If you haven't heard all the talk about gut health, odds are you've been living under a rock. While the world of research still has a long way to go in this area, a lot that has been uncovered regarding the correlations between your gut microbiome and your overall health status.
What's your gut microbiome you might be asking? Well, your body as a whole is filled with trillions of bacteria, viruses. and fungi which is collectively known as the microbiome.
Your gut microbiome is sometimes referred to as the "forgotten organ," containing roughly 1,000 bacterial species that encode about 5 million genes. It performs many of the functions required for host (that's you!) physiology and survival.
While some bacteria are associated with disease, others are actually extremely important for your immune system, heart, weight and many other aspects of health.
At this point in time, the term gut health lacks a clear definition. However, you should be aware of how your gut health can be impacting your overall health, and more specifically possibly limiting you from reaching your nutrition and training goals.
In general, gut health refers to multiple aspects of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract (upper & lower) such as the effectiveness of digestion and absorption of food, the absence of GI illness, normal and stable microbiota, effective immune status, and a state of well-being.
Let's first take a look at the five major criteria that summarize what a healthy gut looks like.
Healthy gut, healthy you! Featuring Kara Corey.
5 Criteria for a Healthy Gut
Effective Digestion and Absorption of Food
- Normal nutritional status, and effective absorption of food, water, and minerals.
- Regular bowel movements, normal transit time, and no pain.
- Normal stool consistency, and rare nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation or bloating.
Absence of GI Illness
- No acid peptic disease, GERD, no enzyme deficiencies or carbohydrate intolerances, no IBD, celiac disease, no colorectal or other GI cancers.
Normal and Stable Intestinal Microbiota
- No bacterial overgrowth.
- No GI infections or antibiotic associated diarrhea.
Effective Immune Status
- Effective GI barrier function.
- Normal levels of IgA, normal activity of immune cells.
- Immune tolerance.
Status of Well Being
- Normal quality of life.
- "Qui" or positive gut feeling.
- Balanced serotonin production & normal function of your enteric nervous system.
Now let's take a look at some of the symptoms/signs that one could experience when the gut microbiome is unhealthy:
- Stomach issues - Diarrhea, constipation, bloating, nausea, and heartburn are all signs that something isn't right in your gut.
- Cravings - Craving foods, especially sweets and sugar, can mean you have an imbalance of gut bacteria. An overgrowth of yeast can actually cause you to crave more sugar.
- Scale going up or down - If you're not able to digest and absorb nutrients properly you could see some weight loss, while other types of bacteria have been linked with weight gain.
- Anxious - 80 to 90 percent of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood, social behavior, sleep, appetite, memory, and even libido, is produced in the gut. Gut imbalances have been shown to trigger depressive-type symptoms.
- Poor sleep - Chronic fatigue and symptoms of fibromyalgia have been correlated with gut imbalances.
- Skin issues - Skin rashes and eczema, a chronic condition characterized by inflamed and itchy red blotches on the skin can develop when there is an imbalance in gut bacteria.
- Autoimmune condition - Diseases affecting the immune system, known as autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis or MS), can also indicate an imbalance.
So why is it that our some people's gut microbiome gets unhealthy? Well it could be that they may never have been properly balanced in the first place. If you were delivered by C-section or fed with a bottle instead of breastfed, you missed out on important chances to inherit good bacteria from your mom.
For many people, obesity begins in childhood for these reasons.
As an adult, an imbalance in gut flora may be caused by stress, or by a high-fat or high carbohydrate diet. Antibiotics are another major culprit. When we take these drugs, the abundance of "good bacteria" in the gut may be reduced by a third, and this effect can last for weeks or months, making us vulnerable to digestive and metabolic changes that can cause weight gain.
Interestingly enough, livestock are often fed low doses of antibiotics so they will reach market weight more quickly. Studies in mice suggest that a high-fat diet combined with antibiotics leads to an especially high rate of obesity.
The etiology for GI disease is an area that continues to be explored, and will vary based on your own unique microbiome, which is influenced from prior to you even being born, therefore everyone's source of illness will be different.
So How Can We Maintain Optimal Gut Health?
To make this confusing topic short and sweet gut health influence every part of your being, including your weight. Unfortunately, current medical research is much more focused on the treatment of defined GI disease rather than on primary prevention.
Restoring your gut can be done, and some small changes can benefit your microbiome as quickly as one day. Here's some tips on how you can help heal your gut:
- Eat a diverse range of foods: This can lead to a diverse microbiome, which is an indicator of good gut health (also refer to the next 3 bullets on how to get diverse foods). In particular, legumes, beans and fruit contain lots of fiber and can promote the growth of healthy bifidobacteria.
- Eat fermented foods: Fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut and kefir all contain healthy bacteria, mainly lactobacilli, and can reduce the amount of disease-causing species in the gut.
- Eat prebiotic foods: Prebiotics are a type of fiber that stimulates the growth of healthy bacteria (non-digestible carbohydrates). Prebiotic-rich foods include artichokes, bananas, asparagus, oats and apples.
- Eat foods rich in polyphenols: Polyphenols are plant compounds found in red wine, green tea, dark chocolate, olive oil and whole grains. They are broken down by the microbiome to stimulate healthy bacterial growth.
- Take a probiotic supplement: Probiotics are live bacteria that can help restore the gut to a healthy state after dysbiosis.
- Take antibiotics only when necessary: Antibiotics kill many bad and good bacteria in the gut microbiome, possibly contributing to weight gain and antibiotic resistance. Thus, only take antibiotics when medically necessary.
- Manage your stress. You already know that daily stressors can affect your weight, and also make you want to eat to soothe yourself. But stress can also change the balance of your intestinal bacteria. Practicing relaxation techniques and finding ways to unwind without reaching for food can help.
- Breastfeed for at least six months: Breastfeeding is very important for the development of the gut microbiome. Children who are breastfed for at least six months have more beneficial bifidobacteria than those who are bottle-fed.