The gut is divided in the upper gastro-intestinal tract (Upper GIT) and the lower gastro-intestinal tract (Lower GIT). The Upper GIT is composed of the oesophagus and the stomach, whilst the Lower GIT is composed of the small intestine, colon and anus. Throughout the gut there are various microorganisms, including yeast, fungi, viruses and bacteria, this population of microorganisms are known as the gut microbiota. The gut and the gut microbiota work together to maintain homeostasis across the body.
When the human gut is healthy and functioning optimally it impacts a variety of bodily systems and functions. Some obvious functions are breaking down complex sugars and fibres to allow for nutrient absorption. The gut acts as a first line of defence against harmful pathogens. There are also millions of neurons that interact with the commensal bacteria to produce neurotransmitters such as Serotonin, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), acetylcholine and catecholamines, which are crucial in the maintenance of a healthy nervous system.
Benefits of a healthy gut:
- Regulates the immune system
The gut is seen as the organ with the largest surface area to come in contact with environmental factors and pathogens (disease causing microorganisms). The mucous membrane covering the gut protects us from invading pathogens, if the pathogens manage to reach the stomach, they are usually destroyed by stomach acids. The gut microbiota also protects against pathogens through the production of Short-Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs). These SCFAs are anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic (anti-cancer) and regulate the immune response.
- Protects against inflammation
Due to the effects of the SCFAs (mentioned above) it also regulates and prevents an immune response cascade. Additionally the gut is involved in the production and regulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines (Molecules that regulate inflammation in the body). When the gut is compromised, the immune system is vulnerable and becomes overactive due to the lack of regulation from the gut microbiota. This results in an immune cascade, which often results in allergies, systemic inflammation (for example, reactive arthritis) and autoimmune disease (Most notably Rheumatoid Arthritis).
- Helps maintain a healthy nervous system
Through the production of neurotransmitters, the gut and the gut microbiota help regulate nervous system function. When the gut experiences dysbiosis, the nervous system has been shown to suffer. Dysbiosis has been identified in seven of the most common neurological disorders, namely; Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Autism and multiple sclerosis. Dysbiosis is common in people diagnosed with Depression.
- Regulates your metabolism
A healthy gut ensures optimal digestion and nutrient absorption, ensuring we extract as much nutrients from our food as possible, which is essential. However, the gut microbiota is also able to produce vitamins such as vitamin B12, Vitamin K and Folic acid. Another important factor that the gut contributes to metabolism is modulating the appetite and ensuring glucose homeostasis. That is why a healthy gut microbiota has been accredited with assisting in weight loss.
- Reduce bloating
When the gut is producing optimal levels of stomach acid and appropriate enzymes, we are able to digest our food efficiently. When the stomach is irritated, not producing enough stomach acids or is not able to break down the food it commonly results in bloating. Bloating may also be caused when an individual consumes the foods that feed the “bad” microorganisms as opposed to the beneficial microorganisms, foods high in sugar and processed carbohydrates are usually the culprits.
Once we realise how important healthy gut function is, it becomes clear the havoc that a dysfunctional gut can create. There are plenty of factors that affect the health of the gut such as the use of antibiotics, an individual’s diet, chronic stress and many more. Therefore when we become more educated about the important and intricate functions our bodies orchestrate, the easier it is to make educated decisions regarding our health and wellness.