The Link Between Gut Health And Overall Health

Michele H. Leder, MD, FACP
By Michele H. Leder, MD, FACP
May 23, 2023
A patient talks to her doctor about gut health. Your primary care doctor can provide guidance on issues that affect your digestion.

Trust your gut: It could be the secret to healthier living

You probably know how important it is to keep your body’s major organs healthy. Are you aware of the bodily system whose proper functioning greatly impacts your overall health? 

If you don’t, you’re not alone. The majority of Americans (85%) who took MDVIP’s Gut IQ quiz failed it. No one scored an “A” and about half (47%) aren’t sure if all the recent attention to gut health is real or a fad.

Gut health is no fad. It’s powerfully linked to your whole-body health.

Your gut encompasses the digestive tract (or the gastrointestinal (GI) tract), a sequence of connecting organs from the mouth to the anus. Trillions of organisms normally inhabit the GI tract, including a variety of bacteria, viruses, yeasts, fungi, protozoa and other organisms. This is called the gut microbiome and it is considered to be an organ unto itself. The flora is sparse in the stomach and upper part of the small bowel. Most organisms live in the lower small bowel and the colon. 

The gut microbiome weighs as much as a human brain. It acts in concert with nearly every other bodily system to regulate healthy function and prevent disease. The bowel flora plays a role in liver and other metabolism, vitamin synthesis, and digestion.

We know that the gut microbiome of the intestines can produce substances that can be an important energy source for our bodies. The ability of our bodies to clot normally relies on the synthesis of vitamin K by our intestinal flora.

When our gut health is out of whack, you can bet that other body systems aren’t far behind.

Gut health impacts immunity and disease

The organisms of the gut, also called microbiota, play an important role in maintaining immunity. Normal flora can protect us from infection by bad organisms. One of the most important functions of healthy microbiota is to ensure the integrity of the intestinal walls. A  growing body of research has shown that an out-of-balance microbiome can lead to penetration of the intestinal walls by microorganisms. Studies have linked the seepage of certain microorganisms through the intestinal walls and into the body to the development of a variety of inflammatory diseases, autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, depression, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart failure and stroke.

An Ipsos/MDVIP survey found that 3 in 5 Americans are not aware that 70% of the immune system is in the gut.

Gut health triggers autoimmune diseases

Researchers have discovered that the bacteria of the gut are altered in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and lupus. RA is one of the most common autoimmune diseases, affecting around one percent of the world’s population. The numbers and types of gut bacteria are abnormal in these patients. This is called dysbiosis. 

Patients with RA and lupus also appear to have impaired integrity of the intestinal barrier, allowing organisms to penetrate gut tissue and possibly into the circulation system. This bacterial aberration appears to play a vital role in the overactivation of the immune system that we see with systemic inflammatory conditions.

Some strains of bacteria seem especially likely to cause dysfunction of the immune system that drives inflammation. Potential treatments for RA and lupus may involve manipulation of the gut microbiome.

Strong correlations between gut health and the heart

You’ve probably heard that eating fiber is good for the heart, but do you know why? As it turns out, the intestinal flora is able to ferment dietary fiber. The chemicals produced from this process can lower cholesterol and produce an important source of energy. The fermentation of dietary fiber can also help maintain the intestinal barrier, promoting inflammation-fighting effects that protect the heart.A nurse listens to a patient's heart. Gut health is connected to cardiovascular health.

  • Heart disease: One compelling link between the gut microbiome and coronary artery disease (CAD) is the presence of a metabolite in the gut called TMAO, which acts as both a predictor and causative agent of hardening of the arteries. Another study found that the gut microbiome may affect body mass index and blood lipid levels despite a person’s age, sex and genetics. 
  • Diabetes: Mounting research indicates that low levels of anti-inflammatory bacteria and an abundance of pro-inflammatory bacteria in the gut can cause the onset and progression of complications of diabetes. The fermentation of fiber by the gut microbiome can impede the development of diabetes. Studies have shown that abnormalities in the gut microbiota have been linked to the emergence of obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, a disease responsible for millions of premature deaths globally.
  • Stroke: The gut microbiome poses a double-edged sword when it comes to stroke. Research shows that not only does an ischemic stroke alter the gut microbiota negatively, but also an unhealthy ratio of gut microbiota can increase the risk of stroke in the first place. One recent major finding is that bacteria leaked from the gut may be the source of post-stroke infections, especially urinary tract infections and pneumonia (a major cause of death after stroke).

The mind-body connection starts in the gut

It has been reported that people with psychiatric and neurodevelopmental conditions tend to have more gastrointestinal (GI) issues, such as diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain, than the general population. In fact, it’s estimated that 50%–90% of patients with irritable bowel syndrome have a psychiatric issue as well. Recent research on depression and the gut microbiome found a strong association. People with depression tend to have a less-diverse gut microbiome and higher levels of bacteria associated with inflammation. 

There appears to be bidirectional interaction between the brain and the gut flora. Gut bacteria metabolism can produce certain compounds that can damage brain tissue and cause degenerative brain disease by crossing the blood-brain barrier, influencing brain function. This can result in anxiety, depression and memory loss. The brain could affect intestinal integrity, thereby changing the composition of the gut flora.

All these factors make it vital to have a primary care physician who knows you personally and can help assess more than just your immediate symptoms. 

What you can do to repair your gut health

One way to start to ensure better gut health is to focus on a diet rich in plant-based foods. Research has clearly indicated that diet can change gut microbiota. Many experts encourage eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and fermented foods (like yogurt and sauerkraut). It’s recommended that we minimize eating red meat, refined carbohydrates, artificially sweetened beverages and trans fats (like hydrogenated oils).Probiotic foods like pickled vegetables can help your gut health.

Another way to promote gut health is to supplement your diet with probiotics (“good” bacteria) and prebiotics (certain plant fibers that support healthy microbiota). Learn more about probiotic and prebiotic foods here. Always speak with your doctor first. 

Perhaps the best way to improve your overall health is to partner with your primary care physician. Surprisingly, the Ipsos/MDVIP survey found that 2 out of 3 Americans (66%) experience recurrent digestive issues, but few have discussed their gut health with their doctor. By listening to your gut, you will notice whether GI or other issues are persistent or keeping you from enjoying life.

Talking with your doctor can help you determine what’s normal for you or what you should be concerned about.

If you’re looking for a primary care physician who has the time to take a more comprehensive and proactive approach to your health, use this Find a Doc tool to locate one near you.

Want to learn more about gut health? Take this quiz.

Similar Posts
Keep Your Brain Fit By Keeping Your Gut Healthy / Louis B Malinow, M.D. / March 22, 2016
Want a Healthy Gut Biome? Add These Gut-Boosting Foods to Your Diet / Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES / June 8, 2018

About the Physician
Michele H. Leder, MD, FACP

I treat my patients as I would want my own family to be treated. In my practice, medical decisions are made together, and care is always individualized and provided with respect, compassion and in a highly professional manner and welcoming atmosphere. 

My internal medicine private practice in Pearl River, New York has a strong focus on preventive care with extensive wellness counseling. In addition to focusing on prevention and wellness, I also manage acute and chronic medical conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity treatment. As a private doctor, I am available to my patients for urgent issues 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. My MDVIP-affiliated practice also offers services, including comprehensive, advanced health screenings and diagnostic tests, that go far beyond those found in concierge medicine practices. 

My practice serves Rockland County, including New City, Piermont, Nyack, Montebello and Suffern and is also close to Montvale and Park Ridge in Bergen County, New Jersey. I also care for patients at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center and Nyack Hospital. I am the only female internist in Rockland County offering this comprehensive approach to outpatient and inpatient medical care. 

My passion as an experienced primary care physician, with over 25 years in practice, is to get to know my patients extraordinarily well, so we “leave no stone unturned”. All of my patients have the ability to participate in their care, and together, we create a customized action plan to help them effectively attain their goals. I am thrilled to partner with my patients to help them enjoy the best health possible. I am happy to meet with you in my office to discuss your healthcare needs or the needs of a family member or friend.

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