This may be the most important aspect of your health that you’re not thinking about.
The health of your gut (aka: the digestive tract or small intestines) is the foundation to overall health. Most of us know that one of its main functions is to absorb nutrients. But, most of us know very little about that happens, the gut’s other roles, or why keeping the gut healthy is critical to our health.
One of the gut’s biggest roles is as a barrier to the outside world.
It’s job is to let things into your body that should come in and to keep things out that should stay out. You can think of the food that’s still in your intestines as “outside” your body. When the gut is healthy, it does a good job of keeping things out that should stay out--including pathogens like bacteria, toxins and partially digested food particles.
The gut has a massive surface area. In fact, it’s our body’s largest connection with the outside world, way larger than the skin. The gut lining is made up of “fingers” or villi that increase its surface area.
Stretched out, it would be the size of a tennis court!
Covering the villi is a layer of epithelial cells. So essentially, the wall between you and the outside world is just one cell thick-- thinner than the width of a hair. Eating the wrong foods (as well as other things) can damage these cells or create loose connections between them. These openings can allow molecules into the body which shouldn’t normally be allowed to get through. The particles are then free to enter the bloodstream where they can cause immune reactions leading to inflammation and all kinds of other problems.
This increased permeability of the gut is often referred to as leaky gut. Leaky gut is linked to all kinds of chronic health conditions --from those that logically make sense, like Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and IBS to those that at first glance might seem unrelated to the gut, like asthma and allergies, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and type I diabetes.
Your gut does not do its job alone.
It’s ability to function is completely reliant on a host of microorganisms that reside there. This is a huge topic in research right now and we’re learning new, fascinating things all the time. Although research is in its early stages, we’re beginning to understand some of the critical roles that microbes play not only in our long-term health, but in our day to day functioning. Here are just a few interesting facts:
Fascinating Gut Facts:
- Microbial cells outnumber your own body cells 10:1.
- There are about 10 trillion of them (as opposed to roughly 1 trillion body cells).
- Together all the bacteria living inside you would fill a half-gallon jug.
- Microorganisms make up about half your body’s solid waste.
What’s fascinating to think about is that these organisms have been with us since before we were human. We’ve evolved with them over millions of years and we need them just as much as they need us. The diversity of organisms in our gut creates an entire ecosystem--like a rainforest. This system of microorganisms is also known as your gut micro-biome. We have other microbes living on other parts of our bodies, too. Each area has it’s own microbiome.
Like any ecosystem, there is a delicate balance of organisms, with populations of species shifting over time but staying mostly in balance. Some species are beneficial to us, while others are harmful.
It starts getting even more complicated when you learn that some species are beneficial in small amounts, but harmful in larger quantities. When populations of beneficial bacteria are healthy, they crowd out populations of harmful bacteria, keeping their numbers small. A healthy micro-biome makes for a healthy human. But when this balance gets disrupted, many problems ensue.
Besides taking up space that would otherwise be taken by harmful bacteria, our beneficial bacteria also provide many vital functions for us. We continue to learn more about all these functions all the time. Here is just a partial list.
Microorganisms in our gut:
- produce chemicals that help us harness energy and nutrients from our food.
- produce vitamins and other substances we need.
- produce substances that affect our mood.
- play a major role in our immune system.
- help to regulate our metabolism and our weight, impacting whether we are lean or obese.
Did you catch that last one? The microbes in our gut play a major role in our metabolism and how lean or overweight we are. There is fascinating research on this, which I’ll talk about at another time.
How do we promote a healthy gut? Here are a few do's and don'ts...
Things that can harm the gut:
1. Processed food.
The foods we eat have a huge affect on which bacteria thrive and which don’t. Too much sugar, the proteins in wheat, and other processed foods can feed harmful bacteria, which then crowd out beneficial species. Some of these foods also irritate the gut directly, causing damage.
Another major threat to the integrity of the gut lining is the regular use of pharmaceuticals (especially antibiotics and long-term use of oral contraceptives).
Toxins in our food and our environment can wreak havoc on our gut biome. These include pesticides, herbicides--especially the herbicide glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Roundup, used on all kinds of crops, and on our lawns and gardens. Foods that are genetically modified to resist the effects of Roundup, like genetically modified corn, soy, and beets are especially toxic.
Things that heal and nourish the gut:
1. Soluble fiber.
Soluble fiber is what’s known as a prebiotic food--food that feeds beneficial bacteria. Many fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of soluble fiber, a food source for these bacteria. Fruits with high amounts of soluble fiber include: pears, peaches, apples, blueberries, plums, strawberries, fresh and dried apricots, oranges, cherries, prunes, cantaloupe, grapefruit, grapes and pineapple are all good sources of soluble fiber. Vegetables containing at least 1 gram of soluble fiber per serving include parsnips, carrots, brussels sprouts, potato with skin, spinach, squash, string beans, onions, cabbage, sweet potato, turnips, broccoli, kale and zucchini.
2. Resistant starch.
Resistant starch is another prebiotic food. This is starch that we are not able to digest, but that preferentially feeds “good” bacteria responsible for butyrate production. Butyrate is crucial because it’s the prime energy source of our colonic cells. Resistant starch is found in raw potatoes, bananas, and plantains, cooked and then cooled potatoes, rice and legumes.
3. Probiotic foods and/or probiotics.
Probiotic foods are naturally fermented and contain beneficial bacteria. These include naturally fermented sour kraut, kim chi, pickles, yogurt, and kefir.
4. Bone broths
Bone broths can be healing and nourishing to an irritated or damaged gut lining.