Why is Gut Health So Important?

If it seems like every health magazine and social media outlet is emphasizing the importance of gut health, note this is more than just the latest trend. While this is not a new phenomenon, we seem to be “in tune” with our bodies, both physically and mentally, more now than ever before. Understanding the role that gut health plays in the body can help you absorb nutrients most effectively, boost your immune system, and can even have a positive effect on your mental health. An unhealthy gut can lead to much more than just stomach upset, discomfort and bloating. That’s why it is so important to realize how certain factors, such as methods of fetal delivery, genetics, environmental exposures and diets high in processed foods can contribute to shifts in the good bacteria in your gut. By focusing on ways to improve gut health, you can learn to avoid the discomforts of anxiety, depression, food allergies, eczema or other chronic health problems.

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Probiotics For Gut Health

Probiotics are microorganisms that live in your gut. Technically, probiotics are bacteria, but there is also a type of yeast that can additionally function as a probiotic. Probiotics can be ingested both through food that has been prepared by bacterial fermentation as well as through dietary supplements. Some foods that contain probiotics include yogurts, kefir, tempeh, kimchi, kombucha and sauerkraut. The most common types of probiotics include lactobacillus, bifidobacterium and acidophilus, although there are many different strands. Choosing the right type of probiotics for your body is important because each works in a manner to address different concerns.

Each of us has a unique, internal ecosystem of bacteria located within our bodies called the human microbiome – defined as as “community of microbes.” The vast majority of the bacterial species that make up our microbiome live in our digestive systems. Our  digestive system or gut contains many different types of microorganisms including bacteria, yeast and viruses. The bacteria in the gut, or the gut flora, manufactures vitamins and turns fibers into short-chain fats which perform metabolic functions. (Short Chain fatty acids) The gut flora also aids the immune system which can help prevent unwanted or dangerous substances from “leaking” into the body and provoking illness. The gut flora is highly sensitive. Numerous studies and extensive research show that an unbalanced gut flora can be linked to various diseases. Such diseases include obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, colorectal cancer, Alzheimer’s and even depression. Consuming adequate amounts of probiotics, along with prebiotic fibers, can help balance the gut flora and keep our bodies at optimal health.

Probiotics are most widely known for their benefits to digestive health. To understand this concept, let’s consider the effect that probiotics have on the body when taken in conjunction with antibiotics. When people take antibiotics for extensive periods of time, they often suffer from diarrhea, even after the infection has been treated. Antibiotics kill the natural occurring bacteria in the gut, thus shifting the balance of good bacteria and allowing the infection to thrive. By ingesting probiotics with antibiotics, antibiotic induced diarrhea can be treated and eliminated because the good bacteria has been replaced in the gut flora. Probiotics also help other digestive issues, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a common disorder associated with bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation. Speak with a registered dietitian or other health professional about which probiotic strain and microorganism amount will work best for you and your symptoms before you begin your course of treatment.

Prebiotics

Probiotics should not be confused with prebiotics, as they are two very different things. Prebiotics are fibers that help feed the friendly bacteria that already exists in the gut. Prebiotics are a non-digestible fiber; they pass through the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract and are then fermented by the ingested probiotics. Essentially, probiotics and prebiotics work together to keep your gut healthy and happy. Some examples of foods that are good sources of prebiotics are barley, legumes, onions, garlic and asparagus.

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The Gut Brain: What is it?

It has been said that changes in your gut flora, or the bacteria living in your gut, can play a role in neuropsychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression. Your intestine has a separate nervous system (the gut brain) that creates many of the same neurotransmitters found in the brain. These neurotransmitters include acetylcholine and serotonin and are important in promoting gut motility. Some scientists and doctors believe that the gut and the brain “talk” to each other. They are convinced that disorders such as anxiety and depression can trigger gastrointestinal symptoms, like pain and constipation, or even that “nervous, butterfly feeling” in your stomach. While this information is important, there is no definitive research that proves a direct correlation between mental health and gut health.

Gut Healthy Foods: Where can I find them?

You can find probiotics in both supplement and food forms. Try adding some of these probiotic-rich foods to recipes you already love and enjoy for a gut-health boost!

  • Kefir is very similar to yogurt but has a combination of milk and fermented kefir grains. Studies show that kefir aids in digestion, improves lactose tolerance, has  anti-inflammatory properties and more.
  • Sauerkraut and Kimchi are both made with fermented cabbage and other veggies. Commonly used in German and Korean cuisine, they are high in acids and enzymes which benefit digestion. Sauerkraut and kimchi were among the most popular probiotic-rich food items in 2018. Keep a look out for them in 2019!
  • Kombucha, a newly popular item in food stores, is a fermented black tea drink. To start the process of making kombucha, a SCOBY is formed. SCOBY stands for a Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. Kombucha’s most popular health benefits include digestive support, increased energy and liver detoxification.
  • Coconut yogurt can have the same probiotic benefits of regular yogurt, but it is vegan. Coconut yogurt is made by fermenting the juice of young coconuts and is a great alternative to typical dairy probiotics.

The take-away: keeping your gut healthy is extremely important. A healthy gut will not only lead to a healthier immune and digestive system, but it will also positively impact the health of your mental state. As always, consult your physician before starting a new diet or adding new supplements.