by Jeannie Versagli, RDN, CN
The gastrointestinal tract, otherwise known as “the gut,” is made up of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, colon, and rectum. Within the gut, the intestine plays a big part in overall health. The intestine contains microbiomes which are bacteria that provide many functions in the body. “The gut microbiomes are our own ecosystems made up of 100 trillion microorganisms, or microbes that live in our bodies,” writes Rachael Buck, Ph.D. from Abbott’s lead research and gut health expert. Several factors are noted in what determines an individual’s types of microbiomes present in the gut. Factors such as age, gender, genes, nutrition, the climate you live in, and even your occupation can influence your overall gastrointestinal health. This article will focus on how nutrition can have a direct effect on harming and or improving overall gut health.
Current research suggests that these bacteria influence weight, mood, anxiety, our immune system, sleep, vitamin metabolism, antibiotic-induced diarrhea, and diseases such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s, and Leaky Gut syndrome.
A Western diet, which is high in fat and highly refined carbohydrates or sugars, can cause good and bad bacteria in the gut to become unbalanced by encouraging unhealthy bacterial growth in the gut. This can lead to what is called leaky gut syndrome, a condition in which the junction in the large intestine opens up and allows bacteria and their toxins to be absorbed into the bloodstream, causing an inflammatory response in the body. Indications you may be suffering from leaky gut syndrome could be bloating, gas, fatigue, mood changes such as depression and or anxiety, aches, and pains.
Some research is indicating that our gut may be one of the causes of obesity. Some scientists suggest that the makeup of bacteria in the gut could influence an individual’s susceptibility to weight gain. Some microbiomes are better at extracting more energy from foods consumed and encourage the body to store as fat. One scientist introduced the microbiome of a low weight individual into mice and found that the mice gained less weight than before the microbiome.
According to the American Psychological Association, gut bacteria produce an array of neurochemicals that the brain uses for the regulation of physiological and mental processes such as memory, learning, and mood. In fact, 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut! Serotonin is important in the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. There is 400 times more melatonin in the gut than in the brain, so it stands to reason that a healthy gut can aid in improving sleep performance.
A 2014 study published in Psychopharmacology indicated healthy bacteria in the gut which may be effective in reducing stress and anxiety as well. Clients I have counseled with symptoms of leaky gut commented to me that their anxiety levels had decreased since incorporating pre- and probiotics into their diet. Their symptoms of aches, pain, gas, and fatigue improved as well.
Further, gut microbiomes aid in improving our immune system, by crowding out harmful bacteria that cause infections. A healthy gut releases a compound that lowers inflammation and prevents an attack on our immune system.
How does nutrition influence our gut microbiomes?
According to the Mayo clinic, consuming fermented foods can encourage the presence of good gut bacteria (microbiomes), as these foods increase the level of fermenting in the gut. In order to thrive, microbiomes require a food source called prebiotics.
Prebiotics can be natural or non-digestible foods, such as fructooligosaccharides, like inulin. Prebiotics also include galactooligosaccharides, better known as berries, bananas, tomatoes, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, and artichokes. Other galactooligosaccharides include grains such as barley, flaxseed, oatmeal, brown and wild rice.
Probiotics, the good bacteria, have the ability to change and repopulate the gut and intestinal bacteria to maintain a healthy gut. Fermented foods like aged cheeses (Cheddar, Gouda, Parmesan, and Swiss), Greek yogurt, kefir, Kimchi, Kombucha, olives, pickled beets, pickles, sauerkraut, miso, and sourdough bread provide the good bacteria to produce a healthy balance of microbiomes in the gut. It is extremely important to have good sources of prebiotics as well as probiotics as the two work together to maintain good gut health.
Nutritional recommendations for improving gut health requires following a Mediterranean diet, incorporating high fiber foods, good sources of fermented foods, and omega 3 fatty acids. These nutritional interventions minimize diseases by helping our gut to maintain homeostasis.
There is ongoing research looking into the gut and brain connection showing promising findings on how our health is influenced in a positive way through our gut microbiomes. As research, science, and my own personal experiences are showing, nutrition continues to be the pathway to health. I often say, “You are what you eat”.