Gut reaction: How gut health affects your wellness

Posted on 24 June 2019

It isn’t just about digestion. Scientists refer to your gut as your second brain because it affects your overall physical and mental wellness too.

Your digestive system, also known as the enteric nervous system (ENS), stretches nine metres from your oesophagus to your anus and contains over 100 million nerve cells. “While the organs in this system are there to digest food – swallowing, releasing enzymes, absorbing nutrients and eliminating waste – they also send signals to your central nervous system,” says Ilsabe Spoelstra, a dietician at Mediclinic Potchefstroom.

In short, the bacteria, fungi and viruses living in your gastro-intestinal system – and there are literally billions of them – are critical when it comes to your overall health. The balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria or microorganisms (microbes) in your gut can affect the proper functioning of your heart, kidneys and liver. Research on the full collection of microbe genes, known as the microbiome, is still in its infancy. But studies have already found that certain food can influence your gut health. Here’s why that matters and what you can do to improve yours.

Your gut and…

your heart

According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, some kinds of gut bacteria may play a role in the link between cholesterol and heart disease. Trimethylamine (TMA) forms when gut microbes feed on choline, a nutrient found in red meat, fish, poultry, and eggs. In the liver, TMA is converted to trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), a substance strongly connected with the formation of artery-clogging plaque, known as atherosclerosis. 

However, as Ilsabe Spoelstra cautions, medical understanding of this connection isn’t yet sufficient to develop treatments that will protect you against heart disease.

your kidneys

Research led by Dr Stanley Hazen, Chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine for the Lerner Research Institute, points to a connection between gut and kidney health. “In subjects with normal renal function, elevated levels of TMAO predict long-term future risk for the development of chronic kidney disease,” he has found. “Studies show that long-term exposure to higher levels of TMAO promotes renal functional impairment and atherosclerosis; and as the kidneys lose function, TMAO isn’t eliminated as easily. Levels rise further, increasing the risk of cardiovascular and kidney disease.”

your liver
An overgrowth of “bad” gut bacteria can cause your body to turn fibre into fatty acids. This causes fatty deposits in your liver, which leads to metabolic syndrome – a serious condition that often leads to Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

your weight

Researchers believe a lack of bacterial diversity may cause crossed signals from your brain when it comes to feeling hungry or full. There may be a link to the pituitary gland, which makes hormones that help set your appetite. That gland can affect the balance of bacteria in your gut, too.

your brain

“For years, it was thought that mental conditions such as depression and anxiety contribute to gastro-intestinal tract (GIT) disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhoea, bloating and cramps,” says Ilsabe Spoelstra, a dietician at Mediclinic Bloemfontein. “However, we now understand that the enteric nervous system may trigger these mental conditions. Irritations in your digestive system may trigger mood changes by sending signals to your central nervous system.”


Boost your gut health naturally

As Ilsabe Spoelstra explains, the mix of bacteria in your body is different from everyone else’s. “It’s determined partly by your mother’s microbiota – the environment that you’re exposed to at birth – and partly by your diet and lifestyle.” The good news is that although you can’t change the former, you can control the latter. This is because, unsurprisingly, what you eat affects the healthy diversity of bacteria in your intestinal gut. Keep these three key elements in mind when dishing up your next meal.

FIBRE aids bacterial fermentation and produces the short-chain fatty acids required to regulate colon immunity. As Spoelstra explains, most of us eat less than a third of the daily fibre requirement for optimal gut health. Make a point of adding fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds to your diet.

Prebiotics (Think of these as a food source for probiotics.) They may help your body absorb calcium better and boost the growth of helpful bacteria in your gut. They’re found in bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, soybeans and wholewheat bread and pasta.

Probiotics You can find them in dairy products like yoghurt and aged cheeses. Look on the ingredients list for live cultures of bacteria like bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. They’re also in fermented vegetables, like kimchi and sauerkraut, pickled onions and gherkins.\


What about leaky gut syndrome?

This is a hotly contested issue. However, as Ilsabe Spoelstra asserts, there is simply not enough sound scientific evidence to support the “leaky gut” hypothesis that has gained traction amongst alternative medical professionals in recent years.

Your intestines turn the nutrients you digest into their basic components, like sugar, amino acids and fatty acids. These then pass into the bloodstream because the walls of your intestines are permeable. The levels of permeability are controlled by “tight junction proteins” in your intestines. Those who support the “leaky gut syndrome” hypothesis suggest that when these tight junction proteins malfunction, they allow harmful substances into your bloodstream, causing anything from serious autoimmune diseases to Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and coeliac disease.


Published in Gastroenterology

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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