“Gut health” is a relatively new concept in the study of the gastrointestinal system; while scientists have known for quite a while that various types of bacteria live in our digestive tract, it’s only in recent years that connections are starting to be made between those bacteria and the health of our digestive process. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the bacteria that thrive in our gut — referred to as the microbiome — may actually have a role to play in other body systems and our overall health and wellbeing. The next frontier of research is learning how different behaviors or the foods we eat can have a beneficial effect on the microbiome.
Anyone would be forgiven for being a little grossed out at the thought of a lot of tiny bacteria living and multiplying inside of us, no doubt because of deeply ingrained feelings about germs and their relation to sickness and disease. But the reality is that these communities of microorganisms have a symbiotic relationship with us. In short, the more choices we make that build up our gut health, the better those bacteria will function.
Scientists estimate that there are upwards of 100 trillion active bacteria living in our bodies at any given time. In fact, there might be nearly three times more bacteria and other “non-human” cells than actual human cells; these staggering facts about the contents of our body should probably cause everyone to sit up and take note of actions that can help or harm these microorganisms. Although these microbiota can and do exist in many different places in the body, by far the largest concentration is in the digestive tract. It is for this reason that the microbiome is often referred to as gut flora or gut bacteria, and it’s why “gut health” is such an important topic.
To really understand gut health and how it can be modified or built up, it’s important to understand the functions these microbiota perform in our daily bodily functions. This area of research is still fairly new, however, so scientists don’t fully know the total scope of what the nearly 1000 species of microbiota do or the ways they help us. There are a variety of benefits that have been established, however:
Knowing how valuable the microbiome is, what can we do to improve the situation? As noted earlier, research in this arena is still in its nascent stages, but doctors have identified some steps that can be taken that can foster a healthier environment for gut flora as well as lead to healthier living overall:
Improve Diet: It’s probably not surprising that diet choices play a big role in the health of the bacteria living in our digestive system. The following are some of the best recommendations for modifying your diet:
Get Enough Sleep: Not getting enough sleep has been linked to numerous health problems, including diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and digestive disorders that can negatively affect the microbiome. While there is no magic number for the amount of sleep, most doctors recommend 7-9 hours per night.
Increase Exercise: Although scientists can’t fully explain it, research to date shows a strong link between sufficient exercise and a healthy gut. The American Heart Association (among other institutions) recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week.
Reduce Stress: Stress appears to be directly related to inflammation of the digestive tract; when this happens, the ability of helpful bacteria to regulate inflammation is impaired, which in turn makes the inflammation worse. If you’re in a stressful life situation, it’s important to find a way to manage the stress.
Take Care of Psychological Health: Ongoing studies on the gut-brain axis and the effect of the microbiome on psychological issues show a strong connection; in some people with depression, entire species of microbiota are missing. Right now this link is still somewhat controversial, but the data suggests that good psychological health might possibly improve gut health.
Gastroenterologist Appointment As scientists continue to study these linkages between gut health and other aspects of our overall health, new revelations will undoubtedly come to light. In the meantime, there are a variety of steps that can be taken to improve our gut health and help those trillions of bacteria living inside us function more efficiently. If you are interested in learning more about gastrointestinal health issues, or if you have a health concern that you would like to see a gastroenterologist about, contact Carolina digestive to make an appointment.