What is Gut Health?
July 12, 2016
By Anita Klimanis, RD
Stifled laughter and facial reddening may accompany an in-depth discussion of digestive health, but for many, the topic is no laughing matter. Good gut health is defined as the effective digestion and absorption of food, the absence of GI illness, normal and stable intestinal microbiota, effective immune status and a state of well-being with a normal quality of life.
Let’s expand on this intestinal microbiota, or community of microorganisms that inhabit our gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Although your gut feeling may be that all bacteria are bad, some bacteria and other microorganisms are actually needed for healthy digestion of foods and beverages consumed.
“Good” bacteria vs. “bad” bacteria
One chief objective of good gut health is the proper balance of bacteria and other microorganisms in the digestive system.
Good gut microorganisms can help supply the body with essential nutrients, assist in breakdown of organic compounds, synthesize vitamins and stimulate nerve function.
The most obvious way to find out that too much “bad” bacteria have colonized the gut is the presence of GI symptoms, such as chronic diarrhea, constipation, excess flatulence, and bad breath. However, the health of the gut not only affects digestion and bowel movements, but overall health of the body. Depression, skin conditions such as acne, allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, some cancers, obesity, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies may be caused by an imbalance of gut microorganisms.
Gut in a rut? Here are some causes of “bad” microorganism overpopulation:
- Increased age
- Poor dietary habits (high-fat as well as high-fructose diets may disturb gut health)
- Poor lifestyle choices, such as smoking or excessive alcohol consumption
Prebiotics and Probiotics
Certain dietary compounds have been found to provide the GI tract with beneficial flora to promote good GI health. Prebiotics are non-digestible ingredients that act as the food of probiotics and the helpful microorganisms in the gut. They are found in foods such as bananas, onions, garlic, asparagus, leeks, artichokes, soybeans and whole wheat foods. Prebiotics can be consumed alone to stimulate microorganisms already found in the gut, or with probiotics. Probiotics are microorganisms that may aid in digestion. Probiotics occur in fermented dairy foods including yogurt, kefir products and aged cheeses, which contain live cultures (look for the words “live and active cultures” as not all dairy products contain probiotics.) Lesser-known food sources of probiotics include kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, fermented vegetables and soy beverages.
In conclusion, gut health correlates greatly with overall health. A healthy and balanced diet with plenty of fiber, low stress levels, moderate exercise, healthy lifestyle choices and ingestion of prebiotics and probiotics from food sources may contribute to good overall gut health.
Anita works as a full-time staff dietitian for Dietitians on Demand in the Maryland area.