Your Body’s Roadmap: How to Improve Gut Health
In recent decades, “gut health” has become a buzzword in the wellness space. New scientific insight has opened a vast realm for us to explore and discover how our bodies transform the food we eat into our energy and ingenuity. What was initially understood as a one-way digestive highway has since been realized as a scenic journey that navigates multiple pit stops, detours, passengers, and even a few hitchhikers!
So, what do we know about the gut, and what makes it a healthy one? What do we need to know to improve our gut health? Let’s strap on our seatbelts and find out.
Getting to Know Your Gut
The “gut”: this unbecoming, yet endearing term is now accepted as the catch-all term for our digestive system. At first glance, this includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon; essentially a continuous tube with a few twists and turns. Today, we know that this simplistic structure hardly captures the full scope of our gut.
Enzymes, immune cells, neurotransmitters, and most significantly, bacteria, are the microscopic masterminds behind our digestive process. Plus, virtually every other cell and organ is connected to our gut thanks to the body’s interstate network. And it’s very much a two-way street: the overall health of our brain, cardiovascular system, and immune system significantly influences our digestive roadmap.
The Fuel for a Healthy Gut
With so many dynamic variables, it’s no surprise that stable gut health can be precarious. Like every system in the body, healthy digestion depends on the balanced participation of multiple elements. If one passenger fails to show up, or a back-seat driver takes the wheel, the trip down our digestive tract may slow to a crawl or speed past important pit stops.
Like “the gut”, “digestion” fails to describe all that happens after we eat. The digestive process comprises everything between ingestion (eating) and elimination (using the bathroom). Digestion, then, includes all the necessary steps for breaking down, absorbing, transporting, and eliminating what we consume. That even extends beyond the gut to where nutrients are transformed and absorbed by cells throughout the body.
Our genetics, environment, diet, and behavior all contribute to our gut health. While how well our cells, organs, and enzymes function can sometimes be hindered by imperfect genes inherited at birth, more often digestive issues stir from factors within our control (at least in theory). What we eat and our stress load are at the top of that list, both of which impact the health of our gut microbiome.
When the Gut Gets Off-Course
Whether rooted in DNA, diet, or stress, most of us have experienced the symptoms of an unhappy gut. Gas, bloating, cramping, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea – everyone has at least a passing familiarity with these unpleasant signs. But there are other indirect and less obvious manifestations. Fatigue, mood swings, and even skin issues can all be traced back to gut health.
The wide-ranging consequences of poor gut health make sense given the complex interconnections throughout our body. Rarely do symptoms occur in isolation, and nowhere is this holistic framework more profound than at the crossroads of our digestive system. Our brain, heart, bones, and immune system have major interchanges with the gut superhighway. Improving our gut health is foundational to supporting whole-body health.
Did you realize that our digestive tract is technically an external surface? Anything that we swallow, intentionally or not, is considered a foreign substance until welcomed in and absorbed. And the application process is serious. Ideally, our intestinal border patrol (aka our immune system) only grants entry to whom it can recognize. Things like familiar foods find matching enzymes and friendly receptors for a hearty welcome into our bloodstream.
But have you ever changed your diet cold turkey? An occasional nutritional newcomer may be vetted and invited in, but a whole crowd of unexpected guests – that can perplex even seasoned immune lookouts. And it’s this commotion that often triggers our immune border patrol to sound the alarm far and wide, setting off a cascade of symptoms we associate with an unhappy gut.
How Stress Re-routes the Gut
So, how does stress impact our gut health? On a number of levels. Stress heightens and perpetuates our immune response, so our careful immune custodians sometimes get carried away and start issuing citations to dutiful drivers. Also known as inflammatory cytokines, these potent penalties can do some serious incidental damage to our gut environment. Enough of this overstepping can weaken our intestinal lining, and that closely monitored boundary becomes more like a sieve. You may have heard of this concept referred to as “leaky gut”. When there are significant gaps in our intestinal lining, all kinds of unlicensed, potentially toxic visitors can slip through. And when reckless drivers rule the road, the whole body is impacted.
Stress also disrupts our gut-brain axis. This bi-directional messaging route is the primary thoroughfare for our stress response. Neurotransmitters communicate between the brain and our intestines to equip our bodies to fight and run, or rest and digest. With persistent stress, the brain’s alarms reach the gut even when there’s no emergency. At the same time, digestive upset sends an SOS to the brain that can throw our mood for a loop.
Getting to Know Our Microbiome
We can’t discuss gut health without mentioning the microbiome. The discovery that we have billions of microbial travelers in our digestive lane turned the concept of a healthy gut on its head. Truth be told, we owe much of our ability to digest food, absorb nutrients, and eliminate waste to our gut bacteria.
Not only do our bacterial buddies help to break down plant fiber, detoxify reactive molecules, and generate nutritive byproducts, our microbiome is a key aspect of the gut-brain axis. So not only does a happy brain promote a happy gut, but cheerful microbes cater to a mind at ease.
Amazingly, the same factors that influence our digestive health determine the health of our microbiome. The composition of our diet, our environmental exposures, and our stress load impact the who and the how of our gut bacteria. Despite their numbers, a healthy microbiome can quickly shape-shift without the right conditions.
Tune-Up Your Gut Health
When our digestive traffic report is less than optimal, the key to improving our gut health is restoring balance. The most impactful way to do so? Eat the rainbow and prioritize stress relief.
If your plate looks more beige than green lately, it’s time to start seeing color! The ideal diet for gut health should include plenty of fiber, particularly of the soluble variety. Soluble fiber foods include many familiar grocery staples: apples and pears, oats and barley, beans and peas – ingredients that absorb fluid and other substances that the body needs to eliminate. Insoluble fiber is essential too, and not just for us! Leafy greens and root veggies are excellent sources of the roughage that gut bacteria love to munch. Satisfying our microbiome’s appetite optimizes its protective effects and ensures that the friendly bugs lead the way.
A multicolored diet provides more than fiber; it’s a key provider of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that promote the recovery and resilience of intestinal cells. A well-rounded diet also delivers protein and essential nutrients that gut cells need to thrive. Plant phytonutrients help to rebalance the immune response to ramp down and restore its normal checks and balances. Superfoods and adaptogens including mushrooms, algae, and roots (which all happen to be included in our Pure Synergy® Superfood Powder!) are essential for enhancing the detoxification steps of our body’s digestive process.
While some of us love the idea of a fiber-full diet, our bodies can be less convinced. Whether it’s a family inheritance or a sudden sensitivity causing a less-than-happy reception, supporting our body’s supply of digestive enzymes with a bit of Enzyme Power™ can be an excellent way to help our systems adjust to what we know are the best foods for improving our gut health. Blending fiber-rich, nutritive plants in smoothies and soups is also an excellent way to satisfy a temperamental digestive system.
When stress is behind our digestive detours, it’s important to restore balance there too. Calm and clear communication along our gut-brain axis benefits from regular rest and relaxation. Sleep is the ultimate reset our brains and gut need to clear the road from the day’s debris. Optimal digestive health also relies on unencumbered flows of oxygen and blood, facilitated by deep breathing and exercise. Busyness and stress can have us taking shallow breaths and neglecting daily movement that can turn the traffic light to red.
Enjoy the Ride
Digestive woes don’t have to ride shotgun on your daily journey. We can work with our bodies to help them achieve balance. Slow, deliberate changes to our diet, habits, and stressful environments, plus a few of the best gut health supplements can fill our fuel tanks, straighten our lanes, and let us enjoy the scenery.