Listen to your gut. The gastrointestinal system has power over our physical and emotional well-being. How so?
The gut microbiome: Home to bacteria
Yes, bacteria lives in you, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can actually be good, in fact.
The gut is home to over 200 different species of bacteria and other micro-organisms, explains Giovanni Leonetti, a Dubai-based Italian specialist in gut health and gastroenterology. “This is the gut microbiome, and it plays a crucial role in the digestion and absorption of nutrients from the food we eat.”
About 200 different species of bacteria and other micro-organisms, known as gut microbiome, have a role in the digestion and absorption of nutrients from food, he explains. The variety of bacteria in the gut is also an indicator of your overall health, he explains. A diverse microbiome is a sign of a healthy gut. So a right diet that consists of fibers, fermented foods like yoghurt or kimchi, can promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli.
Regular bowel movements, digestive comfort, stable weight without fluctuations all point to a healthy gut, according to Dubai-based Mustafa Ali Sabri, a gastroenterologist from Medcare. You’ll have a robust immune system with less infections, along with good moods and mental clarity. Moreover, you’ll also have a healthy skin, and conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis will improve with a healthy gut. Eczema, also known as ‘atopic dermatitis’, is a noncontagious, inflammatory skin condition that is characterised by severe itching, redness, oozing, and scaly rashes, as per the Cleveland Clinic website.
However, a diet high in sugar, preservatives, processed, fried foods and gluten among other factors, can throw your gut off track and lead to much digestive stress.
The sick gut: The warning signs
There won’t be just one sign; it’s a series of signs. Chronic indigestion, irregular bowel movements, mood fluctuations and constant sleep disturbances would be your red flags, the experts explain.
For starters, you’ll face persistent issues such as diarrhea, constipation and bloating, explains Mustafa Ali Sabri, a Dubai-based consultant gastroenterologist. Moreover, you might start becoming intolerant to certain foods. “Allergies may develop or worsen, owing to an imbalanced gut,” explains Ali.
You can also face baffling weight changes. Watch out when you suddenly lose or gain weight, according to Ali. “That’s a sign that the nutrient absorption is compromised,” he says.
Apart from these prominent factors, you’ll find yourself lacking in energy and constantly fatigued, as a compromised gut can lead to a weakened system. To top the list, there are chances of skin conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis might worsen if the gut is not functioning well, he adds.
Another painful symptom is heartburn, which can be caused by excessive intake of sugar and white flour. It is characterised by a painful feeling in your chest, as Ali says. “It is typically felt, when the stomach acid flows back into the oesophagus, causing a burning sensation in the chest or throat. It often occurs after consuming large meals, fatty foods, citrus fruits, spicy foods, or when lying down shortly after eating,” he says.
Heartburn is typically felt when the stomach acid flows back into the oesophagus, causing a burning sensation in the chest or throat. It often occurs after consuming large meals, fatty foods, citrus fruits, spicy foods, or when lying down shortly after eating
A distressed gut can also lead to severe mood swings too, owing to the deep two-way connection between the gut and the brain.
Gut and mood swings
There’s a reason that the gut is called the ‘second brain’. It might not be processing memories or have different compartments for learning languages, but it does alert the brain when something is off. “Anxiety, depression and mood swings can be associated with gut health, and this connection does affect the emotional well-being,” explains Ali.
The gut and brain are intertwined; the connection goes both ways. According to 2018 research done by Harvard Medical School, a disturbed intestine can send signals to the brain, just as an unhappy mind can send signals to the gut.
As a result, a person’s gut distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress and depression. This is due to the intricate connection between the brain and the gastrointestinal system. The gut contains over 500 million neurons, which are connected to the brain through the nervous system. The biggest nerve is the vagus nerve, which connects the brain and the gut. The gut and the brain are also connected through chemicals called neurotransmitters.
Many of these neurotransmitters are produced by your gut cells and the trillions of microbes living there. A large proportion of serotonin, or the happiness hormone, is produced in the gut, as explained by the American research paper, The Gut-Brain Axis: Influence of Microbiota on Mood and Mental Health, published in 2018. The gut microbes also produce a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which helps control feelings of fear and anxiety. This gut-brain axis monitors gut functions and links emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with intestinal functions.
So given the deep, complicated networks connecting the brain and the gut, it is inevitable that chronic stress can affect the health of the gut. Simply put, according to the research, stress prevents signals sent through the vagus nerve and also causes gastrointestinal problems.
So, owing to how closely the brain and the gut interact, you know now why you might feel nauseous before a certain momentous occasion or periods of strong anxiety. It’s never in your head, as the research clearly states, there are several psychological and physical factors that unite to create bowel distress.
As a result, if you are anxious, you can’t always just ‘eat right’ to heal your way out of a distressed gut; you’ve to address the reasons of emotion and stress.
The right and wrong food for your gut
Fruits, vegetables, fermented foods and probiotic foods are the sure way to maintain a happy gut, as Ali explains. “Focus on a balanced and diverse diet rich in fiber, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and fermented foods,” he says. Eat more probiotic-rich foods like yoghurt, he says.
It’s advisable to avoid processed foods, sugar and artificial additives, as they harm the microbiome. “Highly processed foods containing artificial additives and unhealthy fats can disrupt the balance of gut bacteria,” explains Ali. Foods with excessive sugar and high-fructose syrups can lead to the overgrowth of harmful microorganisms that cause inflammation and digestive issues.
We hate to say this, but you might want to tone down the eating of sweets too. As Ali says, sugary snacks can also disrupt the microbiome. By minimising these kinds of foods and adopting a diet rich in fiber, whole foods, and probiotic sources, you can help create a healthier gut environment, he adds.
Giovanni lists down the essential list of foods to avoid, or consume in moderate amounts and why:
Processed food: Processed foods are high in additives, preservatives, and unhealthy fats, which can harm your gut microbiome.
Refined sugar: This can disrupt the balance of bacteria in your gut, leading to inflammation and digestive issues. High sugar intake can also lead to the growth of harmful gut bacteria, while refined carbohydrates can cause blood sugar spikes, potentially affecting gut health. Moreover, a diet high in these refined carbohydrates can lead to weight gain, increasing the risk of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a chronic form of heartburn.
Gluten: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, and can cause inflammation in the gut for people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Fried foods: Fried foods are high in unhealthy fats that can harm your gut microbiome and result in inflammation.
Red meat: The frequent consumption of red meat can contribute to inflammation and an increased risk of colon cancer.
Artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners can disrupt the balance of bacteria in your gut and contribute to digestive issues.
Caffeine: While moderate caffeine consumption is generally safe, excessive consumption can cause digestive issues such as acid reflux and heartburn.
High-fructose corn syrup: High-fructose corn syrup is a highly processed sugar that can create an imbalance of bacteria in your gut and contribute to inflammation.