Our feelings and emotions are related to the brain, and gut is where our food goes- does that not mean that our gut is governing our feelings, or managing our brain? Knowing that the brain controls our entire body, it is not an exaggeration in saying that our gut can control our body and body functions too. Let us unfold the magical world of the human gut by understanding what ‘gut’ really is and what it does to keep us healthy.
What is the Gut?
“Gastrointestinal Tract (GI Tract)” or gut (also known as the digestive tract, luminal or tubular, alimentary canal) is the long tubular passage through which food traverses from the mouth till anus. From the mouth, our food is pushed down to pharynx, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, colon, rectum, and leaves our body as waste through the anus. During this passage, many enzymes, acids, digestive juices, etc. act upon the food to best utilize the nutrients present in them.
Apart from various enzymes that take part in digestion, one principal factor that supervises the efficient digestion and absorption of important nutrients from food is– Gut Microbiome or even simpler– Gut Bacteria. Yes, we have bacteria in our body- infinite numbers, multiple types, and everywhere, to the extent that we have 10x more bacteria in our body than our body cells! Not only that we live in harmony with our gut bacteria, but they are also essential for the majority of body processes, even our survival.
The world outside of our body is far different from what runs inside our gut. There is no light, hardly any oxygen, varieties of microbe-killing digestive juices and enzymes. The pH of gastric juices in our stomach is ~1.5 to 2 which is strong enough to instantly corrode our skin if we touch it. The bacteria that live in our gut have to be resilient to survive and thrive in such harsh conditions.
What is Gut Health?
Bacteria have earned a bad reputation given the diseases that some ‘bad bacteria’ are capable of, like, pneumonia (Streptococcus pneumoniae), meningitis (Haemophilus influenzae), strep throat (Group A Streptococcus), food poisoning (Escherichia coli and Salmonella), and a variety of other infections.
The ‘good bacteria’ keep these ‘bad bacteria’ in check by –
- Crowding them out so they do not have enough space to grow and proliferate,
- Producing acids that inhibit their growth, and stimulating the immune system to fight them off.
So, it is crucial to keep the numbers and colonies of beneficial bacteria in a healthy balance– called gut equilibrium or eubiosis. This healthy balance of different types of good bacteria is what determines a ‘gut health’. Depending on how happy our gut bacteria make out gut healthier. Some examples of such good bacteria include– Bifidiobacteria, Escherichia coli, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Streptococcus thermophilus, Saccharomyces boulardii, etc. Gut health refers to balance or proper equilibrium in the number and colonies of good bacteria with no trace of bad bacteria. Any unwanted change in the abundance and variety of these microbes is called dysbiosis that forms the underlying cause of many diseases including allergies, autoimmune diseases, metabolic disorders, and neuropsychiatric disorders.
Why is it important to maintain a good ‘Gut Health’?
Lately, the improvement of gut health has taken considerable attention from scientists and food manufacturing companies. The importance of a well-functioning gut is vivid, and many measures are underway to find the solution to decode the best way to boost gut health and to explore further benefits that can be extracted by increasing the number and varieties of the gut microbiome. Recently, World Gastrointestinal Organization (WGO) celebrated World Digestive Health Day on 29th May with the campaign theme of understanding the importance of the gut microbiome in medicinal and clinical research.
Functions of the healthy gut microbiome
A healthy well-managed gut equals a healthy and fit disease-free body. Our gut orchestrates almost all the functions of the body. Apart from primarily functioning to aid in digestion, it helps in maintaining the efficient functioning of other systems in our body including immunity, the health of arteries, brain health, heart health etc.
Keeping the minuscule friends of our gut happy and well-fed has numerous health benefits, both physically and mentally. The benefits of a healthy well-functioning gut can be classified into two main types mentioned below.
- Direct Benefits – those that are directly related to the breakdown of the food to generate beneficial by-products like digestion of fibres, release of vitamins like vitamin B12, etc.
- Indirect Benefits – those that are derived from by–products produced by the bacteria. These by–products include short-chain fatty acids etc that help in alleviating symptoms of chronic lifestyle diseases.
Knowing how important it is to have a healthy gut microbiome, we must take measures to improve it. A healthy diverse diet, moderate amounts of regular physical activity, stress, and sleep management, etc are considered key factors in regulating and maintaining a healthy gut.