By Steven Spriensma, Goodness Me!
It’s often referred to as the “second brain”, which is kind of scary, given that you’d probably not forget an actual second brain if it resided in your gut. But this nickname for your digestive system conveys the idea that healthy digestion helps your overall physical and mental health, and that you should take a lot of care to support it!
When taking care of it, you’re not just minding your body. The digestive system is a home to trillions of bacteria, virus, archaea, and even fungi, a microbiota made up of anywhere between 300 to 1000 species of heroes and villains that determine a lot more than just efficient food digestion. Out of these little creatures, we know most about the role of bacteria, and even then scientists are discovering more and more about it.
We’re carrying an incredible world around down there – here’s why (and how) to take care of it!
Gut Bacteria and Health
Everyone’s microbiota is different, and its diversity is influenced by age, diet and even socioeconomic status.[i] These bacteria facilitate a number of processes that benefit both you and the bacteria by communicating with the host’s immune system. Certain acts can promote the growth of healthy bacteria, by moving the digestive process along and not giving the harmful bacteria the toxins off of which they love to feed. In contrast, stress, a poor diet, lack of exercise, and antibiotic use can throw off or deplete the good bacteria in your gut.
And these good bacteria are, well, very good, and do so much for your body! Gut bacteria metabolizes nutrients from foods, supplements, and medications, protects against intestinal infections, and synthesizes vitamin K, biotin, vitamin B12, folic acid, and thiamine. The buildup of good bacteria in the gut can protect against inflammation that causes arterial plaque buildup, as bad bacteria release toxins that can get into the blood.[ii] They do all this for you, and all they ask in return is some real estate and food. Not a bad relationship!
We’re also learning more and more about the role of gut bacteria on mental health, too. As mentioned, this veritable forest of microorganisms can be influenced by stress and anxiety, which highlights the connection between our enteric nervous system (ENS) and the brain. The ENS is a mesh-like system of 500 million neurons found in the lining of the gut tissue from the esophagus all the way to the anus, and it has its own reflexes and senses independent of the brain to help move food down the line.[iii] The trillions of microbiota have an impact on this system, signaling to the central nervous system and activating neurons.[iv]
How we treat our body has an effect on these important bacteria, and we know that exercise and fitness has an impact on the growth of beneficial bacteria. One study compared Ireland’s national rugby team – in the thick of intensive preseason training – to two groups of men: one group where all participants had normal BMIs and occasional exercise habits, the other group consisting of overweight or obese men. The rugby players had the most microbiota diversity and even low inflammation markers in the blood, even though their muscles were taking a massive beating. They were especially high in a bacterial species named Akkermansiaceae, a species linked to lower risks of inflammation, suggesting a correlation between gut bacteria and tissue recovery.[v]
These kinds of discoveries aren’t novel anymore, and as scientists continuously study the gut, they’re finding all kinds of new roles for the bacteria. Israeli scientists just discovered that your specific gut bacteria could determine how your body reacts to different types of bread. Through all this, the different scientific findings point to one conclusion: healthy microbiota, healthy life.
Probiotics and Digestive Enzymes
So we’ve seen that fitness and exercise are linked, however tangentially, to great gut health, but your microbiota needs food. It’s always good to fit in fermented foods in your diet, and yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi can be delicious ways of treating the good bacteria in your gut. In China, Korea, and Japan, it’s believed that gut diseases are less common because of their many traditional fermented dishes.[vi]
But this specific food diversity is tough to achieve for us here in Canada, especially with our North American diets and what we commonly have available to us. Canadian cuisine like poutine and maple syrup might sound great to our brain (though that’s probably the ENS thinking for you), but eat it often enough and it’ll effect even your mental wellbeing. It’s so easy to get too many processed foods, sugars, and unhealthy fats, all of which can lead to less bacterial diversity and promote the growth of unhealthy species.
One easy way to help your good bacteria win the fight over evil? Whole grains. Fiber can help promote the growth of bacterial cultures associated with healthy BMIs, giving them something to eat that won’t cause inflammation. But for many people, grain just doesn’t sit well; in this case, there are a range of supplements that can make up for a lack of natural digestive aids in your diet.
Probiotics are living, healthy strains of microorganisms, and there are many supplements and strains to take for a variety of conditions. They range from probiotics for general gut health (15 billion colony-forming units, or CFUs) to supplements to take after antibiotic use (100 billion CFUs). They can help treat diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, regulate bowel movements, and help relieve other kinds of digestive distress that comes when changing diets for health reasons.
Digestive enzymes are different from probiotics, in that they help break down your food before it gets to the gut. They are proteins made naturally by your salivary glands, stomach, pancreas, and the small intestine to break down proteins, carbs, and fats to help you digest nutrients. Often times, exercise and protein supplementation can cause digestive problems like bloating; digestive enzymes can help break down the proteins, letting your body absorb the nutrients more efficiently. They also don’t leave large food particles for bad bacteria to grow and thrive on. When you’re taking on a high-fiber diet with plenty of plant-based foods, digestive enzymes can help break down the fiber and minimize gas and bloating associated.
For both probiotics and digestive enzymes, talk to a nutritional expert or doctor who knows your history before incorporating them into your diet. Healthy digestion is an important part of beating the stereotypical American diet, along with eating right and exercise. You’ll not only look better on the outside – you’ll feel better inside, too!