December 13, 2017
A healthy body starts with a healthy gut.
Researchers are learning more every day about how gut health affects the rest of our body and even our mental health. But what does it mean to have a healthy gut? And how do you know yours is? It starts with understanding something that may not be pleasant to think about:
Your gastrointestinal tracts is riddled with bacteria.
It's supposed to be.
All of us carry around hundreds of trillions of microorganisms in our gut, and its composition is unique to every person. These bacteria come in good and bad forms – and the good bacteria do a lot for us. Among other things, they help us digest food, they produce serotonin and they form an intestinal barrier that keeps toxins from being reabsorbed into the body.
They also play a big role in supporting our immune system. About 70% of our immune system resides in our gut to protect us from frequent outside invaders – the food we eat.
"Food is the one thing that we're constantly introducing to our bodies that is foreign," says Leigh Wagner, PhD, formerly of integrative medicine at The University of Kansas Health System. "Our bodies have to figure out if it's friend or foe."
A gut with good balance of good and bad bacteria can help your immune system fight disease. When the proportions of these bacteria are off, that's an unhealthy gut. Your body may inform you of this imbalance through bloating, diarrhea, stomach pains or constipation.
"Those are all symptoms that something's not right," Wagner says.
An unhealthy gut can create inflammation throughout the body. Poor gut health has also been linked to a wide range of serious health problems, including inflammatory bowel diseases, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), type 2 diabetes, heart disease, colon cancer, fatigue, obesity and depression.
Every type of food we eat helps different types of bacteria thrive.
Diets that help promote a healthy gut usually include whole foods rich in fiber and fermented foods that contain probiotics. Probiotics are good bacteria and can be found in foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, plain yogurt, kefir and kombucha. These probiotics feed on the fiber-rich foods we eat, such as fruits, vegetables, beans and flax seeds, to produce short-chain fatty acids for our colon and large intestine.
A healthy gut also includes a stomach that is acidic enough to support digestion and help us absorb nutrients from our food. Acid in the stomach creates a hostile environment so the bad bacteria – including viruses and other disease-causing organisms – can't grow.
Wagner says that's why people with reflux should be careful with the long-term use of a type of drugs known as proton pump inhibitors, such as Prilosec, Nexium and Prevacid. They're not designed to be taken for more than several weeks, and longer-term use could cause problems.
"They're making the stomach less acidic, which alters digestion, so we're not able to digest and absorb nutrients from our food," Dr. Wagner says. "That leaves us vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies."
She says people who use proton pump inhibitors for reflux can have problems with bloating, gas and undigested food.
"Taking these medications long-term is not really getting to the root of why a person is having reflux," she says.
She says poor diets, food sensitivities and even the use of the proton pump inhibitors themselves can be reasons why someone has reflux. She says these medications can deplete stomach acid and leave food undigested, so it refluxes up into the esophagus.
Antibiotics, which kill bad bacteria, can treat an acute illness, but they also can take out a lot of the good bacteria in the process. The gut needs help recovering from this, so someone who's been on a lot of antibiotics should probably eat more fermented foods and fiber to help restore the balance. They may also need a probiotic.
A healthy gut needs a healthy diet, with fewer refined carbs and processed foods and more fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts and fermented foods. Recent studies also found that exercise can help keep your gut healthy.
Integrative medicine at The University of Kansas Health System can help you develop a personalized pathway to better health. Call 913-588-6208 to make an appointment with a member of our team.