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Why a Healthy Gut Is So Important For Overall Wellness

The human gut figures prominently in some of the English language’s most cliched expressions. We’re often told to “trust our gut” when it comes time to make a tricky decision. Movies or television shows with gory violence might make some people “sick to their stomachs.” You may even find yourself saying your stomach is “tied up in knots” when anxious or stressed.

These metaphors are based in some deep physiological truths. While we might think the gut serves a single, stinky function, it is, in fact, doing much more. The proper, healthy workings of our gut helps regulate our mood and how we otherwise feel. A gut in correct order will keep our immune system in top shape. In short: A happy gut is vital to our overall health.

“It’s the connection to so many different systems in our body: our mood and our cognitive health, as well as our immune system,” says Monique Richard, a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and spokesperson for the National Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Composed of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, and, yes, the anus, the gastrointestinal tract—more commonly referred to as the digestive tract—is the largest part of the human digestive system. (The liver, gallbladder, and pancreas are also part of the digestive system, but separate from the digestive tract.) That’s the gut. The food we eat and the liquids we drink travel through the digestive tract and are slowly broken down into various nutrients, such as proteins and fats.

You might have heard the phrase “gut microbiome,” and that refers to the good gut bacteria. Inside the intestines are trillions of strains of two main bacteria, lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, and we need them. How else do our bodies break down what we consume?

“The microbiome is the metropolis of transportation,” says Richard. “It helps with absorption, digestion, and elimination.”

Good gut bacteria metabolize different vitamins and micronutrients—and this is where the gut begins intersecting with other bodily systems. The metabolic processes that take place in our digestive tract will produce short-chain fatty acids, which help with our overall cognitive health. Inflammatory inhibitors, cytokines, and other immune defense mechanisms are centered in the gut itself, and the good gut bacteria play a role in shutting down inflammation throughout the body. “When we protect the integrity of the gut, we protect immune responses,” Richard says.

There are also indirect ways we can treat our gut right. It's not always complicated: Simply slowing down and chewing when we eat is a simple step to take better care of our gut. If we masticate our food properly, it’s easier to absorb and digest. And if you slow down while you’re eating, Richard points out, there’s less chance stomach acid goes shooting up into your esophagus.

What’s more, the gut acts something like a relay man to the central nervous system. Nearly 100 million nerve cells line the digestive tract. This “enteric nervous system” communicates with our brain, and can have a direct impact on how we’re feeling. Good gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which helps modulate our mood.

Of course, the gut is only as good as what we feed it. Bacteria need to eat, too. That means we need to balance our diet with healthy plant foods, according to Teresa Fung, a nutrition professor at Simmons University in Boston. “We want beneficial bacteria, and they need their ‘food’ to thrive,” she says. “The beneficial bacteria in our gut thrive when we eat whole grains and minimally processed fruits and vegetables.”

Rice, leafy vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds: Basically, if it’s grown in nature, it’s good for our gut. That’s because our bodies can’t break down foods rich in fiber and other nutrients. What it means is that they survive their journey through the digestive tract and reach the gut microbiome, where they serve as a food source for our good gut bacteria. The food our gut bacteria feast upon are known as the prebiotics, not to be confused with the probiotics you might find on the supplement shelves of your local grocery store. Supplemental probiotics, which deliver lactobacillus and bifidobacterium to the gut, can be useful.

But if we’re feeding ourselves the right way, then outside supplementation isn’t necessary. “Just like in diet, diversity matters in the microbiome,” says Richard.

The original article can be found on GQ US.

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