Digestive wellbeing is vital as we go about our day-to-day life relying on the fuel that is food. And we’re learning more about how our gut affects other aspects of our overall health.
Gut problems are widespread. According to The Gut Foundation, half of Australia’s population will complain of a digestive or gut problem of some kind over a 12-month period. That could be mild discomfort from indigestion, through to serious conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. There is also mounting evidence the gut can affect mood, concentration and energy levels.
What’s more, the gut’s central role in maintaining overall physical health has been shown to impact our skin, our joints, sexual health and the immune system.
It just so happens that Australia is leading the way in gut research. The new Microbiome Research Centre at Sydney’s St George and Sutherland Hospital is set to carry out groundbreaking research into micro gut health.
Your gut as a ‘second brain’
The gut is often referred to as the second brain because, astonishingly, it contains 100 million neurons (more than the spinal cord). These cells carry the information to your brain that cause ‘butterflies’ in the stomach when we get nervous, or that sick ‘pit’ when we are fearful. They’re our ‘gut feelings’.
If our gut microbes become unhealthy – maybe as a result of diet or lifestyle – they can alter our emotional state. Research indicates that a healthy and diverse range of gut microbes can increase positive feelings – but further studies are needed to link the findings to stress-related disorders.
In particular, probiotics – or ‘good’ bacteria – can help achieve a healthy gut. Probiotics are found in cultured food such as yoghurt and sauerkraut.
The relationship between the gut and the brain is complex and something modern science is only beginning to understand: new revelations about the role of neurons in the gut can only enhance our understanding of health and diet in the future.
How your gut affects your general health
As well as mood and mental health, the state of your gut can impact aspects of physical health. Chief among these is the body’s largest organ, the skin. Low levels of probiotics in the gut may lead to inflammatory skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis.
Crucially, 60-80 per cent of your immune system is in the gastro-intestinal tract, and when this is out of balance, we may suffer from adrenal (hormonal) malfunction. In particular, cortisol is the most important of these hormones as it controls inflammation in the body. The simple fact is that bad gut health—largely as a result of stress and fatigue in the case of immune system deficiency and hormonal imbalance—can be a factor in triggering illness and disease caused by inflammation. The gut may be key to keeping hormones in check.
Research also suggests a potential link between joint pain and rheumatoid arthritis and the bacteria in our intestines. Again, a low level of healthy microbes could be the problem.
Gut health can also impact sex drive and sexual health, due to the fact serotonin levels—which can affect sexual function and arousal—are greatly influenced by the intestine.
Foods that help, foods that harm
As mentioned, a diet incorporating plenty of probiotic foods can go a long way to maintaining good gut health and a functioning second brain. As well as yoghurt and sauerkraut, you could consider other fermented vegetables such as kimchi; carrots and beets; fermented soybeans; fermented greens and beans, and other cultured dairy products, including cheese and buttermilk.
You might also consider prebiotic foods such as bananas, asparagus, onions, mushrooms, cereal grains, almonds, kiwifruit and more. Prebiotics are fibrous foods that stimulate the growth of those all-important probiotics in the gut.
Things to avoid–or at least go easy on—are sugars, carbohydrates, caffeine, alcohol and antibiotics, which can kill gut bacteria and stop them from multiplying. Low level microbiome diversity has also been linked to heavily meat-based diets.
If you or your family have any specific food sensitivities or allergies, it’s a sensible idea to consult a health professional.