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  • Writer's pictureDavid Hurley

The Gut Biome 2 - How Is Your Gut Really Working?

When you hear “gut health,” you might automatically think about how well your stomach works to digest food. And while digestion is an important part of gut health, it goes a bit further than that, directly impacting your overall health. So how do you keep that bacteria balanced in order to keep your gut health and, therefore, overall health at its peak? First, it’s helpful to understand what makes up your gut microbiome.

What Is the Gut Microbiome?

There are a couple of ways to envision your gut microbiome, which exists mainly in the large and small intestines, but is also found all through the body. Some research touts it as a virtual organ in the body, since it’s home to approximately 100 trillion micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses) and has the power to encode over three million genes that influence our fitness, certain physical and mental traits and general health.

Another and maybe simpler way to understand how the gut microbiome works is to compare it to a sports team. Each player has a different role, but they all play for the same team, there are trillions of unique players, bacteria and microorganisms, digesting food, protecting against pathogens and keeping metabolic functions in check for the body. When all those players are in good health and working together, we generally don’t notice; we simply feel good. It’s even possible that an enriched microbiome might help us live well into our 90’s.

However, although good bacteria and microorganisms are necessary for many important functions, the gut microbiome also contains potentially harmful microorganisms, and when the ratio of good to potentially harmful bacteria is thrown off by something like illness, diet or medication, this can throw off the entire balance of the gut. In fact. an imbalance in the intestinal microbiome has been associated with all kinds of chronic diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancers and a whole host of mental health issues.

Signs of an Unhealthy Gut.

How do you know if your gut is less than healthy? There are a number of common signs that may indicate an imbalance in your microbiome.

Gas, Bloating and Other Stomach Issues:

Symptoms of food intolerance such as poor digestion, bloating and stomach pain may stem from problems with bacteria in the gut. Now, it’s important to understand that food intolerances are not the same as food allergies. With a food allergy, you experience an immune reaction to something you eat, this could cause shortness of breath, hives, swelling in your mouth or tongue or itchiness, and it’s not only uncomfortable, but can be life threatening. Food intolerances, on the other hand, affect up to 20% of the population and specifically lead to those aforementioned stomach issues, which are unpleasant and can be serious, but aren’t dangerous in the same way an allergy would be. Some individuals might even be able to handle small amounts of a food of which they’re intolerant without too much discomfort. When you experience side effects like gas and bloating after eating certain foods, this may be an indication that the bacteria in your gut isn’t breaking down those foods the way it should.

Unintentional Weight Fluctuations:

It’s not exactly a stretch to see how your gut health might impact your weight, after all, when your gut is balanced, it easily processes your food and eliminates waste in a regular manner. You can eat your typical diet, and your weight most likely only fluctuates when there is a direct change in eating habits or physical activity.

But there’s more to the connection between gut health and weight. Some gut bacteria actually have an impact on how many calories you can extract from your food, and microbial richness has been shown in some studies to be linked to adult BMI and metabolism. In other words, the gut microbiome can play a role in weight gain and weight loss. So, if you’re eating normally but seem to be slowly gaining, or losing weight, poor gut health and lack of diversity in your microbiome may be to blame.

One important caveat is that unintentional weight loss or weight gain can also be a sign of other serious health conditions, like cancer, so if you’re experiencing either one, you should speak with your doctor as soon as possible.

Skin Issues:

You may have noticed that your skin tends to break out when you eat certain foods, like those high in refined sugar or saturated fat, and that may be due to the bacteria in your gut. According to one 2021 study, those kinds of foods promote an imbalance of gut bacteria that can contribute to a variety of skin issues, including acne, rosacea, eczema, psoriasis and even dandruff.

In fact, the connection between our gut and our skin is more evident when we look at the microbiome of individuals who do and who do not have these types of inflammatory skin conditions. That same study found that individuals living with rosacea, for example, are also likely to experience gastrointestinal issues, and while only 2% to 3% of the general population have psoriasis, that range jumps to 7% to 11% among people with irritable bowel disease.

Moodiness, Irritability and Trouble With Concentration:

The connection between mental health and gut health are inextricably linked our feelings and emotions are strongly associated with the GI tract. The gastrointestinal tract is the tract or passageway of the digestive system that leads from the mouth to the anus. The GI tract contains all the major organs of the digestive system, in humans and other animals, including the oesophagus, stomach, and intestines.

For example, when our brain is in overdrive from anxiety or depression, the nerves that stimulate the brain are constantly firing. The same thing happens in the GI tract, there are nerves that stimulate the gut that also start firing, so now a vicious cycle has been created. The psychological symptoms worsen the GI symptoms, and the GI symptoms worsen the psychological symptoms. This can continue until the cycle is broken through medications, lifestyle and / or dietary modifications.

As an example, over 90% of our Serotonin is produced in the gut, this is the brain’s “happy drug” and if production is interfered with or halted it’s very possible that this can very quickly lead to depression.

Even though the precise link between the gut and brain is not entirely clear, studies show considerable evidence of the effect of gut health on our mental state. After all, over half of patients with irritable bowel disorder also have depression, anxiety or sleep problems, and it’s not uncommon for depression and generalized anxiety disorder to be associated with gastrointestinal.

While research on this connection may be ongoing, it’s clear that the gastrointestinal tract and brain communicate. In fact, evidence-based clinical practice guidelines for irritable bowel syndrome from the Journal of Gastroenterology specifically include psychotherapy and psychopharmacological treatments as part of a holistic approach.

Fatigue or Insomnia.

Struggling to sleep, or sleeping too much? This is another area where your gut health may be affecting your life. The gut produces much of the body’s serotonin, which affects mood and sleep, the functions of the gut, and its activity, interact with our sleep / eating rhythms and emotions.

And, as we saw with the connection between the gut and mental health, the link between sleep and gut health is a two-way street. Sleep is important in achieving a healthy gut, getting a good amount of sleep each night helps maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Lack of sleep can lead to digestive problems, and there again we see that vicious cycle develop.

So over last two articles we’ve seen how the gut works and how important it is just for the basic functions in our bodies. But more than that the gut biome can literally dictate how we feel, move, act and live our lives, it can even dictate how long we live.

In the next Blog we look at how to feed the biome, nurture it and get it back on track.

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