You may well be familiar with the term gut health, it has become a bit of a buzz word in the health and wellness industry. There are products popping up everywhere from breakfast cereals to pickles, all promising to improve our gut health.
What exactly do we mean by “gut health” and why does it matter?
Our gut is, in effect, one long tube (just like a like a hosepipe), from mouth (food in) to anus (poop out). From top to bottom we are talking roughly 20 – 25 feet long. Along this tube we have got the stomach, the small intestine and the large intestine. The small intestine has lots of delicate folds and fronds (think shag-pile carpet meets sea anemone), which increase its surface area. This is important because the small intestine is the part of the gut where we absorb most of the nutrients from the food that we eat. Just to confuse us, the small intestine is around three times longer than the large intestine but the tube is thinner, which is why it is called small.
Our gut (predominantly our large intestine) is home to trillions of microbes, mostly bacteria, collectively called our gut microbiome. Some scientists are now talking about our microbiome as an organ in its own right, as more research is linking a poor microbiome to numerous diseases. The liver, the gallbladder and the pancreas sit outside the gut tube but are connected, and are critical players in the gut health game.
When we are talking about gut health we are really looking at three main areas:
- The gut tube. The lining of our small and large intestine is only one cell thick, meaning there is only one tiny cell (and a thick layer of mucus) separating our entire body from the contents of our gut. Given that our gut is home to trillions of bacteria and various waste products that our body wants to eliminate, we need this tube to be functioning well. Just like the roof on your house, if the gut tube has been neglected for too long it might start to leak. Cue a whole host of symptoms that may include skin problems, joint pain, autoimmune conditions, mood disorders and allergies.
- Gut function. How is the whole gut functioning? Is it producing the right digestive juices at the right time. Is it moving food along at a good pace; not too fast and not too slow. Some symptoms of poor gut function may include acid reflux, feeling overly full after eating, constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, undigested food in stools, nutrient deficiencies, hormonal imbalances and fatigue.
- The gut microbiome. How diverse are the microbial inhabitants of the gut and how well balanced are they? Ideally, we will have lots of different varieties of the beneficial bacteria and not too many of the bad guys. Most of our microbiome should also be housed in the large intestine, not further up the gut tube. Issues with the gut microbiome may lead to symptoms of bloating, wind, brain fog, low mood, food cravings, hormonal imbalances and frequent colds and infections.
If you are buying a product marketed as improving gut health, it is likely referring to point three, the microbiome (supporting good bacteria). However, when a Nutritional Therapist talks about gut health we are referring to all three areas, as all three can have a significant impact on health and wellbeing. If the gut tube is leaky and gut function is poor, then the beneficial bacteria are not going to want to live there. After all, who would want to live in a house with a leaky roof, poor plumbing and no electricity?
Next time we will look at what we can do to support our own gut-health. In the meantime thanks for reading, I hope you find it useful. And yes, I did enjoy the colouring in.
Bischoff SC et al., (2014) Intestinal permeability–a new target for disease prevention and therapy. BMC Gastroenterol. 2014;14:189. doi:10.1186/s12876-014-0189-7 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4253991/)
Marchesi JR et al., (2016) The gut microbiota and host health: a new clinical frontier. Gut doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2015-309990 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4752653/)
Durack J, Lynch SV (2019) The gut microbiome: Relationships with disease and opportunities for therapy. J Exp Med. doi:10.1084/jem.20180448 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6314516/)