Growing Gut Health
The digestive system, also referred to as the “gut” is a set of organs comprised of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, colon and rectum. The gut plays a major role in the functioning of our brains and immune system and is influenced by the foods we eat. Therefore, it is important to know and understand how the digestive tract relates to our overall health. Here are answers to some common questions related to the gut:
What is the relationship between the gut and brain? The digestive tract, from the esophagus to the rectum, contains two thin layers with over 100 million nerve cells known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The ENS’s main role is to control digestion, and as far as we know, it is not capable of thinking like our brains do but can communicate back and forth with the brain. According to John Hopkin’s Medicine, the ENS may play a role in the development of anxiety and depression in those who are experiencing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a condition involving recurrent stomach pain and diarrhea or constipation. While this anxiety and depression may be related to the unfortunate side effects of IBS, there is reason to believe it may due to the involuntary connection between the gut and brain. Other ways we see a gut-brain connection is the potential impact of certain foods and diets on the brain. Claimed by the National Institutes of Health, certain diets may improve mood and/or help treat certain neurological disorders such as autism or ADHD, and specific foods and additives may increase undesirable symptoms in these conditions. However, it's important to note that diet alone is not the full driving force for these disorders.
Can a healthy gut mean a healthy immune system? The ENS is home to a huge number of immune cells, making up about 70 percent of our entire immune system. This is known as gut-associated lymphoid tissue or GALT. Additionally, our intestines have a bacterial population called the “gut microbiota” that contains tens of trillions of microorganisms that can weigh up to six pounds. Though the word “bacteria” gets a bad rap, the bacteria living in our bodies are indeed advantageous settlers. The gut bacteria regulate our immune system and defend against other bacteria that cause disease. According to Rider University, when our gut bacteria is out of balance it can affect our stress levels, immune system, mental health or even certain health conditions (i.e. diabetes, heart disease). So, it is true that a healthy gut can contribute to a healthy immune system and it's amazing that such a large proportion of our immune system is actually located in our gut.
What can I do nutrition-wise to promote a healthy gut? Maintaining healthy gut bacteria through diet is important for our overall health. Probiotics are living microorganisms that will help replenish the balance of bacteria in the body. Consuming prebiotics, which act as food for probiotics, will keep the probiotics in the gut thriving. Another way to maintain a balanced gut microbiota is to consume probiotics when prescribed an antibiotic. Even though antibiotics are helpful to kill the bad bacteria when we are sick, they can also kill off the good bacteria that we need for a healthy immune system. As well as antibiotics, some foods can cause the gut microbiota to become unbalanced and possibly lead to certain health conditions. Here are some foods that can act as probiotics and prebiotics, as well as some foods to limit for optimal gut health:
Probiotics: • Sauerkraut • Yogurt • Kimchi • Fermented Veggies • Kefir
Prebiotics: • Chicory Root • Dandelion Greens • Garlic and Onions • Asparagus • Bananas • Apples
Foods to Limit: • Highly Processed Foods
• Refined Sugars • Artificial Sweeteners
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Written by: Kristin Repella, Wellness Workday’s Dietetic Intern.
14. Science Direct
21. BMJ Journal