The gastrointestinal tract is one of the most fascinating and diverse parts of our body. There are 10 trillion beneficial bacteria working to maintain gut health in your large intestine alone, and researchers are still figuring out all the different parts of your body affected by your gut. Gut health doesn’t get its due in our daily lives or even our annual physicals however - so why is gut health so important? Here’s how those good gut bacteria and their effects ripple out across your body to how you function, feel, and even eat — and new research uncovers more each year.
Gut health vs. digestive health: What do we mean by each?
For those of us without medical training, the primary way we think about how we’re feeling and our health is along the lines of “Is this working?” So it’s understandable if you’ve suffered from gas and bloating and think of digestive health and gut health as approximately the same thing. Essentially, is my digestion working properly or am I uncomfortable after eating? But even though many of us use these terms interchangeably, there are subtle yet important differences between the two.
You’re right on track for thinking that digestive health is about your digestion. But many of us forget that the digestive system — which handles breaking down, processing, and converting your food to energy — covers every step in that process, from your mouth as you take food in to, well, the bathroom as you get rid of it. This system includes major organs like your stomach and small intestine as well as accessory organs (those that help out), like your salivary glands and liver. Are we causing any flashbacks to high school biology yet?
Gut health is a part of your overall digestive health
While gut health is an important component of digestive health, the two terms are not synonymous. When we talk about “gut health,” we’re referring to one part of the human microbiome: the trillions upon trillions of helpful microbes (mostly bacteria and fungi) that live on and in various parts of your body. Your gut isn’t the only part of you that has a microbiome, but that’s the one we’re focused on here.
Most individuals have 30 to 50 trillion bacterial cells living inside them at any given time, making up anywhere from two to six pounds of their overall body weight. But the long and short of it is this: we all have a lot of bacteria living with us, and many different kinds of them. These small, but mighty microbes mainly live inside the gut, hence the term “gut health.” However, these good bugs perform functions that help organs and systems all over the body, from your heart to your skin. But that also means that there are strains of bacteria that can have unwanted or even unhealthy effects on our bodies, too.
All the systems affected by your gut health
Friendly bacteria in your gut impact a number of systems in your body, but researchers are only just scratching the surface. In many cases we know there’s a link between your gut and some other system, even if no one has quite figured out how the two work together yet. But we’re learning that your gut health, all those friendly bacteria, have some sort of impact on at least these other aspects of your life and body:
- Hair, skin, and nails
- Digestive system
- Cardiovascular system
Your skin breakouts could be linked to your gut
In case you’re someone who skimps on the moisturizer or SPF, we have a healthy reminder for you: Your skin is actually your body’s largest organ. And your skin has its own diverse microbiome, which is why you might have noticed fermented skincare products at some of your favorite stores, that are both neutral and beneficial for your overall health. The skin protects your internal organs from the dirt, dust, and damage of your environment, and keeps foreign bodies from entering the bloodstream when it’s working as it should.
We tend to talk about how stress affects both the gut and your breakouts, but the gut and your skin breakouts are actually connected too. Unwelcome conditions like dandruff and cystic acne can be caused by changes in your skin’s own microbiome, but your skin is also affected by what’s going on in your gut. We’re all pretty familiar with the idea that our poop can reveal a little about what’s going on with our digestion. But your skin can act the same way, flagging internal issues before you know what’s happening. Vitamin C and zinc deficiencies, caused by improper digestion and absorption of these nutrients, can cause skin issues such as dermatitis and breaks in the skin.
That’s because that delicate balance of bugs in your gut has a hand in maintaining the status quo for so many systems in your body, including your skin. Anything that throws off the balance in your gut can ripple out to your face, causing acne, atopic dermatitis, and even eczema.
Gut health is linked to obesity
An interesting discovery that has come out of decades of research into gut health is that, the kinds of bugs present in our gut seem to have the ability to directly influence our weight and fat gain. This means that our microbiome can have the power to influence the foods that we crave even if they’re, well, not so good for us. While researchers are still investigating how these pathways work, these results show tremendous promise to better understand how our gut influences the impact our diet has on our body.
Emerging research indicates our gut health may be connected to weight, appetite, and fat gain. Studies have shown that the species colonizing our gut could play an important role in whether or not someone could become obese. This implies that, on some scale, there is a direct connection between gut health and weight loss or gain (for example, a less diverse gut microbiome seems to be connected to weight gain). It’s an emerging area of research currently on animal studies, but these findings
One such study was done using mice raised in a sterile environment (so they have no gut bugs). These mice became obese after being fed a fecal pellet from obese human subjects, and their gut microbiomes had fewer kinds of friendly bugs than those of their leaner counterparts. Antibiotics, and their bug-killing effect on the microbiome, might also affect weight and fat mass, another study in mice found. Both these findings suggest that a diverse microbiome may protect against excessive weight gain.
But that’s not all: gut bacteria may even be able to manipulate their host’s eating behavior, literally causing cravings for sugary foods. So even though you might know that that cookie is not the healthiest thing for you, your gut can cause you to reach for it because the sugar is helping these bacteria stay alive. Unfortunately, when too many “bad bacteria” drive out the good bacteria, this can lead to a condition called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). SIBO leads to symptoms similar to those of IBS and IBD — namely diarrhea, bloating and painful abdominal cramps.
Your gut health also affects your sleep
Stress of any kind can leave you tossing and turning. But stress in your gut? It can do exactly the same thing. The world seems to be conspiring against all of us getting a solid 8 hours of sleep. There’s the anxiety-inducing news, your boss who emails at 9pm, blue light from all of our devices, and yes, even your gut getting between you and those quality zzzs. 60 million Americans currently suffer from insomnia — and their gut bacteria may explain why.
Lack of sleep changes the expression of genes that affect our circadian rhythms. This term, which you’ve probably heard before, refers to our body’s biological clock, which tells us when to sleep and when to wake up. However, what you may not know is that our gut bacteria play a critical role in regulating the sleep-wake cycle. Oftentimes, the circadian rhythms of our gut bacteria directly affect the expression of our own circadian rhythm genes. So, if the rhythms of our gut bacteria become misaligned, so might our own circadian rhythms — leading to insomnia and other sleep disorders.
The heart and the gut are also connected
This is one field of study that’s still just in its beginning, according to Dr. JoAnn Manson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital. But we do know that short-chain fatty acids are produced primarily in the gut and that these compounds seem to play a key role in regulating blood pressure. These fats influence how blood vessels dilate and contract, studies done on mice suggest, but that’s just one takeaway from an entire report on the interplay between the gut microbiome and blood pressure.
But recent studies done on humans seem to suggest that the heart and gut are also connected in us. Several studies have found that the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) increases with higher levels of certain gut bacteria, and decreases with others. And though researchers can’t say for certain at this point that your gut bacteria directly cause this condition, there’s enough of an association for them to dive deeper into teasing apart these threads. CVD was responsible for 17.7 million deaths every year (or 31% of all deaths around the globe), making the gut’s potentially involvement in this disease no small issue.
So, where do you even start with improving your gut health?
We can all clearly live without anxiety, sleep issues, and acne. And, hopefully, we would all choose to given the option. But even if we can’t “turn off” these issues by improving our gut health, we can at least lessen them or help necessary medicines work most effectively. And though so much of the research out there about the gut and its connection to the body is complicated and potentially confusing, helping your gut feel and works its best mostly comes down to simple lifestyle changes.
A good place to start analyzing our gut health is by looking at symptoms such as bloating, gas, and stomach discomfort, which can essentially be read as our gut’s way of communicating with us. But there are other ways to improve your gut health with your own means and with the help of supplements (which can also be natural!). Daily Digestive Essentials was developed to strengthen your gut health while providing immediate digestive benefits at mealtime with a rich and diverse blend of probiotics, prebiotics, and herbal remedies.