Creating an optimal digestive environment is about far more than simply processing our food; it is connected to all other aspects of health. Proper digestion supports a healthy inflammatory response in the gut, allowing the immune system to keep running normally and delivering nutrients to fuel other bodily functions. Like Goldilocks, the body prefers to have just enough healthy food, so that it can maintain its natural detox pathways.
Maintaining a healthy digestive system - and a healthy self - starts with healthy gut flora. This is a relatively new area of research, but so much has been discovered in the last few decades. We used to believe there were hundreds of microbes in the gut; we know now that there are millions! We also know that the microbiome extends beyond the gut, to the skin, the brain and everything in between.
Read on to find out whether you can trust your gut - and why that matters.
Your Microbiome and Overall Health
We are discovering that we cannot learn enough about the microbiome and overall health. Promoting gut health is one of the best ways to support a healthy inflammatory response and as we age. Aging is a natural part of life, so we want to do our best to maintain our wellness and vitality.
We are an overly sanitized society. Children's immune systems are maintained when they are continually exposed to a variety of microflora naturally present in their environment. Washing their hands and toys repeatedly interrupts that natural interaction.
Many of the immune system's set points happen during the first two years of life. The microbiome is an important part of that. Now we know that we have a neurological stress response that has been set at age 2 based on microbiome health. How we feel and think, how our immune system functions - they're all innately related to the gut. Scientific evidence also shows that a healthy microbiome in infants is linked to a healthy gut and healthy weight as an adult.1
3 Interesting Recent Research Findings on the Microbiome
A microbial ecologist at the University of Oregon recently discovered that each of us carries our own personal "cloud" of microbes with us wherever we go. This plume of microbes is as unique to us as our DNA, and most of them are helpful. We leave a trail of microbes wherever we go, and the more time we spend with people, such as our family or co-workers, and they can say a lot about us. 2
What we eat matters tremendously when it comes to maintaining our digestive environment. One experiment studied the connection between a fast-food diet and a subject's microbiome. Another study connected moderate amounts of sugar and fat to support on short- and long-term memory. A phenomenon called cognitive flexibility, or being able to adapt to changes like finding an alternate route home, also was studied by researchers at the Oregon State University.3
Our gut bacteria might even be connected to our minds. A UCLA researcher has been doing MRIs on the brains of thousands of volunteers, then comparing those scans to their gut bacteria. The findings from the first few dozen comparisons are fascinating: The connections between different areas of the brain seem to be linked to the dominant types of gut bacteria present.
What Optimal Gut Health Looks Like
Our microbiome acts as a natural barrier to filter out toxins. The gut lining is designed to have healthy permeability, with its film coating naturally keeping the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. A healthy gut maintains that balance of permeability.
In a balanced GI system, we start digestion by thoroughly chewing a healthy food, which triggers the release of digestive enzymes to prepare the next step. The stomach releases hydrochloric acid to further break down the food, which then passes to the intestine at the appropriate molecular weight and size. Nutrients begin to pass through the gut wall and enter the bloodstream, but larger molecules remain inside and pass through the system entirely, ultimately being eliminated.
A healthy gut will face occasional challenges - like when you eat leftovers that have been the fridge a day too long or have one too many slices of greasy pizza - but it has the processes in place to handle such situations. The goal of this healthy gut lining is to keep larger molecules in the digestive tract (not in the bloodstream or elsewhere in the body) on a one-way ticket out of the body.
When these interlopers are present, the immune system is next in line to get involved, but that means it has to stop doing whatever it had previously been doing. (Your body innately has a "Plan B.") Maintaining gut health means that the immune system gets to keep patrolling the perimeter, which is its main gig.
So, Can You Trust Your Gut?
Think back to that question we posed earlier: Can you trust your gut? Consider that your second brain, known as the enteric nervous system, is made up of 100 million neurons that line the gut from esophagus to anus. It can control gut behavior independently of the brain, and it contains 95% of our serotonin, known as one of the "happy" hormones. Our gut is never "off" or on vacation - it is constantly in a feedback loop with the brain, like they have walkie-talkies with an open channel. Consider how your digestion is linked to emotions. When you are moody, how does your gut feel? These bacteria are constantly communicating with other aspects of the body.
The good news is that there are plenty of ways we can support our guts and maintain a hospitable environment for a variety of healthy bacteria. Eating local, seasonal foods, as well as fermented foods (preferably some that are homemade), can help support normal function of the gut and healthy inflammatory and immune responses.
Beyond consuming probiotic-rich foods, there are other ways to promote mucosal health. From end to end, we need to maintain microbes and pH balance to allow our flora to naturally flourish in the GI tract. That starts with chewing food thoroughly.
Digestion begins in the mouth, where chewing stimulates the three major sets of salivary glands to moisten food and release digestive enzymes. The parotid glands, located in front of the ears, release amylase, which helps digest carbohydrates; the submandibular glands on the floor of the mouth release protease, which helps break down protein; and the sublingual glands under the tongue release lipase, which assists with digestion of dietary fats. Taking the time to chew your food until it becomes a liquid supports digestion, allowing each organ to perform its specific role.
This helps the digestive system maintain the proper pH for each step of the process, which allows the healthy microbes to do their jobs and the secretions to flow properly. It also promotes healthy gut motility. (Think of your gut as a subway train during rush hour. You want it to keep moving smoothly!) This also supports detoxification through the liver.
The polyphenols in plants and calcium-rich probiotic foods feed the flora as well. In addition, bitter foods or digestive bitters naturally stimulate the secretions needed to cleave food to the appropriate size for optimal digestion.
The takeaway: Things happening in the gut support our overall wellness and vitality. A healthy gut supports a healthy inflammatory response, the body's natural detoxification processes and even a healthy mood.
10-Question Gut Health Self-Assessment
Here's a quick self-assessment for overall gut health, which may include some surprises:
- I eat plenty of vegetables, and I eat some local, seasonal foods
- I "go" regularly.
- I limit my intake of red meat and processed meats, trans fats and refined carbohydrates.
- I drink plenty of water each day.
- I adapt to stress in a way that works for me.
- I eat fermented foods (or those with probiotics) and bitter foods at least a few times a week.
- I take time to chew my food carefully and thoroughly.
- I think I have a pretty good memory, even if I do lose my keys sometimes!
- I usually eat "just enough" food, and it's mostly healthy.
- I exercise regularly (even moderate exercise like walking counts).