The gut’s connection to health remains a bit of a mystery, but science is uncovering the digestive tract’s connection to our brain, immune system, skin, and overall health. So what is the gut? It starts at the mouth where food is brought into the body and ends at the anus, where waste leaves the body. And throughout the entire gut, there are many different microbes that live there, mostly in the intestines. “We have like a hundred trillion bacteria that exist there and they have a lot of jobs. One of those things is breaking down the food that we eat, especially those foods that we can't break down as easily ourselves, like fibers,” explained Shanthi Appelö, registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
On the latest episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, hosted by Chuck Gaidica, he and Appelö discuss how to care for our guts, and their connection to our overall health.
Gut health’s influence
Gut health can influence hormone balance and mental health. In fact, 70% of our immune system is actually in the gut. “We think of the common chronic illnesses — like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and so forth — insulin plays an important role in our body's ability to use glucose or the carbohydrates we eat to be used for energy. That's also linked to the environment in our gut in a way,” Appelö said. Fibrous foods and complex carbohydrates are good for the gut, while refined carbohydrates, like table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup in drinks, can result in inflammation. Refined carbohydrates in diets can decrease good bacteria in the gut, Appelö said. Healthy carbohydrates, like fibers, aren’t easy for the body to break down, which requires the body to work harder — in a good way. “If we don't have the enzymes to break a certain fiber down, the gut bacteria will help do that and, in turn, produce healthy byproducts and send healthy signals to other parts of our body,” Appelö said. “So, for example, if they're breaking down a certain fiber, they might produce a healthy kind of signal to tell you to make more antibodies for something, so there's so much going on there.”
Effect on digestion, mental health
If your digestion is a little off, that might be a clue that you have an unhealthy gut. Indications can include frequent constipation, diarrhea or heartburn. So can feeling sluggish, down or sad. While gut health isn’t the only reason for depression, it is related to the gut because 95% of serotonin is produced in the small intestine. Appelö says if digestion isn't up to par, then that could potentially influence the body’s gut environment where neurotransmitters like serotonin or dopamine are produced. Low levels of both are linked to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. “Who would think that I'm having a bummer of a day because I just didn't eat right this morning,” Appelö said. Listen to the A Healthier Michigan podcast to hear the entire conversation. Related:
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