A woman makes a heart shape with her hands on her gut
When people speak about the gut and gut health, they are discussing the bounty of “healthy bacteria” or “good bacteria” living in your digestive system.

Taking Care of Your Gut Health

Only a few years ago, if someone commented on your gut, you could rest assured they were referring to the extra pounds or inches surrounding your midsection. Times are changing, though, and now your gut means something completely different.

The Where and How of Gut Bacteria

Today, when people speak about the gut and gut health, they are discussing the bounty of “healthy bacteria” or “good bacteria” living in your digestive system. Although bacteria generally have a bad reputation for causing illness, these tiny organisms are crucial for protecting your health and well-being.

The amount of gut bacteria is staggering. At any time in your body, there are tens of trillions (that’s 13 zeros) of bacteria floating through the system. If you were to gather all the bacteria up, it could weigh as much as six pounds!

Most of your bacteria stay with you from very early childhood. In fact, a baby accumulates the majority of bacteria from the birthing process.

Probiotics, Prebiotics, and Synbiotics

In any discussion about the gut and gut health, the term “probiotics” will pop up early and often. Probiotics are live bacterial organisms consumed for their health benefits.

Products containing probiotics include yogurt, health/dietary supplements and skin creams. Though coming from outside sources, many of these probiotics will closely resemble the bacteria already in your body.

Prebiotics may sound similar, but they are different from probiotics. Prebiotics are substances – often foods – that aid the development, growth, and health of bacteria already in the body.

Better yet, there are synbiotics. Synbiotics are substances with both probiotic and prebiotic qualities.

The Gut and Physical Health

So, what does the gut do? As it turns out, the gut has a significant influence throughout the body.

Think of your gut bacteria as a colony of tiny creatures living inside of you. When something goes wrong, they send messages back to let you know what they experience and what they need for you to do.

Your gut bacteria and your intestines have conversations with each other. The research is still early, but the indications show they both send messages and can adjust their behaviors based on the information collected.

Gut bacteria changes may alert the intestines to possible issues affecting physical health. When the intestines receive a signal that illness or another danger is possible, it increases the activities in the immune system to protect the body from sickness.

Gut bacteria may also dictate which conditions someone experiences in the future. The state of your gut bacteria can lead to or protect you from:

  • A variety of cancers
  • Liver disease
  • The common cold
  • Allergies like eczema and hay fever
  • Tooth decay
  • Obesity
  • Bowel diseases
  • Colitis
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The Gut and Mental Health

It turns out the brain and gut bacteria can communication just as the gut bacteria communicates with the intestines.

People have eluded to this connection for many years with sayings like, “Trust your gut,” “Gut-wrenching pain,” and “What does your gut say?” That sinking feeling in your stomach could actually be a sophisticated level of communication between trillions of bacteria and your brain.

With this connection in place, gut bacteria can influence your thoughts and feelings. Certain gut bacteria regulate neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain that are responsible for feelings of calm, excitement, and elation. Neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine regulate sleep, mood, and energy.

Some gut bacteria contain certain neurotransmitters. It could be that an effective way to treat mental health issues is to monitor and modify gut health.

Damaging and Protecting Your Gut

Your gut is always in a state of flux, but over time, every person establishes a state of equilibrium where things are operating in balance. By following through with a normal, healthy routine, your gut bacteria will remain healthy and stable.

Even small changes impact the status of your gut health, though. Deviating from your normal patterns or exposing yourself to new environments can result in variations.

Ways to negatively influence your gut health include:

  • Eating low quality/poorly prepared food
  • Using certain medications like antibiotics
  • Traveling to different parts of the world where you contact other bacteria
  • Smoking
  • Having high stress for prolonged periods

Fortunately, your gut works to return to a balance point after a period of distress, but there are things you can do to aid the process. By eating well, reducing stress, and getting adequate rest will provide a boost to your gut.

Eating foods rich in probiotics and prebiotics is a great way to accomplish this. Some foods that improve your gut health include:

  • Apples
  • Artichokes
  • Cauliflower
  • Garlic
  • Honey
  • Legumes
  • Milk
  • Mushrooms
  • Pears
  • Rye
  • Wheat

For some people, these diet recommendations will be challenging or overly uncomfortable to maintain. These foods, commonly referred to as FODMAP foods, may be difficult to digest, cause excessive gas or lead to stomach pain.

If you experience difficulty maintaining a gut-healthy diet, be sure to consult with a specialist. Your doctor may offer another dietary style to fit your needs and body functions better.

Undoubtedly, you will hear much about gut health and probiotics in the future. Be sure to help your colony of bacteria, and they will repay your kindness.