, and may be involved with greater risks of developing certain diseases, such as hypertension, Crohn’s disease, Ulcerative Colitis and IBS.
The effect of the gut microbiome on the body
Although more research is needed, many studies have found that your gut health has an impact on many other systems and organs, including:
- your immune system
- mental health
- cardiovascular system
Over 70% of immune cells are found in the gastrointestinal tract, but the mechanisms behind the interrelation of the gut microbiome with the immune system are not entirely known. Optimal gut health enhances the response of your body to fight pathogens and vice versa, a strong immune system has a positive effect on your gut flora.
In the same way, the microbiota in your stomach seems to play a key role in chronic inflammation that leads to certain conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
A healthy, balanced and varied diet is your first ally when managing chronic inflammation to promote good gut health that mitigates the continuous response from your immune system.
Your gut has a collection of nerve cells called the enteric nervous system, somewhat like a second brain linked to the vagus nerve, which is the direct neural link between your gut and brain.
Your gut flora also influences the production of vital amino acids to build mood neurotransmitters, like serotonin. This translates into better intestine motility and mood.
The stomach is an endocrine system that can produce or influence the production of hormones. Changes in the microbiota have been associated with metabolic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiometabolic disorders.
Gut bacteria can influence appetite, food intake, insulin sensitivity and your response to sugar metabolisation.
The woman’s reproductive system is another example of how the gut interacts with other organs. Pregnancy complications, adverse pregnancy outcomes, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis may be some of the conditions linked to changes in the gut microbiome.
Gut dysbiosis is linked to chronic inflammation that can affect your cardiovascular system, increasing the risk of atherosclerosis. Some studies have linked certain heart events to the presence of harmful bacteria such as Streptococcus,Escherichia-Shigella and Enterococcus, altering the production of SCFAs butyrate, propionate, and acetate. These fatty acids provide energy for stomach cells that act as a barrier to pathogens.
Introducing more fibre to your diet helps increase fatty acid production, which in turn helps build the quality of your microbiome.
What does it mean to have a healthy gut?
Gut health has never been as researched as in the past year. But what does it really mean to have a healthy gut?
According to the Bristol Stool Chart, your poo can tell a lot about your gut health. Type 4, where stools are smooth and shaped like a snake are considered to be normal for most people. Bowel movements once a day up to every 3 days are also considered normal for most of the general population.
The Big Poo Review study recently presented on Channel 4’s Steph’s Packed Lunch, revealed that 66% of Brits have type 4 stools and 21% are constipated, primarily women.
A stool analysis can tell the state of your gut microbiota. In fact, the bacteria contained in your poo are also present in your gut.
Not all bacteria are “good”. Some are beneficial, and some are harmful, but both types are important. When there is an imbalance between good and bad bacteria, the gut becomes unhealthy and is referred to as dysbiosis.
Broadly, for a healthy gut, you need to have:
- the right amount of good and bad bacteria
- a good level of bacterial diversity
Your bowel habits are usually a good ovetall predictor of your gut health and changes in bowel habit may represent the development of certain diseases.
How to improve your gut microbiota
Although more research is needed to uncover all the links and processes of how the gut influences and is influenced by our body and health, here are some things that may help enhance the good flora in the gut of healthy individuals.
- Eat different plants per day, including vegetables of different colours, seeds, fruit, nuts
- Add fibres (particularly soluble forms) and legumes to your diet
- Eat prebiotic food that helps nourish the good bacteria in your gut, such as bananas, watermelon, blueberries, oat, bran, rye bread, pistachios, chicory, onions, leek, garlic
- Include probiotics, i.e. live bacteria to your diet such as yoghurt, kefir, pickles, kimchi, miso
- Avoid ultra-processed and sweet food that may increase the level of bad bacteria
- Some studies have also concluded that adequate sleep, yoga, meditation, fasting and stress reduction help as well
If you have underlying conditions or have gastrointestinal diseases such as Crohn’s disease, IBD, or IBS, you might need a personalised approach, as eating a fibre-rich diet might not be advisable.
We offer straightforward access to Endoscopy services, including Video Capsule Endoscopy to investigate any bowel symptoms with safe, trouble-free procedures that will give you peace of mind and immediate access to treatment.