Gut Health 101: What You Need to Know About Your Gut

Summary: You can lay the foundation for good physical and mental health by cultivating a healthy gut. Here’s everything you need to know about gut health, how it affects every part of your body and what you can do to keep it healthy.

The phrase ‘gut health’ has been all over social media or wellness channels along with terms like ‘probiotics’ and ‘microbiome’. Have you ever wondered, ‘what’s all the fuss about?’

Your gut — basically your gastrointestinal tract (GI) or digestive tract — consists of your esophagus (the tube through which your food passes from your mouth to your stomach), stomach and intestines. Your gut processes the food you eat and breaks it down so your body can use it for energy, growth and healing. But apart from its critical role in digestion, gut health is closely linked to your immune system, blood sugar levels, cardiovascular health, and even your mental health!

We’re here to demystify gut health for you and explain how a healthy gut can transform your life. Let’s start with some basic Q&A.

1. Why does gut health matter?

Your gut is a vital part of your body that keeps you alive and kicking, but it doesn’t work alone. Trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes live in our guts and play a key role in keeping us healthy. This ecosystem of microorganisms is called your ‘gut microbiome’ and is, by far, the busiest microbiome of your body.

A healthy gut and a healthy gut microbiome helps ensure everything from good digestion, blood sugar regulation to a strong, functional immune function. It can even affect your mental health.

2. How is a healthy microbiome connected to a healthy gut*?

When your gut microbiome flourishes, it ensures proper digestion and nutrient absorption. Your gut microbiome work tirelessly to break down food and extract essential nutrients that keep you healthy.

Recent research suggests that the gut microbiome also plays a role in regulating weight, predicting dysfunction and disease, inflammation, immune suppression, skin health and mental health issues.

*Provided you aren’t suffering from other gut diseases.

3. Wait, mental health? How exactly does my gut determine how I feel?

The gut and brain are connected through the gut-brain axis, a network of nerves and biochemical signals that enable two-way communication. Central to this connection is the vagus nerve. If it misfires due to certain foods or emotional responses, it can trigger the fight-or-flight response — an indicator of heightened stress. Stress can harm your gut lining since the vagus nerve runs from the brain to the intestine.

Additionally, nearly 90% of serotonin, aka the “happy hormone,” is produced in the gut and tied to the vagus nerve. To maintain mental well-being and peak performance, it’s crucial to nourish your gut and replenish its beneficial bacteria.

4. How do I know if I have a healthy gut? What are the signs of an unhealthy gut?

Some common signs and symptoms of gut imbalances may include:

  • Digestive issues such as bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea or IBS
  • Persistent fatigue and low energy levels
  • Unexplained weight changes
  • Food intolerances or sensitivities
  • Skin problems such as acne or eczema
  • Mood disturbances, including anxiety, depression or irritability
  • Auto-immune problems such as rheumatoid arthritis or Type 1 diabetes

If you experience any of these symptoms regularly, be sure to seek the advice of a healthcare professional to help identify underlying issues and develop a personalized plan for improving your gut health.

5. What causes an unhealthy gut?

Several factors might contribute to an unhealthy gut.

  • A diet high in processed foods, sugar and unhealthy fats depletes good gut flora and causes inflammation and disease.
  • Exposure to pollutants, pesticides, pathogens and toxins can reduce the diversity in the gut microbiome. Illness and antibiotic use can the harmful bacteria to outnumber the good microbes.
  • Sedentary habits, chronic stress and inadequate sleep can disrupt eating habits, disturb the internal body clock and the microbiome’s sensitive balance.

6. How can I improve my gut health and how long does it take? Is it possible to heal a damaged gut microbiome?

There are several repair and restore strategies to support gut health. But remember, improving gut health is a gradual process that depends on various factors, including diet, lifestyle and the severity of your gut imbalances. With consistent effort and the right intervention, you may start noticing improvements in a matter of weeks or months.

The first and most important strategy is to have a balanced diet. Try to include nutrient-dense foods, especially fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fermented foods, to promote a healthy gut microbiome. It’s also best to avoid highly processed or sugary foods or specific items that trigger digestive problems. Other than that, focus on getting regular sleep and exercise, and limit your exposure to pollutants.

7. Are fermented foods beneficial for gut health?

Yes, fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut and kombucha contain beneficial bacteria (or probiotics) that can help promote a healthy gut microbiome. Including these foods in your diet can contribute to improved digestion and overall gut health.

8. What are probiotics and how do they help with gut health and other digestive issues?

Probiotics are strains of bacteria or yeasts that are ‘good’ for you and that can preserve or accelerate gut health. When your gut microbiome has been disrupted by illness or other factors, repairing it might take time and your doctor might recommend supplements in the form of probiotics. The benefits from probiotics vary depending on the condition of your gut and the specific strain used. So talk to your doctor before taking an over-the counter probiotic.

9. What role does fiber play in gut health?

Fiber is essential for gut health because it acts as a prebiotic, which is a culture medium for beneficial bacteria in the gut. In simple terms, ‘good’ gut bacteria consume and break down prebiotics and fiber is a great prebiotic. A diet rich in fiber can support a diverse microbiome, promote regular bowel movements and lower the risk of digestive diseases including colon cancer.

10. Can stress impact gut health?

Yes, chronic stress can disrupt the balance of your gut microbiome and contribute to digestive issues such as bloating, constipation or diarrhea. Managing stress through relaxation techniques and lifestyle changes can help support gut health.

11. How does gut health affect my immunity?

The gut microbiome plays a crucial role in your immune function, as it helps regulate the balance between immune activation and tolerance. A healthy gut microbiome supports a robust immune system, while imbalances can increase the risk of infections and autoimmune disorders.

12. How does gut health affect weight management?

Emerging research suggests that the gut microbiome may play a role in regulating metabolism and body weight. Imbalances in the microbiome have been associated with obesity and metabolic disorders. Certain bacteria may influence energy extraction from food, appetite regulation and fat storage, impacting weight gain or loss. By promoting a diverse and balanced microbiome through healthy eating habits and lifestyle choices, individuals may support their weight management goals.

If you’d like to learn more about the science behind your gut health, keep reading!

Fun facts about your gut

Gut health and the microbiome

The gut microbiome is reportedly the biggest healthcare discovery in decades and some scientists call it a ‘super organ’. This can be traced to the trillions of complex and diverse tribes of microbes that control almost every organ in your body.

A “leaky gut”

Beneficial gut bacteria help maintain a healthy gut barrier that prevents harmful substances from leaking into the bloodstream — “a leaky gut” — which in turn can trigger chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

The gut and immunity

Besides trillions of microbes, approximately 70-80% of your body’s immune cells are housed in the gut, in an interdependent relationship. The immune system influences the diversity of the gut and the microbiome strengthens immune function. A healthy gut or a diverse and rich microbiome has a direct effect on inflammation and therefore on your immune system. Some studies of gut bacteria clearly point to those that aid the recovery of patients (under cancer or antibiotic therapy) with compromised immunity, and bugs that slow down their recovery.

The gut and mental health

The gut has 100 to 600 million neurons and is the most complex neural network outside of the brain. Most intriguingly, it can regulate itself independently of the brain. This has led scientists to christen the gut the ‘second brain’.

If, for any reason, there is an imbalance or dysbiosis in the gut microbiome, the result can be mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. Similarly, if you are stressed, your gut function suffers and causes or worsens digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Gut health and the environment

People in industrialized, Western societies tend to have a less diverse and more vulnerable microbiome. This is linked to widespread pesticide use for produce, antibiotic and hormone use in animal farming, and airborne pollution. Interestingly, modern hunter gatherers in Africa who have non-industrial lifestyles continue to have thriving microbiomes.

Gut health and sleep

It’s not just what we eat but when we choose to eat that has a profound effect on our bodies. Our eating patterns and the sleep-wake cycle (or the circadian rhythm) play a central role in gut health.

Gut bacteria have a rhythmic activity aligned to your body’s internal clock. Emotional eating disrupted eating patterns due to work or travel disturb this predictable hum of the microbiome, which causes an imbalance. Sedentary lifestyles, exposure to blue light from devices and lack of vitamin D due to limited sun exposure can do the same damage. A depleted microbiome can have a negative effect on the sleep cycle as well.

Maintain a better gut health for better overall health

They say you are what you eat. And gut microbes are living proof of this. Understanding the importance of gut health and its impact on overall well-being empowers you to make informed choices that support a thriving microbiome.

Learn to listen to your gut and nurture it with a balanced diet, probiotics, stress management and healthy lifestyle habits and you can improve your health from the inside out.

Remember, a happy gut leads to a happier, healthier you! At Mutual of Omaha, we remain committed to providing resources that can help you live fuller lives.