Gut health refers to the state of our gastrointestinal (GI) system, which includes the stomach, intestines, and other organs involved in digestion.
The GI system, as we have studied since we were children, is responsible for breaking down food into nutrients, absorbing those nutrients into the body, and excreting out waste. When our gut health is compromised, it can lead to a wide range of health issues — more than we can expect — including digestive disorders, immune system dysfunction, and even mental health problems.
“Gut health” can be seen everywhere. The phrase has become a wellness buzzword, with the hashtag #guthealth garnering more than 3.7 billion views on TikTok, but experts say it is more than that.
According to Dr Aditya Sreenivasan, a gastroenterologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, gut health is not just a hot topic but a crucial part of health that affects everything from obesity to cancer rates. Even mental health may be impacted.
“The main reason it’s becoming so common is that there’s more and more data (and) understanding that what’s happening in our gut or the (gastrointestinal) tract is associated with all kinds of much larger health outcomes — more than just what we typically may be used to think of as GI issues like ulcers, gas bloating or colon cancer,” CBS News quoted him as saying.
The importance of gut health lies in the fact that our gut is home to millions, maybe even trillions, of microorganisms, collectively known as the gut microbiome. These microorganisms include bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and they play a crucial role in maintaining our overall health. They help digest food, produce vitamins, and maintain a healthy immune system.
A healthy gut microbiome can also have a positive impact on our mental health, as it produces neurotransmitters that influence mood and behaviour.
“When people talk about gut health, they’re talking about the microbiome at large and its interactions with various bodily processes,” CBS News quoted Shilpa Ravella, transplant gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, as saying.
According to Ravella, one of the most significant ways the microbiome affects health is through its impact on our immune system.
From conception to death, our microbiome truly influences the development of our immune system. And this is significant because, as we now understand, inflammation has a significant impact on our health. Inflammation, whether chronic or at low levels, is linked to almost all of our contemporary diseases. So, you tend to have more of this inflammation running through your body when you have an imbalanced or dysbiotic gut flora.
Hence, unlike what many people may believe, the digestive tract is more than just a tube through which food passes.
There are several factors that can influence gut health, including diet, stress, medication use, as well as exposure to toxins. Eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes plenty of fibre, fruits and vegetables, and fermented foods can help promote a healthy gut microbiome. Managing stress levels, getting enough sleep, and avoiding unnecessary antibiotics can also have a positive impact on gut health.
A study published in 2021 discovered that the gut microbiome may be able to predict whether a person with rheumatoid arthritis will have a progressive improvement in their disease. The relationship between healthy microbiota and disorders like diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses is still being studied.
There are several products on the market that claim to improve gut health, including drinks targeted at people who want to do so. Scientists’ perspectives on probiotic supplements are also changing at the same time. Several specialists now claim these items might not be as beneficial as previously believed.