How Your Gut Health Influences Your Overall Health
It makes sense that if we have an unhealthy gut, we’ll have gastrointestinal issues. But sometimes we forget that what we eat affects our entire body – not just our gut.
How does the gut have so much influence over our health?
Let’s start with the gut-brain axis. This is a network of two-way communication linking the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) with the enteric nervous system, which helps our digestive tract work. It functions as a second brain, connecting our physical and mental health. This helps explain the connection between stress and the gastrointestinal system. In a sense, this system gives our gut a direct line to our brain.
The gut also has many responsibilities. Obviously, the gut digests our food, but as a result of digestion, the gut also:
- Produces vitamins
- Sends messages to the brain and immune system
- Synthesizes neurotransmitters
- Absorbs nutrients
- Signals feelings of hunger or fullness
- Eliminates toxins from food
- Utilizes carbohydrates and fats
- Helps manage weight
And then there’s our immune system. The gut microbiome controls our overall immunity and inflammation levels. Our gut houses most of our immune cells; in fact, between 70 and 80 percent of our immune cells reside in the gut, according to the journal Nutrients. This means if your gut is unhealthy, you have a higher risk for developing conditions where the gut microbiome and immune system intersect including obesity, chronic fatigue syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“Part of your efforts to prevent temporary illnesses and chronic diseases should focus on gut health,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP.
Maintaining Gut Health
Your lifestyle can make a big difference on your gut health and ultimately, your overall health. Here are four tips to help you maintain healthy gut microbiome.
- Eat gut-friendly foods. This helps keep gut microbiome balanced. Many of the foods that are healthy for your gut also help preserve brain health, heart health and the immune system. Talk to your doctor before changing your diet.
- Exercise. This helps your digestive system work better. It’s also great for staving off other diseases by strengthening your cardiopulmonary system, lowering inflammation, mobilizing immune system cells that help the body defend itself, easing stress, lowering depression and anxiety and maintaining cognitive skills. Talk to your doctor before beginning to exercise or changing a workout routine.
- Drink plenty of fluids. This helps keep food moving along the digestive tract. Proper hydration is credited with lowering the risk for heart failure, supporting the immune system and improving focus and thinking faster with better clarity. Water along with low sugar, non-caffeinated beverages are your best bets. Sugary drinks can affect your blood sugar and weight, while caffeinated drinks that can dehydrate you and disrupt gut microbiome balance. Alcohol also can be problematic as tends to increase acid production in your stomach, causing heartburn and acid reflux. If water is not your favorite, you can rehydrate with some fruits and vegetables. And you may need to rehydrate more after a tough workout. Talk to your doctor about fluid intake, as too much or too little may affect the medications you’re taking. Here’s more on hydration »
- Manage stress. Too much stress can throw off the delicate balance of bacteria in our guts and cause inflammation. When you’re stressed, your body also redirects blood flow from the digestive tract to other areas of the body to handle the stress response. If this happens on a regular basis, can raise the risk for <ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome>. Stress also takes a toll on your cardiovascular and immune systems. Healthy stress management techniques include physical activity, meditation and deep breathing exercises. Talk to your doctor if you can’t get your stress under control. They may offer guidance, prescribe medication or refer you to a specialist.
“Managing your gut health can be complex but making a few simple changes may make a big difference,” says Kaminetsky. “Just make sure you discuss these changes with your primary care doctor before taking action.”