All disease begins in the gut. (Hippocrates)
When’s the last time you thought about how well your gastrointestinal tract was functioning? Or, even why it matters? The gut is your gateway to good health — treat it well and you’ll be rewarded with good health; abuse it and you may suffer the consequences (like migraines, acne, heartburn or depression, for example). The gut not only digests food and absorbs nutrients, but it also protects you from toxins and harmful bacteria. If that’s not enough, it also makes up at least 70 percent of your immune system, and helps every cell function optimally. EVERY cell. You might be thinking, how can this thing I never think about be doing all this important stuff? Well, first by being a gatekeeper. Second, by being a web of nerves. And third, by housing somewhere between two to six pounds of bacteria. I understand that still sounds pretty confusing, so let me explain.
There is a protective lining along your digestive tract that acts as your gatekeeper, determining friend vs foe and what gets into (or doesn’t) our body. But, it’s very fragile — it’s merely one cell deep in thickness. One cell. This single-cell barrier might be small, but it’s a powerhouse, protecting you from the external environment by selectively allowing entry of different substances into the rest of your body. Good and bad try to penetrate this wall: nutrients, electrolytes, water, toxins, medications, bacteria and hormones. The gatekeeper’s role is to allow only the good things through, like nutrients. However, when the barrier is malfunctioning (known as intestinal permeability or leaky gut) bad things can get through. Remember how fragile the lining is? There’s a lot that can disrupt it and cause it to malfunction. To name a few, stress, medications, poor diet, food sensitivities, environmental toxins and hyper-hygiene practices can all break down this lining. Now, the good news — the cells in this barrier are the quickest to turnover in your body, so you can repair it and get it back to a state where it’s only letting in the good, not the bad.
The gut is also home to a web of nerves. Many people consider the gut to be your second brain because it has a nervous system of its own, consisting of more than 100 million neurons – that’s more than the number of neurons in your spinal cord alone! This ‘gut’ nervous system produces about 30 different neurotransmitters — like melatonin and serotonin — just like the brain does. These neurotransmitters help send signals to your brain, saying things like “I’m sleepy,” “I’m full,” or “I’m happy.” The really cool part about this is that a lot of the neurotransmitters that are being used in all parts of your nervous system are produced in the gut. For example, about 90 percent of the serotonin (this gives you that “I’m happy” or “I don’t crave carbs” feeling) in your body is made in your digestive tract.
The bacteria that’s in your gut also influences your health. These little bugs make vitamins and help you digest your food. They also protect against pathogens by crowding them out and not allowing them to fully colonize in your colon. If you have more bad than good bacteria, you could be at a higher risk for diseases such as diabetes, obesity or depression. And remember that serotonin that’s produced in your gut? It’s being made by those little bugs.
So, suffice it to say, your gut is critical to maintaining overall health. This brings us to an important question: How do you know if your gut is functioning properly? 70 percent of Americans have digestive dysfunction and yet the majority of them have ZERO gastrointestinal symptoms. You may not be aware there is a problem occurring because the symptoms appear elsewhere — acne, eczema and other skin issues, depression or anxiety, joint aches, brain fog or migraines, for starters. Unfortunately, in our standard American way of living, it’s easier to disrupt the integrity of your digestive tract than you might think: It can take as little as 20 minutes to break down the protective barrier in your gut, yet 20 days to repair it.
But that’s the good news, right?! You CAN and SHOULD repair your gut for long-term health and optimal functioning day-to-day. It just takes time and devoted effort, but it’s well worth it. Stay tuned for another blog post on gut health to learn more about what it takes to heal your gut.