Why is everyone talking about “gut health”? It’s a broad statement that may need some clarification. Many think that all bacteria are dangerous to our health, but that’s not the case. Get this: there are trillions of bacteria in our body. While that might make you feel a little squeamish initially, part of the bacteria’s role is to help digest food and help the body’s overall well-being. Research has shown that unhealthy levels of gut bacteria are linked to conditions like diabetes, obesity, depression, and colorectal cancer (CRC). This poses the question: What can people do to promote a healthy level of gut bacteria that will not lead to the progression of chronic conditions?
What are gut bacteria, anyway?
Well, there are 300 to 500 different types of bacteria with almost 2 million genes living inside your gut. Corresponding with these bacteria are viruses and fungi. This is called the “microbiota” of your gastrointestinal tract, i.e. gut. Each person’s microbiota is unique. Your microbiota is determined by your mother’s microbiota, the environment at your birth, and from your diet and lifestyle. Even though there are bacteria throughout the body, the gut bacteria has the largest effect on a person’s individual health. The immune system, metabolism, and emotional health are all health aspects that can be affected by bacteria.
What is the relationship between gut bacteria and disease?
Research proposes that gut bacteria levels in healthy patients are significantly different than levels in diseased patients. The following illnesses have been compiled as linked to the bacteria in the gut:
Firstly, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease are linked to an unhealthy gut bacteria. An over-abundance of gut bacteria feed on fiber, turning it into fatty acids, which in turn leads to fat deposits in the liver and intestines. This leads to a “metabolic syndrome” that creates a higher likelihood of the above diseases.
Another group of different types of diseases that are linked to gut health are inflammatory bowel diseases (IBS). There are two specific types: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Patients with these conditions have lower levels of certain types of anti-inflammatory gut bacteria. There is still research underway regarding this connection, but it is also believed that some of these bacteria cause the body to attack the intestines, ultimately leading to these diseases.
Colon cancer is another major disease that is onset by an unhealthy gut. A species of bacteria, Fusobacteria has been found to inhabit colon cancer cells more than other species, but more studies on why or if this bacteria can promote cancer growth is unknown.
Finally, there is the gut-brain axis. The gut is filled with nerve endings that communicate with the brain. A link has been shown between gut bacteria and disorders of the central nervous system. Three conditions in this area are anxiety, depression, and autism.
From all these conditions and diseases mentioned, the seriousness of having a “healthy gut” is very apparent.
Now the question is, how do we create and maintain healthy gastrointestinal bacteria?
- The first and most important change to make for a healthy gut is to avoid a diet that is high in fat and sugar, and low in fiber. Begin by eating a diet that is high in fiber. Fiber-rich foods include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Secondly, make exercise a normal routine in your lifestyle. Exercise promotes a healthy variety of gut bacteria. These simple changes reduce your risk of disease. Consider the fact that these are simple changes that affect major probabilities for disease. Instead of considering these changes as a “do-and-don’t” list, make it a lifestyle. Leading a healthy lifestyle will bring many happy years of good health.
Here is a list of some foods that are high in fiber. Time to go to the grocery store! Let’s start filling our refrigerator and cupboards with life-changing foods for the good.
High fiber foods
- Fruits and vegetables
Beneficial prebiotic high fiber foods
- Green bananas
- Sunchokes / Jerusalem Artichokes
Photo credit: Michigan Health Lab