Gut Health Explained
Written by Heather Gerrish, RD
What is happening behind the scenes (or in our intestines to be more exact) when we eat? There are SO many processes that occur - from digestion to absorption, to transfer and excretion, how do our bodies do it..and do it well?
A current hot topic in the world of nutrition is gut health. But before we dive into what keeps our gut healthy - let's talk about what comprises the machine that does some amazing work (aka your small and large intestines!
The anatomy of the “gut” includes a few key players.
Small intestine: important for a majority of absorption including micronutrients! This is the first section, located after the stomach - and is very important for initial absorption of nutrients!
Large intestine: primary absorption of water and electrolytes, the second half of the continuum of your “gut”.
The small and large intestine help comprise the “gut” and are extremely important in the realm of nutrition and health. Keeping these two important players happy and healthy is essential for adequate absorption and utilization of the great food you eat!
So how does gut health...happen? What is it?
A healthy “gut” or GI (gastrointestinal system) is free of chronic inflammation and can adequately absorb nutrients to ensure that you are getting the nutrition you need! Inflammation causes the villi (small, finger-like projections that add surface area to absorb nutrients in your gut - super cool!) to atrophy (or get smaller and function at a lesser capacity). Chronic inflammation can be a result of intolerance and can be seen often in Celiac Disease. Other intestinal conditions that affect the GI can cause inflammation as well, with more serious conditions like Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) or Ulcerative Colitis (UC) and countless others.
Outside of medical intervention for these conditions, to keep our guts healthy and happy we should focus on a few key components. These factors include:
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables. Ensuring that you are eating adequate fiber is important for colonic health (a big part of the large intestine) and has other benefits as well. Specifically, fiber-containing foods also contain components that provide fuel for intestinal bacteria to thrive and survive - and keep us healthy! The “gut microbiome” is another hot topic up for debate and it involves the analysis of the gut-specific bacterial (that we all have), influencing how our bodies function - including our immune system. In the meantime, and as more research is conducted in this area, the best bet is to keep these little bacteria friends happy - and that means nutrient variety and fiber!
Adequate hydration: the GI system and the process of metabolism, absorption, and utilization all need the same thing - water! Hydration goes beyond quenching thirst and plays a vital role in countless processes in the body.
Take note of changes: the body has a way of relaying information in how we feel and no one is a better judge of this than you. Notice something different? Ate a different food? Timing off for a meal? Didn’t meet your hydration goal? All of these changes could influence how you feel, but an important thing to be aware of is any unusual changes - specifically those that are prolonged. Always consult with a medical professional with any changes in your health status or concerns.
Gut health is important for multiple reasons - absorbing the great nutrients we eat every day, allowing our body to access and transport what we need and the growing connection of understanding of the gut microbiome. The next time you have a meal to snack, thank your GI for working hard to keep you happy and healthy.