Why WEforum? The Gut-Health Connection – What We Should Know

May 2018

By Karen Pyndus, WEforum Member

“Just go with your gut feeling, that takes a lot of guts, a gut-wrenching experience” …. these are all terms we’ve used and heard hundreds of times. But what do they mean? Why do they depict such strong emotional and physical responses to a situation or experience? In recent years the validity of the gut to the overall health connection has been researched extensively. The scientific evidence is undeniable in proving the connection is substantial; something humans have known intuitively for years, as evidenced by these colloquialisms.

The state of your gut affects not only your physical health but potentially your mental health as well. As the principal nurturer, provider, and health advocate for our families, it is important to understand this connection in order to make informed decisions on matters that can conceivably improve or deteriorate the condition of our gut health. Let’s explore some of the ways your gut affects your overall health.

You may have come across the term microbe, or microbiome, in referring to the human body, but understanding the gut microbiome is crucial in supporting your family’s health. Trillions of microbes, or bacteria, close to 1,000 different species, currently reside in your gut. While some species, the “bad” bacteria, can cause disease, others, the “good” bacteria, promote our overall health. These microbes together create the gut microbiome, controlling a multitude of bodily functions, including digestion, immune system, and potentially our central nervous system or brain.

What effects can the gut microbiome have on our bodies? A myriad as it turns out! The gut microbiome may affect everything from weight, heart disease, diabetes, to not surprisingly, digestive health. When our gut microbiome is off kilter, one may experience symptoms like Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome (IBS), constipation, or autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease. Links to the immune system, which, when compromised, can cause the onset of allergies, arthritis, and asthma, among other diseases, may also be present.

We all know that what you put into your mouth can and will over time, affect your physical health; but what about the link between the gut and the brain? How do these microbiomes and the digestive system as a whole connect to your central nervous system, which is controlled by the brain? According to research, the enteric nervous system or ENS is the system of neurons that controls your digestive tract. It acts as a “second brain” sending messages to our real brain, which can influence our mental health. Most notably, this includes feelings of anxiety, depression and general mood changes. It was once believed that depression and anxiety caused symptoms such as IBS and diarrhea. Research is now uncovering that the state of your ENS may contribute to your mental health, and not the other way around. Subsequently, gastroenterologists and mental health therapists can practice in tandem to improve the communication between our gut and our brain. Improving these lines of communication will improve our overall mental and physical health.

Armed with this information on how the gut works and influences our overall health, what can we do promote the “good” bacteria, and keep the gut microbiome in tip-top shape for ourselves and our families? Some of the answers, like eating small healthy meals, reducing your intake of processed foods, getting a good amount of sleep, and taking a daily probiotic, may already be part of our daily routine. But some other methods may not be so obvious, such as finding a healthy way to reduce stress and breastfeeding for at least six months after birth.

Maintaining a healthy diet is one of the most manageable paths to gut health but try telling that to your ten-year-old who wants Oreos and Gatorade in their school lunch because “that’s what all the other kids bring.” What exactly does a healthy diet consist of? Watch Dr. Oz for a week and you’ll find yourself taking 25 supplements and drinking 10 different liquid concoctions by Friday! There’s almost too much information out there. Intuitively, we know what a healthy diet looks like, but maintaining it, and staying abreast of new information, takes commitment.

As a mom of a pre-teen recently diagnosed with celiac disease, I’m committed to discovering what foods are the most beneficial in establishing a healthy gut microbiome. According to research, eating a variety of different foods is important. Legumes, fruits and beans promote the growth of healthy bacteria as do prebiotic foods like bananas, artichokes and oats. Polyphenols found in green tea, olive oil and dark chocolate also promote healthy bacteria production. Reducing or eliminating artificial sweeteners and processed foods promote the growth of healthy bacteria, while switching to a plant-based diet can reduce inflammation and cholesterol. The digestion of whole grains in the gut can aid in weight loss and lower the risk of colon cancer and diabetes. Phew! But keep in mind that everyone’s microbiome is like a fingerprint, each unique to that person. A vegetarian diet may work for your mother, but not for you.

That said, in our role as champions for our family’s overall health and well-being, the most important thing we can do is listen and learn. Listen to what your body is telling you, listen to what your children are telling you, listen to your gut! Learn all you can about how to achieve that gut microbiome balance and maintain it. Learn to voice your findings, and advocate for your family’s health, both inside and outside the home. Though the information on the gut- health connection may be overwhelming, do your best to listen to, and learn from, what’s out there, and you’ll succeed in elevating your family’s well-being. WEforum!