What (and when and how much) we eat has a huge impact on how we feel. March is National Nutrition Month, as well as Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so this month we are highlighting diet and lifestyle best practices in this Beginners' Guide to Gut Health.
Anatomy of the gut
To improve gut health, the first step is understanding its anatomy and what exactly it does for us. Also known as the gastrointestinal tract (or GI tract), the gut is a major player in our digestive system. There are several organs involved in this process, including the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, intestines, rectum, and anus. When we swallow food or liquid, they travel through these organs. Nutrients are absorbed to provide us with the energy we need, leaving the rest to exit the body as waste.
There are two types of intestines in the human body—the small intestine and the large intestine. The lower section of the GI tract is also the final step in the digestive process. It is comprised of the large intestine and the anus.
During this stage, the large intestine will absorb water from your food, leaving it in a more solid form of waste. The leftover stool then leaves your body through the anus.
The gut microbiome
The gut is far more intricate than you would first believe. It contains what is known as a microbiome—a living system of trillions upon trillions of microorganisms. Right this second, there are countless varieties of these tiny creatures (primarily bacteria) living within your gut. But don't panic! In a balanced gut, these little guys actually coexist together to encourage the healthy operation of the digestive system. A large concentration of them exist in the large intestine.
You may be wondering how something so small could have such a large job. As it turns out, microorganisms actually have the ability to stimulate our complex immune system. They assist with deconstructing any potentially harmful foods, as well as integrating vitamins and other amino acids into forms our bodies can use. Using their powerful digestive enzymes, microorganisms convert our food into nutrients that have a larger effect on things like muscle function and — quite possibly — the prevention of chronic diseases.
When your gut is healthy, microorganisms build up protection against pathogens that enter the body. This is why it is essential to embrace a lifestyle that works to support a healthy gut.
How nutrition affects the gut
There are multiple factors that play into gut health. Medications, the surrounding environment, and the presence of familial genes all have an influence on what is living inside the large intestine. Amazingly, every individual has a unique microbiome, and a lot of that depends on diet type. For the intestines in particular, a diet that is high in fiber has a major impact on the type of microorganisms thriving there.
Worst foods for gut health
Diets which are generally low in fiber have a negative effect on the microorganisms in your gut. In addition to lowering the number of helpful microbiota, there is a risk for production of pathogenic bacteria.
Consuming a diet of added sugars and saturated fat has been known to cause an imbalance of the microbiome, aptly named dysbiosis. With time, dysbiosis can lead to chronic inflammation—and a number of diseases. Among them are heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
That being said, try to avoid an excess of sugary foods and drinks, artificial sweeteners, fried or processed foods, red meat, and salty foods.
Best foods for gut health
Fibrous compounds that support microorganisms are known as prebiotics. There are many foods that naturally contain prebiotics, with highly concentrated amounts in garlic, onions, asparagus, bananas, and leeks.
As a general rule, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are all excellent sources of prebiotics. Fermented cuisine is very helpful as well, especially things like live-culture yogurt or pickled vegetables.
However, if you are someone with a highly sensitive gut (i.e, Irritable Bowel Syndrome), try to introduce a fiber-rich diet a little at a time to build up tolerance. Otherwise, you may be faced with cases of bloating or increased levels of flatulence.
Colorectal cancer and poor nutrition
Because the human diet has altered to such an extent over the past few decades, it is more important than ever to acknowledge its role in the prevalence of colorectal cancer. With the increased availability of foods that are sugar-heavy (i.e, soft drinks) and high in fat, there is an increased risk for developing colorectal cancer.
Signs of colorectal cancer begin with cases of gut inflammation, which in turn is largely affected by nutrition. As mentioned before, the foods most associated with inflammation include high concentrations of animal fat, sugar, and other processed fare. So when you next sit down to plan your meals, be sure to include nutritious elements, such as a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, or nuts.
Of course, it is equally vital to get screened to assess risk. If you have a family member with either cancer or polyps, you also have an increased risk for developing colorectal cancer. It is advised that you receive a colonoscopy about a decade before your family member was initially diagnosed.
How to reset the gut microbiome
The key to improving gut health ultimately lies with a commitment to a dedicated gut health program.
On the diet side of things, eating a diverse range of healthy, fiber-rich foods will support the helpful microorganisms inside your gut. Include prebiotics when you can and, if possible, try to lean into a plant-based diet. The higher levels of fiber associated with vegetables and fruits work to aid the beneficial bacteria while decreasing the harmful strains. Bringing prebiotics into the picture may also improve the function of the microbiome.
Besides switching up your diet, be sure to exercise regularly and make an effort to reduce stress levels. Anxiety and depression are thought to affect the gut, so a regular exercise regimen can help reduce GI discomfort. The best part? It is easy to begin by adding some physical activity into your day-to-day life. Consider a daily walk or basic yoga, then move forward from there. In the end, you choose what best suits your lifestyle.
Gastroenterology with Arnot Health
There's a healthier you in there — we feel it in our gut. Contact us today to get started.