What we know and don’t know about “gut health”

Our gut microbiome and the science is complicated, but here are some steps you can take based on what we know

Digestive health, or “gut” health is a major nutrition buzzword as of late. Beyond just those living with irritable bowel diseases, such as crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, everyone is getting into gut health to reap the perceived rewards of a healthy and balanced gut.

While it is undeniable that a healthy functioning organ as important as the digestive system is crucial to human health, is “gut health” and it’s available supplements worth the hype?

Let’s dive into what we know and what we don’t know, so you can know what you are getting into before hearing about the next gut health craze.

Short-version: This is what we know about gut health 💥

  • Our gut can be influenced by the food we eat by increase bacterial diversity. More good bacteria can reduce inflammation and less bad bacteria might keep weight stable.
  • Prebiotic fibers are special types of fibers that are used as food by the good bacteria in our gut. While they might reduce inflammation, there is not much evidence for improving any digestive symptoms. 

 

  • Simple lifestyle strategies like regular exercise and stress management are equally important for digestive health. Exercise like walking or jogging literally moves our intestines to help us go regularly, and stress management can improve digestive symptoms.

Long-version: This is what we know about gut health 💥

  1. Our gut microbiome can be influenced by food

Our gut microbiome responds rapidly to changes in diet. For example, consuming a plant-based diet can increase the amount of bifidobacteria and lactobacillus, beneficial bacteria that may reduce inflammation and increase diversity of microbes in our gut. 

Increased bacterial diversity is important, as good bacteria may out-compete bad bacteria in the gut. For example, scientists suspect that bacteria belonging to the firmicutes phylum could extract up to 150 calories of energy from the digestion process, which could lead to weight-gain. 

  1. Some types of fibers can help encourage the growth of good gut bacteria 

Fibers are types of carbohydrates that give structure to plants. Fibers cannot be digested by humans, and instead of being absorbed into the bloodstream will travel down into your large intestines.

In the large intestine, certain types of prebiotic fibers like inulin, lactulose and beta-glucan will serve as food for the healthy bacteria in your gut. Through fermentation, the healthy bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids which may reduce inflammation but research finds that it does not improve digestive symptoms

  1. Regular exercise and stress management is important for overall health, and gut health 

Exercise like walking and jogging moves your intestines, and can help reduce constipation and help you go regularly.

For long-term health, exercise is also important. For example, a recent prospective study of over 40,000 individuals found that aerobic exercise reduces the risk of cancer in the digestive system. While this is not a cause-and-effect relationship, it could be another reason to get moving each day.

Stress can also impact the digestive system. Whether through physical or mental stress, your body activates it’s sympathetic nervous system or “fight-or-flight” mode.

Digestion is slowed down as your body conserves energy to fight off the stressor. In our current lifestyle that breeds chronic stress, the state of “fight-or-flight” can always be turned on, resulting in digestive symptoms as less digestive juices are secreted and muscular contractions are reduced.

Written by : Kristen Sunstrum, RD