Gut Health basics for beginners
Understanding why a healthy gut is critical to digestion, immunity, a positive mood, nutrient absorption and what to do to feed your gut what it needs for happy and flourishing flora.
Unless you’ve spent the last several years living in a cave, you’ve no doubt heard of the importance of your gut health, specifically the flora and beneficial bacteria that live in your colon and small intestine, known collectively as probiotics and prebiotics.
But what are these, really? And how do they work? Most people hear about gut health only indirectly; a couple sentences in a health article about needing to eat more miso soup and yogurt. A blurb on a recipe board touting the health benefits of fermented food.
Here we will delve into a little bit more detail on what these are and why they are good for you.
What are probiotics and prebiotics and how are they different?
A Prebiotic is a non-digestible carbohydrate found in high fiber foods, mainly cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage, kale and radishes, onions, garlic, and leeks.
Prebiotics feed and stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in our digestive system. Think of them as a food source for probiotics.
A Probiotic is a form of highly beneficial bacteria that helps to maintain the natural balance of microorganisms in your gut, aiding in reducing the number of harmful bacteria as well as preventing infections and inflammation that can arise from harmful bacteria.
Probiotics are what you hear about most often with regards to health benefits, and they are found in abundance in fermented foods such as kim chee (a spicy Korean condiment found in Asian food stores,) yogurt, miso soup, sauerkraut, and naturally fermented pickles.
The easiest way to understand the difference between prebiotics and probiotics is to think of probiotics as a garden, with prebiotics being the fertilizer that feeds that garden.
WHY DO WE NEED PROBIOTICS AND PREBIOTICS?
If you’ve noticed, digestive problems are on a serious uptick, as can be seen by the sheer numbers of ads on television for heartburn and acid reflux medications, as well as the attention now being paid to Crohn’s disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
In fact, according to the National Commission on Digestive Disorders, in 2009 between 60 and 70 million Americans suffer each year from digestive disorders at a cost exceeding 100 billion dollars.
If these problems can be reduced by a simple change in diet, then it is definitely worth closer examination.
HOW YOUR GUT HEALTH IMPACTS YOUR BRAIN HEALTH
New research is showing a strong, undeniable link between our emotional health and the bacteria in our gut, known as the microbiome. In fact, with over 100 trillion microbial cells, scientists are now referring to the microbiome as our second brain, or the enteric nervous system. Our ENS is two thin layers or more than 100 million nerve cells that line our digestive tract from beginning to end.
According to Dr. Jay Pasricha, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, “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.”
So while our second brain isn’t ever going to write prose or do our taxes for us, it does “talk” back and forth with our primary brain via the vagus nerve, and promising research is showing a direct link between our gut health and our emotional health. If you’ve ever had a “gut feeling” or “butterflies in your stomach,” there may be a very good reason.
Mounting evidence is suggesting that more than ever, both our physical and mental health are inextricably tied to our gut, in particular, the microbes that live there. Some researchers are even finding dietary changes to be more effective than drugs in treating anxiety and depression. The study of pro and prebiotics is likely to intensify in the years ahead, as the healing potential of them becomes more and more evident.