Roar writer Elsie Todd on the importance of our gut and its health.
I always thought that our general wellbeing was mostly down to a good diet and exercise, until recently. After reading Guilia Ender’s book Gut, the inside story of our body’s most underrated organ, I became fascinated with this extraordinary organ. Her book touches on a wide range of topics, highlighting the key role and the importance of the gut.
What fascinated me the most was the connection between the mind and the gut. The gut is often described as the second brain. The connection between the gut and the brain begins early in life and continues. We crave the feeling of a full stomach and get a bad feeling when we are too full. The gut affects the brain subtly, and a well-nourished diet and gut can massively improve our overall sense of wellbeing. The saying ‘gut feeling’ does not come from anywhere, our gut changes our moods, emotions and can affect our day-to-day decision making.
The bacteria in our body and the food we eat form the gut microbiome, a rich ecosystem that carries out a range of functions. Our gut contains the bacteria from food that our body is unable to digest, a healthy microbiome is one with a diverse array of different bacteria. Our gut is heavily affected by four main elements including the environment we are in, any medication we may take, whether we were a c section baby, and finally our diet. The importance of the diet on gut health has been highlighted as it is one of the only factors that we are able to control ourselves. The main role of the gut microbiome is to extract energy from the food we eat, absorb nutrients and remove any unwanted waste. The beneficial bacteria in the gut is the bacteria that help the body to take in nutrients from foods. The gut has a huge impact on diseases, our mood, emotions and appetite.
When your elders said, “you are what you eat”, they were not lying. A good diet can drastically increase our mood and wellbeing, while a bad diet, the reverse. A bad diet stops the body from getting the fundamental nutrients it requires to stay healthy. Furthermore, a bad diet can damage the structure of one’s gut making it difficult for the body to digest food properly. Our bodies need three main molecules to maintain a healthy gut, these include tryptophan, which you find in eggs and chia seeds is converted into serotonin and melatonin, the happy hormones. The second molecule is tyrosine, amino acid and Indole 3 lactic acid which is found in fermented foods including sauerkraut, kimchee and kombucha. These days there is so much focus on diet culture, people strive to be “skinny” and consume as little as possible. Rather the focus should not be on how little we can eat, however, what is it we are eating and how we are feeding our bodies. Someone once told me you should feed yourself as though you are feeding your six-year-old self, so maybe you should think twice before picking up the artificially sweetened drinks.
Neurotransmitters from the gut reach different regions of the brain. These regions include the limbo system, the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, the hippocampus and the anterior cingulate cortex. The cooperation between the gut and the brain begins very early in life, when we are young, familiar people feed us and as we get older, we begin to increasingly experience the world through our senses. However, this connection between these two systems does not disappear, it just becomes more and more refined. Our intestine is linked to the gut through the vagus nerve, where it sends signals to the brain. However, our gut can also function without this connection to the brain, our brains are made up of 100 billion neutrons, and our guts have 100 million. Our gut is the centre point of our immune system, the slightest disturbances within the gut can cause huge reactions around the body. 90% of our body’s serotonin is produced in the gut and only 10% in the brain. This shows the immense effect that the role of bacteria can have on our mood and wellbeing.
Stress is thought to be the most important stimuli linking the gut and the brain. When our brain senses a situation that it is uncomfortable with, it automatically attempts to solve it. In order to solve the problem, our brain needs a large amount of energy which it borrows from the gut. However, this system of exchange is not designed for long term use. When the brain takes too much energy than the gut can provide the gut sends unpleasant signals to the brain. These signals are negative stimuli that can cause tiredness, loss of appetite and malaise. The guts natural response is to rid itself of food to conserve its energy. Several scientists have proposed the idea of stress being unhygienic. They pointed out that the environment created in the gut when stress, is a different environment that allows different bacteria to survive in comparison to periods of low stress. This altering environment changes the weather of the gut. To create a comfortable environment for the gut we should try our best to reduce daily stress, for example through meditation, exercise and mindfulness. The stress created around food especially should be prevented. Mealtimes should be a valued period, appreciated and taken slowly, the environment should be comfortable. The stress created around food is important for all but vital for children implementing the right habits and rituals early on in life. Mealtimes should be a peaceful period, when stress arises it activates nerves that inhibit digestive processes. This results in the body extracting less energy from foods, but also the body takes longer to digest foods. Stress is generally defined as our body’s response to pressure, but should rather be defined as the state the nervous system is in.
How is it we can improve our gut health then? Certain foods including fruits, vegetables, teas, coffees, red wine and dark chocolate are beneficial in increasing the bacterial diversity inside the gut. These specific foods contain polyphenols, antioxidant compounds. The way we prepare our foods is also important. Lightly steaming, sautéing our foods and raw foods are much better for you than fried foods. Unprocessed foods have more fibre and provide better fuel than processed foods. Furthermore, fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, and yoghurt contain a rich array of probiotics. The bacteria contained in these foods rely on bacteria that are created as the result of the process of fermentation. Fermentation produces acid, which creates a sour taste in fermented foods. Fermentation is the oldest and the healthiest way of preserving foods.
Our gut is not called our second brain for no reason, that gut feeling you may have, is certainly more than just a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach.