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Gut Health 101

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What You Need To Know For A Healthy, Happy Gut

When it comes to wellness, gut health is all the rage right now. But why is a healthy gut so important for your long-term health, and how can you achieve it? 

If you want to know more about how the gut works and how to support a healthy gut, you’ve come to the right place.

What makes up the gut?

The terminology of ‘gut’ can be a little misleading, as it is not just one big organ or pipe sitting in the middle of your body. There are many organs and tissues that make up the gut, including:

  • Mouth and tongue
  • Oesophagus
  • Stomach
  • Small intestine
  • Large intestine
  • Anus
  • Liver, pancreas and gallbladder (these are accessory organs that sit outside of the digestive tract itself)

Along with these organs, there are two other areas to consider when it comes specifically to gut health – the gut lining and the microbiome. These two are closely linked, and when one is impaired, the other is likely close behind.

The gut lining

The gut itself is a hollow tube, but it is only separated from the bloodstream by an extremely thin layer – the gut lining. It is the job of the gut lining to let the good things in (like nutrients) and the bad things out (like harmful bacteria and undigested food).

This intersection between gut and blood is where the absorption of energy and nutrients takes place. If there is inflammation or damage, you will absorb less nutrition, which can lead to deficiencies. 

When something goes wrong with the gut lining, you might hear it referred to as ‘increased intestinal permeability’ or ‘leaky gut’. 

As the barrier is no longer optimal, it can let toxins and pathogenic microbes into the bloodstream, contributing to poor health and disease. In fact, the dysfunction of the gut lining has been associated with many digestive conditions and other chronic diseases.

The gut microbiome

One of the most important pieces of your health is not you at all – it’s the trillions of microbes that reside in your digestive tract, particularly the large intestine. This is what we refer to as the microbiome. 

It develops when you are a young child, and forms a symbiotic or beneficial relationship with you. When you eat, you nourish the microbes in your gut. In return, they can offer aid with digestion, produce beneficial compounds such as short-chain fatty acids, and defence against harm. 

For you to reap these benefits, it’s important to maintain a good balance of microbes. Otherwise, you could develop dysbiosis – when harmful microbes become dominant in the gut. This can contribute to digestive symptoms and even disease.

Why is gut health important?

The gut plays so many vital roles in your overall wellbeing. It is needed for the breakdown and absorption of nutrients and energy that every cell in the body needs to function. Then it carries a large amount of the body’s waste materials out via bowel movements. 

But there is more to the gut than just adding in fuel and taking away the waste. Around 70-80% of the immune system’s tissues and cells are found in the digestive tract. An imbalance in the gut can lead to lowered immunity, or it could contribute to overactive immunity (autoimmunity). 

Then there is the gut-brain axis – a two-way relationship where the gut can influence the brain and vice versa. One of the main ways that the gut can affect your nervous system is through the production of neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals.

If that wasn’t enough, there are mechanisms that can affect the entire body. For example, some bacteria can contribute to general inflammation, rather than just local inflammation in the gut. This can cause health concerns in any area of the body, depending on where you are most vulnerable.

Put simply, if you want to live a long, healthy life – gut health has to be a priority.

How can I support my gut health?

Want to give your gut a helping hand, but not sure where to begin? These simple steps can start you on the path to better gut health.

Eat a variety of wholefoods

When it comes to supporting your gut health, variety is key. The greater the variety of foods that you eat, the more diverse the microbes in your digestive tract become. The more diverse these microbes, the healthier you (and your gut) become.

You want to focus your diet on mostly wholefoods. This is because wholefoods have not been processed in a way that removes vital nutrients that support your gut and overall wellbeing. For example, wholegrains still have the bran that houses most of the fibre content, along with B vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Add some good bacteria

Another easy nutrition tweak is to add fermented foods into your diet. Fermented foods are a source of probiotics or microbes that can benefit your health. 

As these probiotics travel through the gut, many of the potential benefits are related to gut health. But they can also have overall health benefits including reduced risk of inflammation and chronic disease.

Reach for fermented foods such as:

  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Pickled vegetables 
  • Miso
  • Tempeh
  • Natto
  • Yoghurt and cheese that contain live cultures

You can also add in fermented drinks including:

  • Milk kefir
  • Water kefir
  • Kombucha

Are you new to fermented foods? It’s recommended that you start with small amounts to begin with, and build up over time. Otherwise, you may experience symptoms such as gas, bloating and discomfort if you consume too much, too soon!

Get a good night of sleep

Good gut health isn’t just about what you eat. One lifestyle factor that can have a massive impact on the state of your gut is poor sleep. 

During sleep, the body is still hard at work, resetting and repairing damage that occurs throughout the day. But if you’re not getting enough hours sleep or your sleep quality is poor, your gut may not get this vital TLCL. 

In fact, research has found that if you have high-quality sleep, you’re likely to have a greater diversity of microbes in your gut compared to someone who has poor sleep.

How can you get a good night of rest? Some simple starting points including stopping caffeine after lunchtime, shutting down electronics for an hour before bed, and having a solid routine to help you wind down for sleep.

Manage your stress levels

Another important lifestyle factor for your gut health is stress. Although you might think of stress as ‘all in your head’, it can have very real physical impacts on the body. 

The gut is particularly vulnerable to stress thanks to the two-way relationship of the gut-brain axis. Research shows that stress can alter the balance of microbes in your gut by increasing species that are associated with inflammation and reducing those that are beneficial. 

Stress is not something we can avoid completely, so it’s essential to build up strategies to cope with it. This could include physical activity such as walking and yoga, journaling, spending time in nature or engaging in hobbies. One potential option is meditation or mindfulness, as research supports mindfulness as a method of reducing gut inflammation.

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