The importance of gut health: How it affects other body systems
We don’t usually associate bacteria with good health, but bacteria are vital to keeping your gut at peak performance. And the more you have, the better. In fact, the healthiest people have millions of different types of organisms in their gut including bacteria, fungi, and even viruses – it’s otherwise called your gut microbiome. Unsurprisingly, according to the science, the less diverse your microbiome is, the less healthy you’re likely to be.
Common signs of poor gut health
According to research by CSIRO, an alarming 50% of Australians experience poor gut health with as many as 1 in 7 people experiencing distressing gut health symptoms(1). The most common signs of an unhealthy gut include bloating, heartburn, constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhoea – and there are plenty more.
But keeping your gut healthy isn’t just about feeling comfortable in the abdominal area; it plays a crucial role in keeping lots of other body systems healthy too – which often have nothing to do with digestion. While the gut connects with other organs such as the brain via vascular, neural and endocrine pathways, it also plays a major role in regulating your metabolism and immune responses(2). And researchers are always making new discoveries about the specific impacts of gut health on our overall health and wellbeing.
Influencing mental health and wellbeing
Recent research has found there is a link between the gut and mental health via the gut-brain axis (a communication pathway between the brain and gut) with the potential for certain types of bacteria to influence symptoms of anxiety and depression(3).
And we shouldn’t really be surprised about this. According to the Harvard Medical School, this two-way communication between the gut and the brain is also why we experience “butterflies” and “gut-wrenching” feelings in certain emotional states(4) – some of which we should try to avoid like stress.
The link with weight gain
Other areas of research suggest that gut bacteria are also linked to your body’s metabolic performance – the process your body undertakes to absorb nutrients and convert food to energy(5) . Specifically, a “slow” metabolism is often associated with weight gain.
Long-term weight gain in humans has been found to correlate with a low microbiota diversity according to the British Medical Journal(6) which, in turn, can also cause a lot of the uncomfortable symptoms described above. On the other hand, CSIRO has offered scientific evidence that weight loss achieved through a healthy and balanced diet can drastically improve your gut function(7).
Supporting your immune system
A diverse gut flora is said to be supportive of a healthy immune system. In fact, with around 70-80% of the body’s immune cells found in the gut, the continuing mutual communication between these two systems is important for promoting the development of immune cells and fine tuning their protective responses against harmful pathogens(8).
So, that’s right, the gut is more complex than we first thought, and we need to look after it. As time goes on, we’ll probably begin to understand even more about the impact of our microbiome on many of our body’s functions and processes. Researchers are already in the early stages of finding out how certain organisms in the gut might delay the signs of aging, such as poor cardiovascular health and other age-related diseases(9).
Make a positive difference to your gut flora through diet
But the question is, what can you do to give your gut the best chance of success at supporting a healthy body and mind?
It’s often said that “you are what you eat”, and for good reason too. Simply, what you put into your body can have an incredible impact on changing your gut flora for the better.
Plant-based, high fibre foods are essential for stimulating the growth of good bacteria, which means increasing that all-important microbiome diversity. These include vegetables, whole grains, fruits, quality honey, nuts, and dairy foods such as natural yoghurt.
Meanwhile, processed foods that are high in fat and sugar are proven to have a harmful effect on gut bacteria(10) . Essentially, the rule of thumb is, if what you’re eating has plenty of colour and occurs naturally, you’re onto a winner when it comes to improving your overall health.