What is Gut Health and why is it so important?
You may have heard the term ‘gut health’ being used a lot in recent times. Have you wondered what it means and how it relates to your overall health?
What constitutes the ‘gut’?
Gut is the term used for our entire digestive system which includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine (colon) and the rectum (anus). Our gut along with the enzymes and the beneficial bacteria (probiotic) present in it helps to break down and digest our food. Unless the food we eat is digested well, our cells will not be able to absorb the nutrients present in those foods. Hence the gut plays an important role in keeping all our tissues and organs working well!
What does ‘good gut health’ look like?
The gut is home to a host of friendly, beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus, Bifido, Bacteroides etc. Those friendly bacteria make up the flora of the gut, particularly in the colon. Unfortunately, they are joined by some common species of harmful bacteria as well. A healthy gut means that there are more good bacteria than harmful bacteria and that harmful bacteria don't overtake the good. The balance of bacteria in the gut flora can lead to many health benefits, including reducing inflammation that can lead to heart disease and lowering the chance of obesity.
Good gut health also means having healthy gut cells and a strong mucosal lining. This mucus barrier protects the human gut tissue from various external pathogenic substances (bacteria, virus etc) and acts as the critical communication interface between the gut microorganisms and our gut based immune system.
What are some causes of ‘poor gut health’?
As mentioned above, poor gut health is due to an imbalance of the good and the bad bacteria. If we have more bad bacteria than good, then it means that we have ‘dysbiosis’, which is nothing but an imbalance of the bacterial flora. Poor gut health also means that the gut cells are not very healthy and the mucosal barrier is compromised.
Some of the common causes of poor gut health are poor eating habits, consuming processed foods, excessive sugar consumption, not eating enough fiber (vegetables), having a stressful life and not getting adequate sleep. Poor gut health can also result from excessive use of antibiotics or from food poisoning.
What are some longer term causes of ‘poor gut health’?
Poor gut health can lead to several nutrient deficiencies since the food you eat is not being digested and absorbed optimally. If you don’t take steps to improve your gut health, it can cause chronic inflammation in your body. This happens due to the close working of our immune system with our digestive system. Yes, 80% of your immune system is located in your gut! When our digestion is not optimal, the lining of our intestine becomes ‘leaky’, which in turn triggers our immune system leading to food sensitivities and subsequently inflammation. When your digestion is not good, your body is not able to expel the waste and toxins. Accumulation of those adds to inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to conditions like arthritis and also autoimmune conditions like Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis etc.
Our gut also produces the neurotransmitters which affect the functioning of your brain. So if you don’t have enough good bacteria to help with this process, your neurotransmitter and hormone levels will be imbalanced too. This is called the gut-brain connection! Brain fog, headaches, memory loss, fatigue, chronic pain, trouble sleeping and issues with cravings or bad moods are also symptoms and critical indicators of poor gut health.
Is there a relationship between poor gut health and development of Rheumatoid Arthritis?
RA is one of several conditions where gut permeability predates symptoms, and it may be possible to prevent joint damage by treating the gut. Recent research suggests that IgA antibodies, which are closely associated with mucosa, are elevated in preclinical and recently diagnosed RA patients possibly due to compromised mucosal barrier.
Higher levels of gingivitis and unhealthy oral microbiota are also associated with the early stage of RA.
What steps can someone take to get a healthy gut or improve it?
Some of the most important things you can do to improve gut health is to eat a variety of vegetables, avoid processed foods and sugar, eat fermented foods which have probiotics in them like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha. Reducing stress and getting adequate sleep are also important factors as they impact digestion.
Improving gut health can reduce your RA symptoms!
Preliminary data from a study done in New Zealand shows that an elimination diet (AIP ) can improve symptoms - fatigue, pain, and sleep in patients with RA.