Gut health is about so much more than just caring for your tummy. In fact, the benefits of a gut in balance extend to all parts of your body, from your brain to your skin to the way you feel. Let’s explore a couple of the most basic connections - gut health and the immune system, and the gut-brain connection.
Gut health and the immune system
You’ve probably heard somewhere that 70% of your immune system is in your gut. But what does this actually mean?
Your gut, or gastrointestinal tract actually starts in your mouth and extends all the way through your oesophagus, to your stomach and large and small intestines. It is nine metres long, and thanks to its 800-900 folds, it would cover an entire tennis court if you laid it out flat. This makes your gut by far the largest contact area your body has with the outside world, and explains the outsize importance your gut has for your immune system.
“A huge proportion of your immune system is actually in your GI tract,” says Dan Peterson, assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
In addition, your gut is host to millions of bacteria, up to 2kg, which is more than the weight of your brain. This gut microbiome fulfils the dual roles of gatekeeper and personal trainer of the immune system, contributing to the mucus barrier that keeps pathogens out, and teaching the immune system’s T-cells to recognise and destroy harmful entities.
“The microbiome and the immune system are critically intertwined,” says Jonathan Jacobs, MD, PhD, a professor of digestive diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “What’s present in the gut determines what education immune cells get.”
The gut-brain axis
It may sound far-fetched, but your gut and your brain are intimately connected and in constant dialogue with each other. Scientists are even calling the gut a “little brain” or “second brain”. This little brain is actually called the enteric nervous system (ENS) and it’s made up of two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells all along the lining of your GI tract.
“The enteric nervous system doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain—with profound results,” says Jay Pasricha, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology.
The dialogue between the gut and the brain is the focus of much research at the moment. Previously, it was believed that anxiety and depression could only contribute to functional bowel problems such as bloating, constipation, and diarrhoea, but new research suggests it may be the other way around: it may actually be imbalances in the gut that signal the central nervous system and trigger mood changes.
Maintain a balanced gut with probiotics
The best way to maintain a healthy gut is to maintain a healthy lifestyle in general. Eat a balanced and varied diet low on processed foods and high on healthy fibres, stay hydrated, exercise regularly, avoid stress and get lots of restful sleep.
A high-quality daily probiotic food supplement is also a great way to support a balanced gut. Make sure that the probiotic you select is:
- well-researched, and backed by published scientific studies on the particular strain of probiotic that it contains
- well-suited to reach the gut alive and to colonise the human gut