For the greater gut: why gut-health is important

By: Noelle Harada, Columnist
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It’s the moment in class when everybody’s eyes begin to droop. You are listening to PowerPoint slide number 103, and just as the professor pauses to let the class think, you feel the dreaded mid-class gas. If you often feel gassy, bloated or generally run-down, you may want to consider the well-being of your gut. Your gut discomfort may be due, in part, to your diet, stress levels and lifestyle.

The health of your gut plays a key role in your overall health and well-being. The “gut,”  digestive tract, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract is essentially a long tube that runs from your mouth to your anus. It helps break food into smaller molecules and nutrients that are carried throughout the body and used by cells for growth, energy and repair. There is a complex system of bacteria and other microbes in the gut called microbiota that aid in digestion and overall immune function.

This system is comprised of trillions of healthful and essential microbes called probiotics. You acquire these probiotics at birth, but factors such as diet, antibiotics and stress can affect the composition and diversity of these gut microbes. Having a diversity of probiotics in your gut can improve digestion and immune health.

If the composition of your gut probiotics is imbalanced, then you may experience unpleasant symptoms. According to studies done by the American Nutrition Association and National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive  and Kidney Diseases, millions of Americans are affected by digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, heartburn and indigestion. Although these problems could be caused by a number of factors, making healthy diet and lifestyle choices can improve your gut health and help keep your body on track.

Some things that may negatively impact gut health include poor diet, alcohol, high fat intake and stress.

It can be relatively easy to alter the composition of gut bacteria and improve your health. Eating a diet rich in fiber is the first step to creating a healthier gut. Lack of dietary fiber can decrease the diversity of your gut microbiota. This is linked to many negative health effects like increased fat storage, higher rates of insulin resistance and increased cholesterol levels. Fiber is found in many plant foods like vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts and legumes. Incorporating these foods into your meals and snacks is important for fiber and health.

Along with fiber, prebiotics and probiotics are important for gut health. Prebiotics are indigestible plant fibers that feed probiotics; these are key to a healthy gut. Foods rich in prebiotics include bananas, onion, garlic, brussels sprouts, broccoli, whole grains and other foods. Probiotics are found in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut and miso. They are microorganisms that promote healthful colonies of microbiota and also counteract the development of harmful bacteria in the gut.

Along with fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics, it is also important to stay hydrated. One of the most important aspects of proper digestion is hydration. Be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day to keep your GI tract functioning properly.  

If you are experiencing digestive discomfort, one thing you should not do is a juice cleanse, colon cleanse, fruit detox or any similar fad diets. Cleanses and detoxes promise to clear out ‘toxins’ from your body, improve gut health, and make you healthier. However, these diets are not scientifically backed and may worsen your issues.

Most cleanse diets do not provide details about what “toxins” you are trying to rid yourself of. The notion that intestinal waste is a ‘toxin’ that poisons the body is an enduring myth. The liver, lungs, and kidneys are specifically designed to get rid of any ‘toxins’ that exist in the body. “Cleansing” supplements tend to cause diarrhea; this leads to dehydration and shifts in the body’s minerals and electrolytes. On a juice or other such cleanse, the body is typically in a severe caloric and nutrient deficiency; dehydration, depleted electrolytes, and impaired bowel function often result from these diets.

You cannot poop out the stressors and discomforts in your life; it simply does not work like that. Instead, try healthier methods of “cleansing” the gut like yoga, walking, drinking plenty of water, eating fiber-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, and consuming pre- and probiotic foods.

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