Why is gut health so important?
Why is gut health so important?
The gut microbiome is the foundation of good health.
Good gut health brings a balance between the good and bad bacteria in your digestive system.
Poor gut health, also known as gut dysbiosis, not only affects your digestion, but multiple systems of the body and your overall health and wellbeing. It can affect your brain function, heart, hormones, weight, immune system and your propensity to develop disease.
Each person’s gut microbiome is unique, and the good news is that by understanding the composition of the individual’s gut, a Functional Medicine Practitioner can test, diagnose and treat you holistically to rebalance your system and restore your gut health to optimal functioning.
The gut microbiome
“The gut microbiome (GM) refers to the genetic makeup of all microbes that exist within the human gastrointestinal tract, including bacteria, viruses, yeast, protozoa, fungi and archaea. The GM contains ~100 trillion micro-organisms, which encode over three million genes producing thousands of metabolites, which replace or modulate many of the functions of the human host.” 
The microbes in our gut contribute to metabolic functions, protect against pathogens, educate the immune system, and affect directly or indirectly most of our physiologic functions. 
Maintaining a strong and healthy digestive system is key for promoting nutrient absorption, fostering a robust and diverse microbiome, and supporting wellbeing and gastrointestinal health.
It makes sense that imbalance in the gut microbiome can be brought on by poor diet as it digests the food you eat and absorbs the nutrients that fuel your body. It can also be a result of poor sleep, alcohol consumption, medications, inactivity, age, exposure to pathogens, as well as your family genes.
These lifestyle, environmental and genetic factors can cause:
- bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections
- poor digestion that prevents the absorption of nutrients to keep you healthy
- intestinal permeability
- low levels of good bacteria
All of the above can cause unwanted symptoms, leaving you feeling unwell, tired and unhealthy overall.
What systems in the body does the gut affect?
The gut microbiome plays a very important role in health.
The nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract communicate through a bidirectional network of signalling pathways called the gut-brain axis, which consists of multiple connections, including the vagus nerve, the immune system, and bacterial metabolites and products. 
Gut – Brain Axis – anxiety, depression and other mood disorders
The gut-brain axis (GBA) consists of bidirectional communication between the central and the enteric nervous system, linking emotional and cognitive centres of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions. 
Your gut and brain are connected physically through millions of nerves, most importantly, the vagus nerve. The gut and its microbes also control inflammation and make many different compounds that can affect brain health.
Research demonstrates that patients with severe mental disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression present with various alterations of the gut microbiota. These patients also present with increased intestinal permeability which refers to how easily substances pass through the intestinal wall. When the tight junctions of intestinal walls become loose, the gut becomes more permeable, which may allow bacteria and toxins to pass from the gut into the bloodstream. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as “leaky gut.” 
HPA (Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal) – Gut Axis – fatigue, thyroid issues, stress response
These organs control reactions to stress and regulate many body processes, including digestion, the immune system, mood and emotions, sexuality, and energy storage and expenditure. Poor gut health can cause a range of health issues relating to the HPA and vice versa.
Immune – Gut Axis – viral loads, common colds and flu, general well-being, the development of autoimmune disorders
The gut contains a thin wall of cells that work as a barrier between what stays in your intestine and what passes into your bloodstream. Behind that barrier are cells linked to your immune system that are constantly sensing what is in your gut. These cells are a vital part of the body’s immune response when you’re sick. If you are suffering from gut dysbiosis, you are more likely to catch colds and flus, as well as develop autoimmune disorders.
Heart – Gut Axis – heart disease, blood pressure, atherosclerosis
Gut microbiota has been identified as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and plays a role in the development of atherosclerosis and heart failure. The structure and function of the gut are altered in patients with heart failure, specifically diminished intestinal blood flow, which correlates with the severity of heart failure. 
Some unhealthy bacteria in the gut microbiome can also contribute to heart disease by producing trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). TMAO contributes to blocked arteries, which may lead to heart attacks or stroke.
Skin – Gut Axis – acne, eczema, dermatitis and other skin conditions
The “gut-skin axis” refers to all the connections between our skin and digestive system. Studies have shown that both stress and gut inflammation can impair the integrity and protective function of the epidermal barrier. This in turn leads to a decrease in antimicrobial peptides produced in the skin, and an increase in the severity of infection and inflammation in the skin. 
How do I know if I have poor gut health?
There are many symptoms that may indicate your gut is not happy. The obvious one is stomach discomfort – gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation and abdominal pain.
Less obvious symptoms may include:
Fatigue – a study found that people with chronic fatigue syndrome may have imbalances in the gut microbiome, which consists of the bacteria, microorganisms, fungi, and viruses present in the gastrointestinal tract. Researchers also found that almost half of the people with fatigue also had IBS.
Food cravings – too much sugar in the diet can lead to an abundance of bad bacteria in the gut and dysbiosis.
Weight changes – a diet high in fat and refined carbohydrates promotes intestinal bacteria linked to obesity.
Skin irritation – the gut microbiome influences the skin through complex immune mechanisms and can cause acne, psoriasis, and eczema.
Cardiovascular disease – changes to the composition of gut microbiota has been linked to the development and progression of cardiovascular disease. Risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including aging, obesity, dietary patterns and a sedentary lifestyle, have been shown to induce gut dysbiosis. 
Diabetes – inflammation caused by an unhealthy diet and lifestyle contributes to poor gut health and can be contributing factor to developing Type 2 diabetes.
Allergies – an unhealthy gut can influence respiratory, food and skin allergies.
Autoimmune conditions – A study found that a gut bacteria called Bacteroides fragilis produces a protein that may trigger the onset of autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and multiple sclerosis. 
Mood issues – gut disturbances and inflammation can affect your mood and can cause anxiety and depression.
Liver disease – There is evidence of associations between gut dysbiosis and liver disease. 
Migraines – research tells us that your gut may be the reason for your migraines.
Cancer – new research is focusing on the link between cancer and the gut microbiome.
Symptoms of an unhealthy gut are wide-ranging and may also be indicators of other issues so the best way to understand the root cause of your health problem, is to test the composition of the gut.
How do we test the gut microbiome?
Your Functional Medicine practitioner will undertake a Microbiome Mapping stool analysis. This test will require a stool sample that will be analysed for microbes and imbalances in your gastro-intestinal system. It will also indicate inflammatory conditions or autoimmune diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and Celiac disease.
Your practitioner will also conduct a test for intestinal permeability, a breath test to ascertain whether you have Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) and tests for food intolerances.
How do I improve my gut microbiome?
There are ways to improve your gut microbiome, including:
- Eat a diverse range of foods to create a diverse microbiome.
- Eat fermented foods to reduce the amount of disease-causing species in the gut.
- Limit your intake of artificial sweeteners: Some evidence has shown that artificial sweeteners like aspartame increase blood sugar by stimulating the growth of unhealthy bacteria like Enterobacteriaceae in the gut microbiome (53Trusted Source).
- Eat prebiotic foods to stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria. Prebiotic-rich foods include artichokes, bananas, asparagus, oats and apples.
- Breastfeed for at least six months to develop the gut microbiome.
- Eat whole grains.
- Try a plant-based diet.
- Eat foods rich in polyphenols (plant compounds found in red wine, green tea, dark chocolate, olive oil and whole grains) which are broken down by the microbiome to stimulate healthy bacterial growth.
- Take a probiotic supplement to restore the gut to a healthy state after dysbiosis.
- Only take antibiotics only when necessary as they kill not only the bad bacteria, but the good bacteria too. 
How we can help
Ageing, obesity, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle have been shown to induce gut dysbiosis. Through testing and by understanding how these, and other, factors are impacting your gut microbiome, we can work towards making lifestyle changes, improving your diet and introducing supplements to improve your health.
If you feel that you could benefit from the above, at Advanced Functional Medicine, our Functional Medicine practitioners will support you.