When it comes to holistic health, digestion is one of the most important topics to discuss. The gut is often referred to as the “second brain” because it operates independently from the brain, producing its own hormones and firing neurons to the brain that do many things – altering your mood, cognitive performance, and immune system – to name a few! Your digestive health reflects your general health, and an unhappy gut manifests as an unhappy you.
Why is Digestive Health Important?
When you eat, your digestive system moves food through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract from the mouth to the necessary point of need, whether for cellular absorption or waste excretion. This system comprises the GI tract, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder. The stomach, small intestine, and large intestine (which includes the colon and rectum) make up GI tract itself.
Digestive enzymes and bile acids break down foods throughout your digestive system, releasing nutrients from the food for absorption into the bloodstream and transportation. The rest of the food continues and is excreted as stool. Poor digestion can result in malabsorption, bloating, or constipation. To help with this, we have a diverse and complex ecosystem of bacteria in our GI tract known as gut flora. In fact, we have more bacterial cells in our body than human cells, around ten times more! Our gut flora contributes to digestive health, so maintaining a healthy gut is the key to good health.
Good digestive health means you absorb the maximum amount of nutrients from the food you eat, you expel toxins and waste regularly (with regular, healthy-looking bowel movements), and you have low inflammation and good overall health. A range of digestive symptoms – including abdominal discomfort, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, unhealthy-looking stools (check out this link to see what your poop should look like!), excessive gas or hemorrhoids – means you have poor digestive health. Poor digestive health can also manifest as skin conditions like acne, a weakened immune system, easy bruising, slow healing, or weight gain, all caused by elevated inflammation. When the digestive system is compromised for long periods, conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gallstones, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), celiac, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, or diverticulitis become more likely.
Digestion and the Immune System
Healthy digestion boosts the immune system; if you have problems digesting your food, your immune system will suffer. In a healthy person, gut bacteria lives within the intestinal lining and doesn’t leak into the bloodstream. However, a person with compromised digestion may have holes in the junctions of the intestinal lining, a condition known as leaky gut. For these individuals, gut bacteria goes into the bloodstream easily through the intestinal lining and weakens the immune system.
This is partially why researchers claim a huge portion of the immune system is in the GI tract, about 70 percent, in the form of gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). Plasma cells (a key part of the immune system) release protective antibodies that predominantly reside in the gut. Both good and bad bacteria live in what you eat and go to your gut. So you must fight them off or welcome them in. When we consume harmful bacteria and the gut can’t destroy it, the immune system responds to this threat. Similarly, when we consume healthy bacteria, we boost our immune system.
Digestion and Mental Health
Preliminary research suggests that digestive health closely relates to mental health via the bidirectional communication of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve, also known as the gut-brain axis, connects the digestive system to the brain. A stressed-out digestive system results in a stressed-out brain, which manifests as anxiety, depression, brain fog, or low cognitive performance. For example, individuals with IBS are disproportionately affected (50 to 90 percent) by depression and anxiety compared to the population without this condition.
So What Affects Digestive Health?
Bacteria populate your gut from the moment of birth. The variety and density of bacterial strains in your GI tract depend on many factors, including type of birth (vaginal or cesarean), genetics, infant feeding (breast or bottle), antibiotic use and frequency, early exposure to germs, infection frequency, and your diet. While you can’t go back in time to fix your birth, you can improve your digestive health with your diet. Food rich in dietary fiber – particularly non-starch polysaccharides (NSPs), probiotics, prebiotics, and diverse macronutrients – are all linked to a healthy gut flora and digestive system.
Fiber is found only in plant foods. It helps support healthy digestion by bulking out stools to encourage regular, easy bowel movements. If you don’t consume sufficient fiber (approximately 30 grams per day), your body is unable to excrete toxins and bile through your feces. Therefore, your body creates inflammation, which affects your mental state and physical health almost immediately. Blackberries, blueberries, chia seeds, lentils, black beans, avocados, broccoli, and brussels sprouts all include this type of fiber.
Another type is prebiotic fiber, which remains undigested throughout the GI tract to provide fuel for your bacterial population. In the gut, prebiotics ferment to nourish, strengthen and increase the good bacteria. Onions, garlic, asparagus, chicory root, and artichokes all have prebiotic fiber.
Probiotics are live bacterial organisms that populate the gut with healthy bacteria. Studies have supported the use of probiotics, whether from high-strain supplements or from food, to treat digestive disturbances. One study found that after antibiotic use, probiotic consumption reduced diarrhea by 42 percent. Another study found that probiotics are noticeably beneficial at alleviating symptoms in IBS patients. Probiotic-rich foods include fermented foods like tempeh, tofu, sauerkraut, kimchi, and high-quality dairy produce.
Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods provide fiber and nutrients that aid digestive health. In contrast, processed foods that are refined and high in sugar have a negative impact on digestive health. These foods spike blood sugar, causing inflammation and damaging the gut flora, as shown in research published in the journal “Neuroscience” in 2015.
Alongside a healthy diet, regular exercise and stress management are two key components of maintaining happy digestion. Exercise improves gut health and boosts the anti-inflammatory response system to regulate inflammation. Managing stress can also help improve digestive health.
Good Digestive Health Promotes Holistic Health
Your digestive health is integral to your health and happiness. Improving your digestive health from the inside out can have a profound impact on your mental health, skin, weight, cognitive performance, and disease risk. Make daily decisions that promote internal health for long-term internal and external happiness.
Article written by Anne Menik. Follow Essential Anne at www.essentialanne.com for more on looking, loving, and living healthier. Learn more about her story on our blog, or reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media by clicking here.