What is Gut Health?

Seven years ago, my husband developed Atrial Fibrilation. At the hospital, they told him he also had high blood pressure. A few months later, we both quit smoking … and put on 40 lbs. And so began the journey to a healthier lifestyle that would not only be good for his heart (and, hopefully, bring his blood pressure down), but also help us to lose some of the weight.

We are in our 50’s and I’ve never been overweight in my life, so this was something new for me. But, try as I might, I just couldn’t shift ANY of the weight I’d put on when I quit smoking. Doing the research, I learned that when you quit smoking, your metabolism slows down (and when you’re over 50!).

After a while, it became more about being as healthy as we can be than losing weight, but recently, I started learning about the importance of gut health, not only to help speed up metabolism and promote weight loss, but to keep us healthy overall. The Ayurvedic way appealed to me because it takes care of the whole – mind, body and spirit – and I believe we need all three to be healthy and happy human beings. Ayurveda in the Sanskrit language, means “the science of life.”

But in this post, I’m going to talk about gut health.

Attaining health is a journey rather than a destination. And good digestion with the right fuel is the only vehicle that will take us there.

In recent years several studies have pointed out that both the gut bacterial flora and the mucosal lining integrity of our gut could be strongly connected with chronic inflammatory conditions. There are also findings that the endotoxins or toxins generated within our gut entering the bloodstream are potentially creating systemic inflammatory conditions.

It’s hardly news that the gastrointestinal tract is important to human health: It transports food from the mouth to the stomach, converts it into absorbable nutrients and stored energy, and shuttles waste back out of the body. If you don’t properly nourish yourself, you don’t live. It’s that simple.

But in recent years, scientists have discovered that the GI system has an even bigger, more complex job than previously thought. It’s been linked to numerous aspects of health that have seemingly nothing to do with digestion, from immunity to emotional stress to chronic illnesses, including cancer and Type 2 Diabetes.

The GI tract is full of trillions of bacteria that not only help us process food but that also help our bodies maintain homeostasis and overall well-being. The key, experts say, may lie in the microbiome—the makeup of bacteria and other microorganisms in the stomach and intestines, or, informally, the gut. Research on the microbiome is still in its infancy, but studies have already found that certain environments, foods and behaviors can influence gut health for better or worse.

The food you eat obviously plays a role in the bacterial makeup of your gut, but other factors can affect it also.

The environment you grow up in matters too. We are way too clean of a society. More exposure to germs and bacteria, within reason, can strengthen our microbiomes. Go outside, dig in the dirt, play with animals … it’s all good. These are things that will help establish a healthy gut.

Emotional stress can also affect gut bacteria. Scientists refer to the “gut-brain axis,” a pathway through which signals from the gut can affect neurotransmitters in the brain, and vice versa. Research is still early, but a person’s microbiome and mental state appear to be able to influence each other to some extent.

Can You Tell If You’re Having Health Problems in Your Gut?

When the microbiome is thrown out of balance for any reason, it’s often easy to tell. Bloating, gas, diarrhea, stomach pain or nausea are all pretty direct signs that something in the gut isn’t working as it should. The imbalances often fix themselves after a short time, but if they become chronic, they may require a medical diagnosis and treatment. (Gastroenterologists can test for specific conditions associated with the microbiome, like an overgrowth of certain bacteria.)

How Can I Maintain My Gut Health?

You don’t have to know exactly what’s going on in your gut at all times, and as long as you’re following doctor’s orders for overall health, you’re likely benefiting your microbiome. Follow a balanced diet, stay hydrated, exercise regularly, and get a good night’s sleep because we think staying healthy overall will help you maintain a healthy gut.

Similarly, the same habits that are bad for your heart, lungs and brain – like cigarette smoking and excessive alcohol intake – can also hurt the microbiome. (Some data does suggest, however, that moderate amounts of red wine may be beneficial.) Avoid taking unnecessary medications, and talk to your doctor about how your current drug regimen might affect your gut health.

Limiting dairy, red and processed meats, and refined sugars can also improve gut health. So can getting the recommended amount of fibre – 20 to 40 g a day, depending on your age and gender. Most people don’t meet these guidelines, but you can increase your amount by adding fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds to your diet. A sudden switch to high-fiber foods can cause bloating, so introduce them gradually and keep track of how your body reacts to anything new.

Rather thank taking pills, getting beneficial bacteria from fermented food sources—like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha – that have other nutritional benefits as well.

A Gentle Ayurveda Cleanse

Knowing that I know now about gut health, next week I’m going to do a 3-day Ayruvedic Cleanse. This type of cleanse doesn’t involve starving yourself, or only drinking water for 3 days etc., but it involves eating and drinking foods that promote gut health.

Come back next week for my post on this.

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