'Gut Health' Is Everywhere, but What Does It Actually Mean?

Feb 23, 2018 at 8:00 a.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

By now, you've probably heard the health buzz phrase "gut health" and how it can impact everything from our digestive system to our mental health to everything in between. But what does that actually mean? Turns out, it means a little more than how our tummies feel. We checked in with some experts to get the lowdown on gut health and what it really means.

Your guts & you

First, let's look at the legions of bacteria hanging out in our intestines. While we may think of bacteria as disease-causing agents that lead to doom and gloom, there are plenty of good microbes and other cells that we actually need to maintain proper intestinal health.

"There is now a [...] consensus that the state of our bodies depends on our microbes just as surely as it depends on our nature and nurture," says Dr. Kien Vuu, clinical professor of medicine at UCLA-David Geffen School of Medicine, who practices interventional and diagnostic radiology at UCLA-Olive View Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente.

Vuu notes that the term "gut health" actually refers to the balance between the good bacteria in the digestive tract and the bad and how everything works together to maintain our overall state of being. Our gut microbiome helps break down food and maintain our immune system and also helps regulate feel-good hormones that are primarily stored in our gut. "Maintaining good gut health means having a healthy diversity of good microbes in our gut that allows us to function our best and be free of inflammation and disease," he explains.

Gut health & your health

It's vital to have a good balance of good and not-so-good gut microbes because it can maintain and even improve our overall health. "Having an imbalance of these good [and] bad bacteria in the gut most often leads to malabsorption issues, chronic illness and inflammation, causing diarrhea or constipation and even mental health disorders like depression and anxiety — referred to as the gut-brain axis," says Taylor Engelke, registered dietitian at Nutrimental Healthcare.

What's a leaky gut?!

"Leaky gut" is another term that's often thrown around, but although it sounds like, well, someone's leaking diarrhea everywhere, it actually refers to the health and status of the lining of your intestinal tract.

"The cells which line the gut are very tight together in a healthy tissue, but with leaky gut, these junctions between the cells start to become loose and pull apart, which allows particles from inside the digestive tract to enter the bloodstream, triggering an immune reaction to these foreign invaders," explains Engelke. This can lead to a variety of issues, such as food sensitivities, and symptoms range from cramping, pain, diarrhea and constipation to other non-GI symptoms, such as eczema.

How to maintain good gut health

Good gut health, as you might imagine, starts with the foods we eat. Dr. Joyce Faraj, nutritionist at Mountainside Treatment Center, notes that if you have more of a Western diet (more burgers, fast foods, low intake of salads, fruits and vegetables), you tend to have some of the not-so-beneficial bacteria growing in there. This can be related to higher inflammation levels, which can affect mental health and increase risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

"Now, if you start feeding it the good things that it likes to eat, such as fiber-rich foods like fruits and vegetables and increasing your intake of probiotic-rich foods, such as yogurt, you'll make your gut happy and boost the growth of good bacteria," she explains.

Additionally, many look to probiotics as a boon for their gut health. Rebecca Lee, registered nurse and founder of Remedies for Me, says probiotics are naturally produced from bacterial fermentation and can be found in both food sources and over-the-counter supplements.

Good food sources are yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, natto, kombucha and kimchi. If you don't fancy these (or can't get your hands on enough), you can pick up a bottle at your local store. Lee suggests making sure they contain strains like bacillus coagulans, lactobacillus rhamnosus, lactobacillus acidophilus, saccharomyces boulardii, bacillus subtilis or another longer-surviving probiotic. She adds that quality supplements should contain at least 10 to as many as 30 different strains.

Get on your gut's good side

Your gastrointestinal tract is a big part of your body — not just because of its enormous size (the small intestine itself is about 20 feet long!), but because of the hordes of microbes that take up space within it. If you make quality food choices and eat natural sources of probiotics (and take a supplement if you're up to it), you can help fine-tune the nature of your gut health and tip the balance in your favor.

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