The gastrointestinal (GI) system is an extraordinary mechanism that plays a vital part in maintaining a healthy immune system and controlling inflammation from birth. The microorganisms inhabiting the gut have a significant impact on overall well-being and functionality. Here are some essential details about the gut that highlight its functions, including producing vital nutrients and combating cancer, among other things.
Understanding Your Digestive Tract
The digestive tract is an intricate system that extends from the mouth to the anus, taking the form of a lengthy tube. The contents inside this tube are technically considered external to the body until they are absorbed through the walls of the intestine. Imagine walking through one of those transparent underwater tunnels, except instead of a person, it’s undigested protein or fiber or even a bacterium like E. coli that is meandering through. Your immune system scrutinizes everything inside the tube, deciding whether it’s safe to proceed or if an attack is necessary to neutralize the foreign entity.
The Microbial World Inside Your Gut
The human gut is an intricate system that harbors a diverse range of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites, that form a complex ecosystem. This vibrant community of tiny creatures, estimated to be around 100 trillion at any given time, outnumbers the combined count of red and white blood cells in the bloodstream. Notably, the weight of these gut microbes is approximately five pounds, contributing significantly to the overall body weight.
Key Bacterial Groups in the GI Tract
The GI tract is primarily inhabited by various bacterial groups, including Actinobacteria, Proteobacteria, Verrucomicrobia, Firmicutes, and Bacteroidetes. Two important groups within these are Lactobacillus, which belongs to the Firmicute phylum, and Bifidobacteria, which belongs to the Actinobacteria phylum.
Gut Microbes and the Nervous System
The microorganisms residing in your gut have direct communication with the central nervous system via neural, hormonal, and immune pathways, making it an “information superhighway.” While these microbes may be concealed in the twists and turns of your colon, they can have a significant impact on brain function and influence the development of conditions such as depression, anxiety, and autism. The composition of your microbiome plays a critical role in regulating this gut-brain connection.
The relationship between humans and gut microbes is mutually beneficial. Gut bacteria aid in food digestion, vitamin production, mineral absorption, steroid metabolism, and immune system regulation, while humans provide nourishment to the microbes. Julie Stefanski, a certified diabetes educator and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, notes that gut microbes produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that sustain cell health and maintain bacterial homeostasis in the intestinal tract.
Furthermore, gut microbes transform lignans (found in flaxseeds and vegetables) and isoflavones (found in soy products) into compounds that may help prevent heart disease, certain cancers, osteoporosis, and other diseases. In summary, the symbiotic relationship between humans and gut microbes is essential for maintaining human health and well-being.
Maintaining a Healthy Gut
The intestinal barrier, the immune system, and the by-products of beneficial bacteria, such as short-chain fatty acids, work together to maintain a healthy balance of pathogenic and beneficial bacteria in the gut. However, when pathogenic bacteria dominate the gut, they can cause various health issues, including inflammatory bowel disease, allergies, cancer, obesity, heart problems, and diabetes.
The Significance of Fiber in Strengthening Immunity
The intestines house a vital component of the immune system, the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). GALT serves as a training ground that trains the body’s defenses to identify new pathogens and manage any compounds that enter through the thin cell lining of the intestines. To support the immune system, fiber plays a crucial role in nourishing the GALT tissue, according to Julie Stefanski, a certified diabetes educator and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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Impact of Diet on the Gut Microbiome
The gut microbiome consists of various types of bacteria, with some specializing in processing carbohydrates while others primarily handle proteins. According to research, the microbiome can change rapidly, even within 24 hours, when an individual alters their diet. For instance, consuming more meat or plant-based foods can cause the populations of gut bacteria to adapt, leading to a shift in the entire microbiome. This is how making healthy dietary adjustments can positively impact an individual’s health, as the bacterial landscape morphs with the changes in diet.
Understanding Prebiotics and Probiotics for a Healthier Gut
Prebiotics are a type of non-digestible food ingredient that selectively stimulate the growth and/or activity of specific bacteria in the colon, leading to improved host health by feeding probiotics. As per a review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, prebiotics have the potential to improve the health of the host. “Prebiotic fibers cannot be digested but can be fermented, which produces SCFAs,” says Stefanski. Probiotics, on the other hand, are living non-pathogenic microorganisms used as food ingredients to improve the health of the host. Probiotics are added to the commensal bacteria that already reside in the gastrointestinal tract and are used to treat various conditions such as multiple sclerosis, hypertension, atopic dermatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and more.
Establishing an Infant’s Microbiome
The establishment of an infant’s microbiome is influenced by several factors, including passing through the birth canal and breastfeeding. However, there are other factors to consider that can impact the baby’s gastrointestinal tract. These factors include the baby’s genes, the mother’s diet during pregnancy, and the infant’s diet and lifestyle after birth. If natural birth and breastfeeding are not feasible, there are alternative methods to promote the development of the baby’s microbiome, and there is no need to be alarmed.
Bloating, abdominal pain, and gas can result from an imbalance of the gut’s beneficial and harmful bacteria. Studies suggest that the presence of specific microorganisms, such as archaea, could lead to these symptoms, while the presence of bacteria like bifidobacteria may reduce abdominal discomfort.
Fecal Transplantation: A Treatment for C. difficile Colitis
The concept of fecal transplantation involves taking fecal matter from one person and transplanting it into another person’s colon to support the growth of beneficial bacteria. In studies conducted on mice, researchers have transplanted different kinds of bacteria into the rodents and observed the effects on their weight. However, fecal transplantation is primarily used to treat chronic C. difficile colitis, a severe condition caused by the bacteria Clostridioides difficile.
The Link between Gut Health and Diabetes
The health of the gut, including the state of the intestinal lining and bacterial populations, has a clear association with both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. Certain bacterial populations have been found to affect insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control, which can lead to an increased or reduced risk of developing diabetes.
The Link Between the Microbiome and Heart Disease
There is a significant connection between heart disease and the microbiome. Pathogenic bacteria in the gut have been associated with increased inflammation and intestinal permeability, commonly known as “leaky gut.” Moreover, these bacteria can synthesize cholesterol and other compounds that contribute to the stiffening and clogging of arteries.
Plant-Based Diets and Their Effects on the Gut Microbiome and Cancer
The gut microbiome is essential in the immune response, which is vital for fighting cancer. The composition of gut bacteria is known to impact certain types of cancer, such as stomach, colon, and prostate cancer. People who consume a plant-based diet were found to have higher levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut, which is associated with lower levels of colon cancer.
Gut Bacteria and Weight Loss
The composition of gut bacteria is strongly linked to obesity. Studies have shown that a higher ratio of Firmicutes to Bacteroides is associated with a tendency towards obesity. Moreover, the production of short-chain fatty acids by gut bacteria can impact obesity by regulating the brain-gut axis. In the future, oral medications containing specific bacteria may be used to control weight gain, even in targeted areas such as the belly or liver.
Certain foods can promote gut health, leading to overall health benefits. The following foods are known for their gut-healthy properties:
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- Tea: The polyphenols in tea, especially black tea, have antioxidant properties that can help inhibit the growth of harmful gut bacteria.
- Yogurt: This fermented milk product is a great source of probiotics that can produce beneficial post-biotics like short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which promote gut health. Moreover, it contains conjugated linoleic acid that may assist in controlling age-related weight gain.
- Cruciferous veggies: Vegetables like kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage are loaded with antioxidants, fiber, indoles, carotenoids, and polyphenols that help reduce inflammation and combat free radicals.
- Onions and garlic: Onions and garlic can be classified as prebiotic foods since they have the ability to feed beneficial bacteria in the gut. Additionally, they contain a polyphenol called quercetin, which may have positive effects on the circulatory system.
- Oats: Oats, on the other hand, are a rich source of both soluble and insoluble fiber. These fibers can help reduce cholesterol levels by blocking its absorption into the bloodstream and promoting excretion.
- Legumes: Beans, peas, lentils, and soybeans are rich in resistant starch and galactooligo-saccharides that feed beneficial bacteria in the large intestine and support the immune system. According to a study published in The Lancet, individuals who consumed the most legumes had a lower risk of premature death.
The Top 5 Foods That Can Cause Inflammation
- Saturated Fat: Overconsumption of saturated fat, which is commonly found in meat and cheese, can lead to an increase in inflammation. Furthermore, excessive protein intake can also promote the growth of harmful bacteria, throwing the microbiome out of balance.
- Dairy: The effect of dairy consumption on inflammation can vary depending on the individual. In a comprehensive review of 52 trials published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, it was found that dairy tends to be inflammatory for those allergic to cow’s milk. For everyone else, it has anti-inflammatory properties as long as it is consumed in moderation.
- Added Sugar: Excessive consumption of added sugar leads to inflammation and increases the risk of developing health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, weight gain, and insulin resistance. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar intake to 25 grams per day for women and 36 grams for men.
- Additives and Preservatives: Artificial additives and preservatives are known to trigger the body’s immune response and cause unnecessary inflammation. Moreover, they can also disrupt the gut microbiome by reducing the beneficial bacteria while inviting harmful ones.
- Alcohol: Moderate alcohol consumption, as per some studies, has anti-inflammatory effects and is considered safe. However, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to inflammation through a compound known as lipopolysaccharide (LPS), triggering the release of inflammatory cytokines and contributing to obesity, as suggested by researchers.
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