Why does good gut health matter?

Magnification of the gut bacteria present within the intestinal tract. A cartoon image showing different microbes present inside the intestinal tract.

In recent years, there has been a growing appreciation for the vital role that gut health plays in overall well-being.

Emerging research has highlighted the intricate connection between the gut and various aspects of health, ranging from digestion to immunity and even mental health.

In this article, I’ll be delving into the importance of gut health and why our gut microbes matter; I’ll also be exploring how and why nurturing your gut microbes can lead to a healthier and happier life.

You can also check out The Gut Be Good Podcast and YouTube episodes by clicking here.

See the content list below for quick links to relevant sections within this article:

Understanding the gut microbiome
Introduction to microbes and your gut
What are these microbes and why are they living inside of us?
Why living without our microbes is a bad thing
Are microbes really that important to our bodies survival?
Where are these trillions of microbes lurking exactly?
So, why does it all matter?
With that all in mind, how do we protect our gut health then?
– Antibiotics are doing more harm than good (in most cases)
– Breast feed your babies
– What can I do to improve my gut’s current situation?
Ready to embark on your gut health journey?
Final message
Sources

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    Understanding the Gut Microbiome

    Introduction to microbes and your gut

    At the heart of gut health lies the gut microbiome, a highly complex ecosystem of trillions of microorganisms that reside in the digestive tract, of which we are really only beginning to pay proper attention to and talk about in our day-to-day lives, as people begin noticing the odd names of bacterial strains appearing on their morning yoghurts and shop-bought smoothies.

    But what’s the fascination all about?

    Why should we care about these peculiar names and what they mean?

    Well, these isolated organisms mentioned on your morning snack might seem alien to you at first, but you need to understand that our bodies have played host to such “aliens” since the start of life’s existence, as the mitochondria first established themselves within our human cells and began offering us the energy capabilities we needed to grow, evolve and thrive.

    And we will continue to need them and every other type of microbe that call our bodies, “home”, through-out our entire lifetime.

    What are these microbes and why are they living inside of us?

    There are trillions of microbes living inside of you and on you, and these include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and archaea (although we mostly contain bacteria).

    They play a crucial role in maintaining digestive function, support our immune systems, influence mood and behaviour and can extract vitamins and minerals from what we eat, and break down cellulose from plant fibres which we as humans (using just our human cells and genetic capabilities) would never be able to do alone.

    The human genome contains a mere 21,000 genes, all with different abilities and capabilities, but the combined genetic ability of our microbes within each of us provides us with a further 4.4 million genes of which to use to ours and our microbes betterment.

    You might be wondering why the human body would outsource such tasks such as synthesising vitamins or breaking down tough plant fibres, to microbes; after all, can’t humans just evolve genes to produce their own enzymes that will allow them access to these foods and their constituent parts like microbes have?

    Although this is plausible, it would take many generations of humans over thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe even millennia before it was possible, therefore, it’s much quicker to outsource such jobs to microbes, whose ability to reproduce, evolve and have random mutations occur in their genetic capabilities happen within hours and days instead of millennia.

    Our genes work in constant collaboration with the genes of our microbes to carry out and achieve the above mentioned actions that happen within our bodies on a minute-by-minute, day-by-day basis, without us ever having to think about it…

    But, shouldn’t we be thinking about it?

    Why living without our microbes is a bad thing.

    Trillions of these microbes live in our digestive tract at different points, and without them, we see time and time again people fall into a whole range of poor health conditions.

    Research has shown that a diverse and balanced gut microbiome is essential for a humans optimal health.

    When this balance of microorganisms in the gut is disrupted, it can lead to dysbiosis, a condition associated with various health issues, including gastrointestinal disorders, autoimmune diseases, mental health disorders, obesity, allergies, autism – to name just a few.

    In order to fully appreciate just how many of these microorganisms there are within us and on us, you can look at your fingertip for a moment: on this one spot on your skin, you have more micro-organisms living than there are people in Great Britain!

    While you might not believe it, it is true.

    This is because you are actually only 10% human, and the other 90% of what you call “you”, is actually more appropriately dubbed, “them”.

    For every cell that is human inside of your body, there are 9 different “aliens” present and in total you have about 4,000 different species of these micro-organisms living within you at any one time.

    We consume bacteria and other microbes at every meal, as they live on the foods we eat. We also pick them up from our environment and from other people. We also “pass” bacteria when they are dead and are removed within our faeces.

    In fact, our poo is mostly made up of dead bacteria.

    Over the course of your entire lifetime, you’ll have had the equivalent weight of 5 African elephants live and pass through you in the form of these microbes.

    It’s these facts that need to wake us up to realise how crucial they must be and are to our health as humans!

    Use the content list below for quick links to relevant sections within this article:

    Understanding the gut microbiome
    Introduction to microbes and your gut
    What are these microbes and why are they living inside of us?
    Why living without our microbes is a bad thing
    Are microbes really that important to our bodies survival?
    Where are these trillions of microbes lurking exactly?
    So, why does it all matter?
    With that all in mind, how do we protect our gut health then?
    – Antibiotics are doing more harm than good (in most cases)
    – Breast feed your babies
    – What can I do to improve my gut’s current situation?
    Ready to embark on your gut health journey?
    Final message
    Sources

    Are microbes really that important to our bodies survival?

    You’ve most likely heard of the appendix.

    It’s gotten a terrible reputation over the years as being a useless organ hasn’t it?

    Most people know it to be an appendage no longer in use or have a notion that we used to eat grass and needed this worm-shaped organ in order to digest it, therefore it’s useless today and removing it if it becomes trouble-some is a no-nonsense affair.

    Well, the appendix is now actually thought to be an incredibly helpful organ and one which the body utilises for safe-housing its microbial strains and important immune cells in times of need.

    Think of it a bit like a small USB stick, backing up all the hard work from your main hard drive that you’ve done over the years (I like to picture it this way).

    It’s thought that keeping hold of your appendix at least through childhood years puts you in a better running for healthier living post childhood years because it has the ability to help “re-stock” the gut with strains of bacteria after periods of illness or antibiotic use (among other similar things) which may cause these strains to dwindle or disappear entirely.

    This safe-housing of important microbes by the appendix is a likely reason we have continued to have an appendix.

    After all, we would have eventually evolved not to have one if it were killing off too many people because all it did was cause pain and infection in those that had it, and served no helpful and beneficial purpose to our existence.

    The reason why I tell you all of this about your appendix is because if our microbes and our immune cells didn’t matter to our body, why would it go to the effort of creating an organ entirely devoted to the safe-housing of such things?

    Put simply, it wouldn’t.

    Therefore?

    Microbes matter.

    Where are these trillions of microbes lurking, exactly?

    One of the most interesting things about our microbes is that they share some of their capabilities, and often in humans we see strains do a job for their human that a different species will be carrying out for another human, say, their friend sally next door.

    Very few strains of bacteria are “common” in all people, and our entire microbiome is incredibly unique, in as much as our fingerprint is to us as individuals.

    That said, we share some commonalities with our fellow humans, in that similar bacterial strains are found in the same areas of the body on each human. Moist areas of the body are home to species which feed on the nitrogen in our sweat, while strains which enjoy a good fat-focused-feast are found in areas like the face and back where there are densely packed pores.

    In this way, humans host similar microbes in similar places, and you’ll find more similar microbes in two people’s guts than you will in one persons gut, compared to their own skin.

    So where can we find all these species of bacteria inside of our bodies exactly?

    Well, your mouth is home to around 800 different species, although mostly different streptococcus species with a few other types thrown in. They help defend this vulnerable entrance to the body and protect it from potentially harmful bacterial species entering on our food.

    The nostrils are home to a further 900 species such as Moraxella and Corynebacterium species, among others, which seem to thrive in this strange part of the body which traps dust and debris in tiny hairs to protect our lungs.

    If we head a little further into the body, we find thousands of bacteria per millimetre in the small intestine and this increases the further along the small intestine you travel, reaching tens of thousands of bacteria per millimetre by the time you reach the end of it.

    Travel another few steps from the small intestine end into the large intestine and you’re greeted by an entire universe of bacteria, numbering in the trillions here in the Caecum, which the afore-mentioned appendix dangles from. You’ll find around 4,000 different species here, all playing their part in keeping you healthy and happy.

    Go around the corner until you reach the colon of the large intestine and you’ll find even more bacteria, numbering in the trillions per millimetre.

    Here, the microbes are working on the leftovers of your food, extracting and converting them into energy and leaving the waste they create as a result of working on this food to be absorbed by our colons walls.

    If microbes didn’t create such waste that our body’s colons can then use for nourishment, the walls of the colon would eventually die.

    This is because the colons walls’ main energy source is this microbial waste matter, unlike the rest of the body’s cells which are generally fed by sugar that has been transported in the blood.

    Use the content list below for quick links to relevant sections within this article:

    Understanding the gut microbiome
    Introduction to microbes and your gut
    What are these microbes and why are they living inside of us?
    Why living without our microbes is a bad thing
    Are microbes really that important to our bodies survival?
    Where are these trillions of microbes lurking exactly?
    So, why does it all matter?
    With that all in mind, how do we protect our gut health then?
    – Antibiotics are doing more harm than good (in most cases)
    – Breast feed your babies
    – What can I do to improve my gut’s current situation?
    Ready to embark on your gut health journey?
    Final message
    Sources

    So, why does it all matter?

    In truth, most people don’t fully understand let alone appreciate what their microbial communities are doing for them and how what we choose to do (what we eat, how much sleep we get, our environment etc.) impacts them and us equally.

    Imagine for a moment that your teeming metropolis of microbes were to be wiped out by antibiotics and all of a sudden your body isn’t getting the same benefits it once was from the food you’re eating?

    Think about eating processed foods which carry very little in the way of beneficial nutrients or beneficial bacteria on their surfaces, and how your microbes might change or adapt in order to try their best to extract every component they could from these strange foods in order to survive, thrive and produce by-products that we can then use for our bodies… perhaps under these circumstances, healthier strains die out and are replaced by less friendly or less helpful strains.

    The point is that without a variety of species living within us, we’re unable to function adequately because we just can’t carry out every task needed for optimum health ourselves – we need our microbes to work with us to achieve the healthiest version of ourselves.

    When the Human Microbiome Project began, it looked only at the bacteria residing within healthy people and questioned what it meant to be healthy and how that might look; but what about unhealthy people?

    Many of us struggle with modern-day illnesses and conditions that weren’t an issue at all for our great, great grandparents and beyond, so why do so many odd ailments strike the human population now?

    What’s really changed?

    Well, our once diverse microbiomes have been dwindling over the past century because of our diets, our use of antibiotics, certain infections that disturb our balanced microbiome, unwelcome medications that while may not be antibiotics cause some other shift in our guts which makes life harder, maybe even impossible for certain strains.

    This imbalance, when it occurs, is known as dysbiosis.

    With all of this onslaught to our guts, its no wonder that diversity has dropped and with it, our ability to function fully (at least, many of us) in good health. By this we mean maintaining a healthy weight, good mental health and generally keeping twenty first century illnesses at bay.

    With that all in mind, how do we protect our gut health then?

    Firstly (and to further enlighten yourself) you might want to read my article about the digestive system that talks you through what its actually made up of and how it works (its a really “digestible” article, but also really informative and non-boring).

    You can read understanding your digestive system here.

    If you feel pretty confident about what actually constitutes your digestive system then we can talk a little more in detail about some of the things you can do to protect your gut health, bolster your gut health and perhaps improve it in the long run.

    Below are some examples but you can find more specific articles in the main menu under “gut health basics” if you’re after a particular topic.

    Antibiotics are doing more harm than good (in most cases)

    The first thing you can do is abandon the idea that you need to take antibiotics every time you get a virus or cold. Lessen your antibiotic use dramatically, if you’re someone who has taken them regularly, but think twice before taking them again for something totally benign.

    The less we drop these atomic bombs into our digestive systems the better – save antibiotics for truly life saving times when a bacterial infection has run amok, has been tested and found officially and needs to be dealt with. At any other point, antibiotics are really doing more harm than good.

    Changing and adapting your diet to become one that includes far more plants and therefore plant fibre is also crucial for the longevity of our microbial strains and partnership with them.

    The large intestine takes care of most indigestible plant fibre through use of the microbes living there, which otherwise couldn’t and wouldn’t be broken down by our own bodies and enzymes, enabling us to access this healthy and beneficial food source as well as reaping the benefits from the microbes’ waste matter as they break down these tough plant fibres for us.

    Breast feed your babies

    Encourage breast-feeding when there’s new life.

    “Breast is best” is a saying you may or may not have heard of, but it was once a popular and regularly touted statement for all mothers, but really, what did we learn from this other than breast milk contains nutrients and perhaps offers our babies immunity to whatever the mother has immunity to as temporary protection against microbial invaders?

    Well, there was a big piece of this puzzle missing and it was more than immunity, because mothers actually pass on their gut microbes through breast-milk too, allowing the babies gut to be colonised with the best types possible from day one, rather than those which hitch a ride through powdered milk and from random places in our environments.

    Bottle fed babies are far more likely to develop auto-immune disorders, asthma, eczema, infections, arthritis among many other conditions. It’s now thought that the passing-on of a mothers gut microbes alongside beneficial nutrients and components of the breast milk is part of the reason these things are kept at bay.

    The live bacteria and other compounds of breast milk are thought to be training the babies immune system about what is beneficial and should stay, whilst keeping more problematic strains at bay or from getting too many in numbers.

    Babies that are breast fed have around 50% more species of bacteria living in their guts than bottle fed babies, and this helps crowd out some of the more pesky ones.

    What can I do to improve my gut’s current situation?

    If you’re troubled by what you read here because you’re aware of having taken antibiotics or the like, you can try a few things to resupply your gut with strains that may be beneficial and reduce potentially unwanted symptoms you might be having.

    Start with a probiotic and perhaps a fibre supplement alongside it. Re-introducing strains to the gut (especially post antibiotics, although any time is good) can have hugely beneficial effects. I myself found that after a post-surgical wound infection followed by a course of strong antibiotics, I desperately needed probiotics to restore my gut and my state of mind.

    I had been riddled with anxiety and worry post antibiotic use and now I know why. I’ve worked very hard these past few years to recover from antibiotic use through regularly taking probiotic capsules with a high CFU in the billions.

    It was after a week or so that I saw dramatic shifts in my perception of the world and a huge reduction in my generalised anxiety – it really made that much of a difference, and I myself have sworn never to take antibiotics again unless I need it for life-saving purposes.

    The forest of microbes I had prior to antibiotic use may never return in exactly the same form, but I now have another freshly grown forest that I intend to care for for the rest of my life.

    Ready to embark on your gut health journey?

    Join my email list for exclusive insights, subscribe to the Gut Be Good Podcast, and follow The Gut Be Good YouTube channel for more in-depth discussions and helpful (but also, fun) videos!

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      Final message:

      Remember, empowering yourself with knowledge and seeking professional guidance are paramount in navigating the complexities of any diagnosis and ensuring the appropriate steps toward better health.


      Remember, I’m always here to help!

      Get in contact here if you need me.

      Gemma x

      DISCLAIMERS & DISCLOSURES

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      DISCLOSURE
      & my full Disclaimer for further information – DISCLAIMER

      Any advice offered within this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not be used as a sole resource for understanding the medical conditions discussed within. Any changes made to your diet, lifestyle and general well-being should be discussed with your GP or similar healthcare professional who is aware of your unique medical history and not made according to advice provided within this article or anywhere else on this website.


      While the utmost care has been taken in devising the information residing on this website, it is your sole responsibility as the reader to utilise the information as you see fit and by reading the information present on this website you accept personal responsibility over any health outcomes related to you and your condition which occur as a direct or indirect result of using the information on this website in any way.

      Always Check Ingredients Labels for Allergen Information
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      This is important in case there are changes in
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      Use the content list below for quick links to relevant sections within this article:

      Understanding the gut microbiome
      Introduction to microbes and your gut
      What are these microbes and why are they living inside of us?
      Why living without our microbes is a bad thing
      Are microbes really that important to our bodies survival?
      Where are these trillions of microbes lurking exactly?
      So, why does it all matter?
      With that all in mind, how do we protect our gut health then?
      – Antibiotics are doing more harm than good (in most cases)
      – Breast feed your babies
      – What can I do to improve my gut’s current situation?
      Ready to embark on your gut health journey?
      Final message
      Sources

      Sources

      Bengmark, S. (2013) Gut microbiota, immune development and function. Pharmacological Research 69: 87-113.

      Bach, J-F. (2002) The effect of infections on susceptibility to autoimmune and allergic diseases. The New England Journal of Medicine 347: 911-920.

      Bollinger, R et al (2007) Biofilms in the large intestine suggest an apparent function of the human vermiform appendix. Journal of Theoretical Biology. 249:826-831.

      Collen, A. (2015) 10% Human. William Collins of Harper Collins Publishers.

      Collins, S. M. (2014) A role for the gut microbiota in IBS. Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology 11: 497-505.

      Patton, K. T., & Thibodeau, G. A. (2018). The human body in health & disease. 7th edition. St. Louis, Missouri, Elsevier.

      Prentice, A-M & Jebb, S. A. (1995) Obesity in Britain: gluttony or sloth?. British Journal of Medicine 311: 437-439.

      The Human Microbiome Project Consortium (2012). Structure, function and diversity of the healthy human microbiome. Nature 486: 207-214.

      Gemma Hartshorn

      Gemma is a mum to twins with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and has been living a gut-health focused life for many years herself. She has 5 years adult nursing experience in the UK and achieved a distinction in her Diploma of Higher Education in Healthcare from Oxford Brookes University. She is currently completing a BSc in Health Science and has a keen interest and knowledge of all things gut health. Listen to her Gut Be Good podcast or join her on the Gut Be Good youtube channel for more insights, sharing and helpful information on all things gut health related alongside her website here. Contact Details: glutenfreeshopeasy@gmail.com Unit 80366, PO Box 6945, London, W1A 6US

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