An Introduction To Gut Health

“All disease begins in the gut,” Hippocrates said this more than 2,000 years ago, but we’re only now coming to understand just how right he was...

I, along with many researchers and functional practitioners believe that supporting intestinal health and restoring the integrity of microbiome and the gut barrier will be one of the most important aims of medicine in the 21st century. As our gut plays such an integral role in maintaining the overall health of our bodies, I thought there was no better topic for my first post!

What I'm aiming for is for this to be a bit of an introduction, equipping you with some lovely bitesize facts that will give you an insight into our wonderful world within. So ponder over the information below and share your favourite facts with anyone who’ll listen! Because in case you hadn't heard... our guts are a pretty big deal.

I just wanted to start by clearing up a bit of terminology that seems to be quite often confused. While the terms ‘micro-biome’ and ‘microbiota’ may at times be used interchangeably, they really are not the same thing.

1. The Microbiota refers to the composition of the microbiota (all the different microorganisms present in the gut/rest of body… the inhabitants of our gastrointestinal tracts). Whereas the Microbiome refers to the genetic makeup of the whole microbiota (all the different genes).

To make it super simple: microbiota = bugs, micro-biome = nucleic acids (DNA, RNA).

2. Our microbes are deeply involved in every aspect of our health, from ensuring we digest and absorb our food, maintain our gut lining (the barrier that separates our bowels from the rest of our bodies), protecting us from infections, regulating our metabolism and they even play a role in our brain chemistry and mental health!

3. We use to believe that we all started out in the womb sterile (with no bacteria at all) and our first contact or 'coating' with colonizing bacteria occurred in the birth canal. However, as research has continued to evolve, there is now evidence to suggest that there is bacteria present in the placenta, amniotic fluid and meconium (the little tar-like first stool that forms in the fetus in utero).. leading us to believe that the microbiome might be seeded before birth!

4. Your own unique microbial footprint develops over your lifetime and reflects pretty much everything about you... How you were born (vaginal birth or C-section), if you were breastfed, your parents' health, where you’ve lived, past infections, pets you have had, exposure to chemicals/toxins and even your emotions!

5. Our microbiota is continuously evolving and is predominantly influenced by Dietary choices, our age, lifestyle, things we consume (alcohol, drugs, medications), stress and the environment (humans, toxins, animals, dirt).

5. A happy microbiome has a balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria. This includes the commensal bacteria that inhibit peacefully with us, the symbiotic organisms that help keep us healthy and the pathogenic or ‘opportunistic’ ones that can potentially harm us.

6. Different parts of your body house different types or ‘communities’ of bacteria, based on things like oxygen levels, moisture, and blood flow.

7. 95% of your microbiome lives in your gut... That’s 100 TRILLION microorganisms. To put it into perspective, there are more than a BILLION bacteria in just one drop of fluid in your colon alone.

8. Your gut microbiome makes up approximately 85% of your immune system.. Crappy immune system? It's probably time to go and investigate your gut health. Exposure to lots of different microbes (the good and the bad) is essential for training our immune system so it can learn to differentiate between harmless organisms that should be ignored and threatening pathogens it needs to deal with.

9. Feeling blue? 95% Serotonin (our happy neurotransmitter) is produced in our guts. We have all experienced the connection between our mind and our gut.. the decision we made because it “felt right”, the sickness in our stomach before a big presentation or the butterflies we get when we’re nervous. This happens due to the brain, gut and the gut microbiome communicating with one another.

10. The bacteria in our microbiome play a big role in gene modulation and help determine which diseases are expressed, switching on/off some human genes in response to the bodies internal environment, which can influence whether or not a disease you could be genetically predisposed to actually develops.

11. The ‘good’ bacteria synthesize a variety of enzymes, vitamins, and hormones that our bodies can’t make on their own and also convert sugars into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that intestinal cells can utilize for energy.

12. Heard of the phrase ‘you are what you eat? Well, it should actually be more like ‘you are what you absorb’... Food can’t be properly broken down and fully absorbed without enough diverse good bacteria, so even if you are consuming a great diet you may not be able to absorb and digest all of the vitamins and minerals in your food if you are lacking enough of the 'good' guys.

13. The gut microbiome plays a very big role in most contemporary illness... Think asthma, acne, allergies, eczema, irritable bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, thyroiditis, obesity, chronic fatigue and some anxiety and mood disorders. It is important to understand that a damaged gut alone isn’t the only reason people develop these conditions, but it’s often a significant factor that interacts with both genetic and environmental factors to create the perfect storm for the disease.

14. The greater the bacterial diversity = the decreased risk of allergies

15. Things your microbiome hates? A highly processed western diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, processed foods, dietary toxins (industrial seed/vegetable oils) and a diet low in plant fibres and fermented foods, overuse of medications and antibiotics, stress, chronic infections, alcohol and a lack of time in the good old outdoors.

If you only take one thing away from this post... I hope it's that a happy, diverse gut is crucial for optimal well-being!