The human body has millions of microorganisms that are collectively known as the human biome, and these microbes help with many important functions involving the digestive, immune, and reproductive systems. The microbes in the digestive system are known as the gut biome. “Gut health” refers to the well-being of this biome and the body’s overall ability to digest food, absorb nutrients, and eliminate waste. Below are some basic facts you should know about gut health.
Gut bacteria vs. disease
Researchers are beginning to understand the complex community of bacteria and other microbes that live in the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The health of your gut plays a key role in your overall health and well-being. Evidence is growing that gut microbes may influence our health in specific ways, especially in how the body fights illness and disease. Recent studies have found that the microbes’ effects on the immune system may impact the development of a variety of conditions. Some of these research findings are summarized below:
- Research suggests that there is a connection between low levels of certain anti-inflammatory gut bacteria and the onset of inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Experts believe that bacteria that may cause these diseases thrive in the gut when there are not enough anti-inflammatory bacteria present to fight them. There also may be a link between greater amounts of inflammation-causing bacteria and rheumatoid arthritis and certain allergies.
- Gut bacteria greatly influence which nutrients your body absorbs, as well as the amount of calories received. Too much gut bacteria can create fat deposits in the liver, which in turn can lead to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
- Microbial communities work with our body to prevent infection. Changes in the diversity of our gut microbes can increase the risk of developing antibiotic-resistant pathogens and causing a Clostridioides difficile infection, commonly called C-diff.
- Studies suggest a connection between colon cancer and higher-than-normal levels of disease-causing bacteria.
- Researchers do not fully understand the complex communication between the digestive system, nervous system, and the brain, which together are known as the “gut-brain axis”. However, some studies have shown a possible link between gut bacteria and disorders of the central nervous system, such as anxiety, depression, and autism spectrum disorder.
- The gut-brain axis may also be related to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is a group of symptoms that cause stomach pain and digestive distress. Although it can have other causes, IBS is often triggered by stress and anxiety.
Lifestyle, diet affect gut health
Diet, physical activity level, height and weight, family and genetic history, stress, and diet all can play a role in gut health. Therefore, you can make choices to help your body maintain a healthy gut and better overall health. Most people benefit from keeping a routine schedule, maintaining a healthy diet, eating smaller and more frequent meals, getting some amount of exercise, and getting plenty of sleep. Managing stress is also important.
Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts can provide a healthy mix of fibers and nutrients in your diet. But some fiber-rich foods, called high FODMAP foods, can be hard to digest. Examples include certain fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and wheat and rye products. If you have IBS, your doctor may recommend a diet low in FODMAPS.
Probiotics, also called “friendly bacteria” or “good bacteria,” are similar to those found in the human gut and can improve your gut health. Probiotics are available in dietary supplements and in certain foods such as yogurt. Research does not currently show which probiotics are helpful and which are not. There are still no conclusive data about who would most likely benefit from them or what quantities are needed.
Certain food additives called emulsifiers also may affect gut health. Emulsifiers improve texture and extend shelf life of many processed foods, but studies show they can affect our gut biome.
When to see a doctor
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 70 million Americans suffer from some type of digestive disease, such as IBS or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Almost 8 million people visit emergency rooms annually with severe symptoms caused by a digestive disorder. With those numbers in mind, medical experts say it is wise to pay attention to digestive system abnormalities. Any unexplained changes in bowel behavior, blood in the stool, weight loss, or ongoing abdominal pain are reasons to talk to your doctor.
Temporary pain caused by indigestion or a stomach bug is usually not a sign of any serious condition. However, symptoms that last for many weeks or longer can be a sign of a digestive system disorder. Ongoing pain and discomfort – such as bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps – should not be ignored. Many digestive disorders can be more effectively treated if they are diagnosed early.
Changes in bowel patterns may signal a gut health problem. Normal bowel behavior is to have a bowel movement anywhere from once every three days to three times a day. If you experience a major, lasting change in the bowel pattern you’ve had most of your life, talk to your doctor.
Click here to learn more about irritable bowel syndrome or to make an appointment with a UAB Medicine gastroenterologist.
Sources: National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention