When it comes to the topic of physical and mental health, how often do we think of the gut? How much influence do you think your gut health has over your well-being? Studies have long unveiled the benefits you reap when you improve gut health, affecting even your immune system, mental health, and cognition.
But first, what is your “gut”?
The gut, short for gastrointestinal or digestive tract, is a procession of hollow organs connected through a long tunne starting from your mouth and ending at your rectum. In total, the six organs that make up your digestive tract are the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus (1).
As part of the digestive system, the gut was once considered as part of the “simpler” body systems. The past two decades have sought to overturn this perception with growing research that explore not only the intricacies surrounding your gut and the necessities for gut health, but also your gut health’s possible connections to many of your body’s functions such as the nervous system (2).
What does “gut health” mean?
“Gut health” covers not only the overall state of your gastrointestinal tract but the condition and balance of the microorganisms (also known as the “gut microbiota”, “gut flora”, or “gut microbiome”) found in your digestive tract as well. Inside are millions of gut microbiota (3), or close to 2,000 species of bacteria (4) which can be both harmful and beneficial to your body. The species your gut has depend on several factors, such as where you live, your health condition, and medication you may be taking, if any (5).
Whilst understanding how this body system functions in entirety can be overwhelming, there are some basics to know when it comes to improving gut health. These key points are discussed below.
How does your gut function?
Digestion is how your body converts food and drink into nutrients: proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water. The process of digestion is broken down into six key activities: ingestion, propulsion, mechanical (or physical) digestion, chemical digestion, absorption, and defecation (6).
These activities are regulated by neural and hormonal mechanisms, namely the hormones and nerves found in your digestive tract. Contrary to popular opinion, digestion commences before food even enters the mouth or as early you take your first bite, and not just the stomach (7).
As part of the digestive system, the gut has significant tasks:
- Your mouth handles the initial breakdown of food through mechanical (teeth) and chemical (saliva) means (5).
- The microbiome found in your gut helps with digestion in collaboration with the nervous and circulatory systems as well as the rest of the organs in your digestive system (1).
- The hormones in your gut help regulate activities in digestion by being in constant dialogue with your brain. For example, the hormones are responsible for telling your brain when your body is full or requires more nutrients in the form of food. Hormones also signal when to produce digestive juices (14).
- The nerves in your gut connect your digestive system to your central nervous system, as well as control some digestive activities such as producing saliva. This is how your mouth begins to activate the salivary glands—leading to “your mouth watering”—as soon as you can see or smell what you perceive as food. The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) in your gut also decides when to speed up or delay the passage of food and then breakdown food through digestion (15).
- The small intestine’s duodenum, jejunum, and ileum handle your food after they are broken down in the stomach. The ileum’s millions of villi absorb and transport the food’s nutrients into your bloodstream (5).
- The large intestine handles the rest of the food that aren’t nutrients. After absorbing any water content, the waste is brought to the rectum until it can be expelled through the anus (5).
These important components of digestion are affected by whether you neglect or improve your gut health.
Why is digestion important?
Digestion is important primarily because it is how your body breaks down food into molecules that can be converted them into nutrients for the cells. These nutrients include water, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals (7). Your body needs these nutrients for energy, cell repair, and growth.
Why is gut health important?
A healthy gut means the following:
- Your gut contains a considerable amount of healthy bacteria that repel infectious bacteria, viruses, and fungi (8).
- Your gut makes the necessary communications with your brain through nerves and hormones (8), enabling your brain in turn to communicate your body’s needs and dangers, when pertinent.
Your gut and brain communicate with each other far more often than you realise. The brain relies on important signals from your gut before sending messages to you, including urgent bodily needs such as the sensation of hunger and subsequently, the need to eat. This means your gut has a direct link to your central nervous system and can unexpectedly impact functions such as your cognition, emotions, and mental health (9).
If your gut helps with digestion, absorption of nutrients, regulation of many mechanical and chemical processes, and protection from infectious sources, it means your gut is inextricably linked with your immune system. It is also being studied that your gut microbiota might possibly influence several digestion-related conditions (3).
Your gut microbiome was previously considered the “forgotten organ” (3), but now the gastrointestinal tract is being rightfully studied for its impact on the rest of your body and its systems. Scientific research on this subject is still fairly new, but the more human beings understand the gut, the more treatment options open up for both physical and mental health (9).
What can you do to improve gut health?
Now that you understand that basics of the importance of gut health for our well-being, let’s look at some of the ways to improve it below:
- Ensuring that you get at least seven hours of sleep, nightly (12)
- Eating your food slowly and chewing enough times
- Drinking enough water daily
- Lowering your stress levels
- Avoiding overconsumption of caffeine and alcohol
- Doing regular exercise
- Avoiding artificial sweeteners and low-fat foods that risk encouraging your body to overcompensate with more food
- Taking antibiotics to remove bad bacteria in the gut (10)
- Consulting with your physician regarding medicines that may affect gut health (8)
A big aspect in improving your gut health is, understandably, the food that you eat. Do your best to keep these dietary guidelines in mind to support the “second brain” in our body. Aside from being aware of your body’s unique food allergies, here are some essential gut health foods.
Take daily prebiotics
These are ingredients from carbs, such as fibre, which are consumed by the healthy bacteria in your gut (2). 20g to 40g of fibre a day (8) is recommended depending on age and gender.
Prebiotics are live bacteria with health benefits that can be found in some foods and supplements.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that support digestive health by promoting a healthy balance in your gut (13).
Curcumin mainly supports a healthy digestive system overall, and helps ensure that that your digestive tract is functioning as it should be.
Think about zinc supplements
This micronutrient supports healthy digestion. Zinc has been found to protect against gastrointestinal disorders, while a lack of zinc in the body is favorable to the development of gastrointestinal problems (11).
Boost your gut health with Vitable today. Put together your own vitamin packs, made up of personalised vitamins that can be paired with a healthy and well-rounded diet to support gut health. Sign up for a vitamin subscription today and make use of our vitamin delivery service to get your vitamins delivered to your doorstep.
Find out more about other areas that the above supplements can help you with:
*Always read the label. Follow the directions for use. If symptoms persist, talk to your health professional. Vitamin and/or mineral supplements should not replace a balanced diet.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). “Your Digestive System & How it Works”. Last reviewed December 2017 on https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/digestive-system-how-it-works. Accessed November 21, 2021.
- Healthline. “What’s an Unhealthy Gut? How Gut Health Affects You”. Last medically reviewed July 2, 2018 on https://www.healthline.com/health/gut-health#signs-and-symptoms. Accessed November 21, 2021.
- Eamonn M. M. Quigley, M.D. “Gut Bacteria in Health and Disease”. US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Published September 2013 on https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3983973/. Accessed November 21, 2021.
- European Molecular Biology Laborator-European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). “Almost 2000 unknown bacteria discovered in the human gut”. Published February 11, 2019 on https://www.ebi.ac.uk/about/news/press-releases/2000-unknown-gut-bacteria-discovered. Accessed November 21, 2021.
- Better Health Channel. “Digestive system explained”. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/digestive-system. Accessed November 21, 2021.
- BIO 140 – Human Biology I – Textbook. Compiled by Damaris-Lois Lang. “Digestive System Processes and Regulation”. Published June 28, 2013 on https://guides.hostos.cuny.edu/bio140/5-16. Last updated on Nov 12, 2020. Accessed November 21, 2021.
- Cleveland Clinic. “Digestive System”. The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Last updated August 9, 2018 on https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/7041-the-structure-and-function-of-the-digestive-system. Accessed November 21, 2021.
- Tara Menon, M.D. “Everything you need to know about gut health”. Published August 7, 2020 on https://wexnermedical.osu.edu/blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-gut-health. Accessed November 21, 2021.
- John Hopskins Medicine. “The Brain-Gut Connection”. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-brain-gut-connection. Accessed November 21, 2021.
- Karen Finney. “What is 'gut health' and why is it important?” Published July 22, 2019 on https://health.ucdavis.edu/health-news/newsroom/what-is-gut-health-and-why-is-it-important/2019/07. Accessed November 21, 2021.
- Skrovanek, S., et. al. World Journal of Gastrointestinal Pathophysiology. "Zinc and gastrointestinal disease". Published November 2014 on https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4231515/. Accessed January 6, 2021
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “How Much Sleep Do I Need?” n.d. Published on https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html. Accessed January 5, 2022.
- National Center for Complementary Integrative Health. “Probiotics: What You Need To Know.” n.d. Published on https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics-what-you-need-to-know. Accessed on January 5, 2022.
- BCampus Open Publishing. “15.4 Digestive System Regulation.” n.d. Published https://opentextbc.ca/biology/chapter/15-4-digestive-system-regulation/. Accessed on January 5, 2022.
- Furness, J.B. “Enteric nervous system.” Published August 2007 on http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Enteric_nervous_system#:~:text=The%20enteric%20nervous%20system%20is,gut%20wall%2C%20the%20mucosal%20epithelium%2C. Accessed on January 5, 2022.