Gut health and the microbiome are the next health frontier. In the past, the only time I would have thought about my gut is when it was in pain and holding me back from peak performance. Even though I don’t have major digestive or autoimmune issues, I have come to realize there are still some compelling reasons why the gut needs a little more love and attention.
The digestive system is pretty hard to love after all. It is essentially a giant mucus lined tube that is home to over 500 hundred species and three pounds of bacteria. And why should we care about giving TLC to something like that? Oh…I’ll tell you why:
Over 70% of our immune system is in the digestive tract. Our digestive system is one of the main ways nasties from the external environment get into our bodies. Think about the all things that can hitch a ride on the food we eat, the chemicals that are in processed food, or the mouthful of pool/lake/ocean water that inadvertently gets swallowed once in awhile. One of the greatest challenges for the digestive tract and surrounding immune system is differentiating between the good stuff we ingest (nutrients, good bacteria, etc.) and the bad stuff (toxins, parasites, bad bacteria, etc.). We rely on this system to let all the good stuff in and keep all the bad stuff out.
The good bacteria in our gut help train the immune system to identify what is good and what is bad. They even attack foreign invaders. Therefore, the health of our gut and our immune system are vitally linked. When one is in balance, the other is usually in balance as well.
Our bodies are protected from the toxic environment in our digestive system by a layer that is only one cell thick. We basically have a tube of toxins and sewage running through us that is lined by a single layer of epithelial cells whose cell membranes fuse together to form protein complexes called tight junctions. These junctions have the final say on what gets into our bodies and what doesn’t. The nerd in me can’t help but think of a bunch of Gandalfs…
Unfortunately, these junctions can be comprised by things like a poor diet, chronic stress, medications, low stomach acid, overgrowth of bacteria and yeast, parasites, and excessive environmental toxins. When these junctions are compromised they can allow un-screened molecules to flow directly into the bloodstream (aka, leaky gut). Our immune system attacks these foreign molecules and this creates inflammation. If leaky gut is left unchecked it can cause systemic inflammation. Systemic gut inflammation is correlated to food intolerances, eczema, celiac disease, and other autoimmune diseases. Of course, these correlations could just be coincidental but a leaky gut definitely isn’t helping the matter.
The good bacteria in our gut help play defense by taking up space and providing an additional layer between the bad stuff and the tight junctions. They also help prevent bad bacteria and parasite overgrowth by using up all the necessary resources so the bad guys don’t have any resources to utilize for themselves. Good bacteria even secrete chemicals that influence the integrity of the intestinal lining.
A comprised gut may not effectively absorb nutrients. Gut inflammation impacts the gut’s ability to effectively absorb nutrients. All that money spent on the highest quality food and supplements and time preparing nutritious meals won’t be as beneficial if you can’t effectively absorb all the goodness.
As noted above, good gut bacteria help prevent the causes of gut inflammation. Additionally, gut bacteria help synthesize vitamins and breakdown carbohydrates, that would normally be indigestible, into short chain fatty acids. These fatty acids not only provide a major source of energy and nutrients but also help with the absorption of certain minerals and lipids.
Since I want to be as productive as possible at all times (not getting sick), minimize inflammation except the good, self-inflicted kind from training, and optimize my nutrient absorption to take full advantage of all the high-quality foods I eat, paying attention to and improving my gut health is a no-brainer and is currently a key focus area of mine.
So…what am I doing to improve my gut health? Stay tuned…