4 min|Dr. Maya Kuczma
Guarding Your Gut: The First Line of Defense Against DiseaseHealth, Gut Health
Hippocrates once said, "all disease begins in the gut".Thousands of years later, the scientific method has caught up with what he knew so long ago. Research is now connecting gut health - or lack of - to conditions as wide-ranging as Parkinson’s (1), obesity (2), and autoimmune diseases (3). Healthy people tend to have healthy digestive systems; conversely, if any part of your digestive system goes out of whack, the entire body can be affected.
But what exactly is the gut, and what does it do? When we say the 'gut', we're referring to the entire digestive tract, from mouth to anus. Within this system, there are many organs, such as the stomach, small and large intestines, gallbladder, and pancreas, that work together to ensure whatever goes into the body is broken down (digested), moved into the bloodstream (absorbed), and utilized or eliminated, as needed.
A healthy gut has defense systems built in to keep pathogens out of our body, as well as mechanisms to bring in the minerals, vitamins, and anti-oxidants that we need.
Where does it start?
It all begins when you see or smell food - your salivary glands produce saliva full of enzymes to begin the chemical breakdown of food as soon as we put food in our mouth; our teeth will mechanically breakdown the food. This mixture of food and enzymes then moves through the esophagus to the stomach where our body releases hydrochloric acid (HCL) and begins the process of breaking down proteins. At this point, our food is only partially digested. The combination of food with HCL needs to travel to the small intestine, where the gallbladder and pancreas are triggered to release bile and enzymes, respectively.
Together, these substances continue the process of digestion, breaking fats, carbohydrates, and proteins into smaller pieces, such as amino acids, fatty acids, glucose, vitamins, and minerals, that our body can absorb. Absorption begins in the small intestine, where millions of finger-like projections pick up nutrients as they pass by, directing them through the gut lining and into the bloodstream.
What is left behind in the small intestine travels into the large intestine. Nutrients that were not absorbed in the small intestine may be absorbed here, as well as water, leaving only stool behind in the colon. Stool is moved out of the body during a bowel movement.
The Importance of Gut Bacteria
For many years, we have understood the process of digestion. However, it is only recently that we have begun to understand a key player of this system: bacteria. It is estimated that we have about 38 trillion bacteria in our body, compared to 30 trillion human cells (4). Historically, conventional medicine has sought to rid the body of bacteria, assuming that all bacteria were dangerous. But we need a diverse community of bacteria within our bodies, known as the microbiome, due to the important symbiotic relationship between them and us. Bacteria in the gut in particular serves many beneficial functions, such as the production of a variety of vitamins and amino acids (5), metabolism of otherwise undigestible carbohydrates (6), and the prevention of attachment of pathogenic bacteria to the gut lining (7).
This complex system of organs and bacteria is designed to keep us healthy and well-fueled, extracting the nutrients from our food that we need to make energy, hormones, and neurotransmitters (brain and mood regulating chemicals) as well as maintain our teeth, bones, muscles, and other tissue. Due to the complex connections within our body, if there is a health concern in one area, the entire system suffers. Our body needs a healthy gut in order to function well. Health can seem very complicated. But one aspect of it is very simple - our body needs a healthy gut. Left unchecked, an unhealthy gut sets the stage for multiple health concerns. Heal your gut and you may be able to heal your body.
Signs of a Healthy Gut
- You feel well after eating
- You do not experience acid re-flux, gas, bloating, or digestive pain
- You have one to three bowel movements per day, without straining, that are: fully-formed, solid, smooth, brown
- You do not notice undigested food, mucous, or blood in your stool
- You don't rely on digestive medications
Signs of an Unhealthy Gut
- You do not feel well after eating
- You experience re-flux, belching, gas, bloating, digestive pain, loose stool/diarrhea, urgency (running to the bathroom)
- You experience constipation (fewer than one bowel movement per day and/or straining with bowel movements)
- You see undigested food, mucous, or blood in your stool
- You experience acne, anxiety, depression, allergies, asthma, autoimmune diseases, fatigue, frequent illness, headaches, hormone imbalance, insomnia, eczema, weight gain (the list goes on and on…)
Book a consultation with one of our experienced Naturopathic Doctors today!