The bacteria that live in your intestinal tract, primarily in the large intestine, are symbiotic with the other cells. This relationship is key to healthy digestion (i.e. keeping you regular), but also provides many important immune functions such as keeping toxins out of your body and allowing nutrients in (technically, your gastrointestinal tract, from one end to the other, is outside of your body! That’s a mind-bender, isn’t it?). When the bacteria are off balance, called dysbiosis, this otherwise well-run system doesn’t work as it should.
Typical symptoms of this dysbiosis can include gas, bloating, and other gastrointestinal upset, but it may not be limited to the gut. Research suggests that this dysbiosis can allow proteins and other molecules to seep into the bloodstream. This intestinal permeability, more commonly referred to as leaky gut, can lead to inflammation. The inflammation that ensues can manifest in a variety of ways — skin conditions like eczema, autoimmune disorders including type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, and possible insulin resistance, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
Research also suggests a relationship between our microbiome and managing blood sugars. The connection between balancing bacteria in the gut and improved insulin sensitivity may be an effective intervention plan for type 2 diabetes. A relationship has also been established between metabolic syndrome, a series of risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, and gut health. Given the role of inflammation in all these conditions, it is not a surprise that they are connected to the gut – a gatekeeper for molecules that can cause inflammation.
Health professionals also suspect a link between gut health and brain function. This relationship has led to some speculation that a bacterial imbalance may increase risk for depression.
While more research is needed in these areas, the evidence is convincing that a happy gut can reduce risk for a variety of other health conditions and improve quality of life. To maintain or improve your gut health, keep these tips in mind:
- Eat probiotic rich foods. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt, and miso can improve the good bacteria in your intestine. Some people may benefit from a probiotic supplement but try food first.
- Eat lots of plant foods. Prebiotics, found in sweet potatoes, artichokes, asparagus, onions, and many other plant foods, are food for probiotics – keeping the good bacteria thriving.
- Limit processed foods and refined carbohydrates. Diets high in these foods have been associated with poor bacteria balance.
- Bust stress. Stress (both physical and emotional) has been linked to reduced gut function.
- Limit antibiotic use. Some antibiotics can reduce the number of healthy bacteria in the gut. While they are essential in treating bacterial infections, they may be over prescribed so be your own health advocate and ask questions to make sure they are necessary for your condition before you take them.
Want to learn more about keeping your gut happy? Read about the pros and cons of probiotics here.