Your gut does more than you think! By now you’ve probably heard the buzz about the microbiome, gut-health and the gut-brain connection. Science has learned that our gut does a lot more than just digest food, absorb nutrients and expel waste. In fact, 70-80% of our immune cells live in our gut1 and it’s now referred to as the second brain.2 Our gut consists of a long tube or gastrointestinal tract, that has over 4,000 square feet of lining3, controlling what gets into your bloodstream.
We host a bustling, diverse group of trillions of organisms often referred to as “healthy bacteria,” or “bugs,” technically called microbiota or microbes, that make up our personalized “city” or microbiome4. Most of these bugs are good guys and help run our body’s systems optimally. But sometimes, good guys migrate to the wrong neighborhood/part of the gut, or bad guys move in, flourish and overtake the balance with the good guys. This causes digestive distress that may affect us on a systemic level, increasing our risk for depression, anxiety, migraines and other chronic illnesses.
In fact, our gut health has been linked to our risk for various illnesses as well as our day to day experience of how we feel in terms of mood or symptoms such as gas, constipation, diarrhea and bloating. Research has linked many diseases to the integrity of our gut bacteria and our gut lining, including inflammatory bowel disease, autism, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, liver disease and certain cancers.5
What can you do to support a healthy gut?
Eat a diet rich in fiber.
Fiber is a component of plants and only found in plant foods! Dietary fiber is what we call the fiber that we eat, and it’s made up of soluble & insoluble fibers.
Soluble fiber absorbs water in your gut and regulates the speed of digestion. Soluble fiber can lower cholesterol and slow the absorption rate of glucose from your meal, helping to regulate blood sugar levels and reduce risk for type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance.6
Insoluble fiber, known as “roughage,” attracts water to your stool to help it move more quickly and easily through the gut, helping to alleviate constipation and irregular bowel movements.7
What are the gut health benefits of consuming fiber? Fiber rich foods contain prebiotic fibers, which help to feed the healthy bacteria already living in your microbiome, and can help:
- Promote weight Loss8
- Increasing fullness (satiety)
- Reducing hunger levels
- Consuming fewer calories. Fiber isn't fully digestible by the human gut, so we do not absorb a significant number of calories from fiber.
- Maintain healthy heart function5:
- Lowering blood pressure
- Reducing your risk for heart disease, diabetes & colorectal cancers
- Improve bowel function:
- Reducing constipation
- Helping regularity
How much fiber do we need?
- Adults need 25-35 grams per day for general health9
- 14 grams for every 1,000 calories you eat9
- Increase fiber intake gradually to avoid gas, bloating or digestive upset.
- Make sure you’re well hydrated when increasing fiber intake
- More than 35 grams a day is ok too, up to 40-50gm/day may be ideal for weight management.
How much fiber do we get?
- Only about 5% of the US population meets these recommendations, and inadequate intake of fiber has been identified as a public health concern10
- On average, adults eat just 16 grams of fiber per day; just about half of the recommended amount
- Only 1 out of every 10 US Teens get the recommended amount of fiber in their diet11
What are the best sources of soluble fiber?
- Brussels Sprouts
- Citrus fruits
What are the best sources of insoluble fiber?
- Beans (kidney, black, lentils, pinto)
- Wheat bran
- Flax seeds
- Green beans
- Sweet Potatoes
Being physically active supports gut health and immunity in a variety of ways, independent of the benefits of a healthy diet.
- Keep it moving! Regular movement supports the integrity of the muscles lining our GI tract (gut); which in turn helps move waste through our system in a more efficient manner. This means less time for stool to stagnate in our gut, feeding the ‘bad bugs.’ The more we move, the easier it is for peristalsis, or muscle contractions for our digestive tract, to function properly.
- Happy bugs, happy gut, healthy body. Studies show that exercise can alter the composition of your gut microbiome.12 The exercise helps to increase population of bugs that produce short-chain fatty acids, which reduce inflammation and lower risk for type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Keep in mind that it’s a use it or lose it mindset; when we revert to sedentary habits, our bug balance changes back too.
Avoid leaky gut
Leaky gut refers to when the tight junctions that hold the cells lining our intestinal barrier together, loosen and allow substances to flow in or out of our gut that should be kept in or kept out. With so much of our immunity residing in our gut, we want to prevent these leaks. Leaky gut isn’t a medical diagnosis (yet), but is associated with IBS, IBD (celiac, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease) and other autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.13 Besides exercise and a fiber rich diet, here are ways you can reduce the risk for leaky gut and maintain a strong and less permeable gut barrier:
- Reduce or avoid use of NSAID medications like ibuprofen, which can irritate the gut lining over time.14
- Reduce stress with mindfulness, meditation and other techniques.15
- Limit alcohol intake16 and quit smoking.17
- Take a probiotic that supports your gut.
- Avoid foods you are allergic or sensitive to. This may include lactose or gluten.
- Limit intake of ultra-processed foods and foods high in refined sugars.
- Consider a low FODMAP diet if you suffer from IBS or IBD.
Focusing on gut health, as one of your strategies for boosting immunity, is a smart way to give your body the best chance at optimal living in our current world. Not only will your digestion and mood improve, your immune system’s potential will finally get the fuel it needs to protect you & allow you to thrive. Science is only scratching the surface of understanding the vast potential of our microbiome and the impact of caring for it properly, in our everyday life. You can start taking action & feeling your very best, now!
10US Department of Agriculture; Agricultural Research Service. What We Eat in America: Nutrient intakes from food by gender and age. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2009-10.