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Improving gut health – why is it important and how can it be done?

Improving gut health – why is it important and how can it be done?

Over the last few decades research has shown us the great importance of having a healthy gut. Not only has it become clear that about 70 % of our immune system cells reside in the gut, moreover it is evident that there is a strong communicative link between our gut and our brain via the so-called gut-brain axis. Keeping our gut happy and healthy is in other words vital if we are going to feel well and enjoy a high quality of life.

It has become increasingly common to suffer from various gut-related issues that cause debilitating symptoms. Conditions such as SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth), leaky gut and IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) are growing in prevalence and are thereby creating distress for both their sufferers and the doctors trying to treat them. Science is yet to figure out the exact circumstances behind these conditions, but it seems as if both some sort of genetic predisposition and several lifestyle factors could be involved in the aetiology of them. As for the lifestyle factors involved, the diet seems to be one of the biggest triggers for gut issues in various forms. For example, a sensitivity towards gluten could be the culprit causing IBS-related symptoms in some individuals. Interestingly, the genes related to autoimmune coeliac disease are also related to a non-celiac sensitivity towards gluten. Thus, it is possible to suffer from gluten-related issues without having an actual coeliac diagnosis. Another common food component that could potentially cause IBS-related gut issues is that of lactose. Even though the most severe form of lactose intolerance is not very common in areas where dairy consumption has been widely prevalent, it is possible to still suffer from some form of lactose sensitivity. If that is the case, symptoms such as bloating, abdominal cramps and flatulence could occur. Knowledge of genetic predisposition in the area of food sensitivity is of much value to be able to tailor a diet that will benefit, instead of burdening, the gut. Moreover, research has found that a diet high in fibre (predominantly from fresh fruits and vegetables) and low in saturated fat seems to be beneficial to the overall gut health. The fibre is extremely important for the many beneficial bacteria that reside in our intestines, as this is their main food source.  

Another common trigger for gut issues is that of stress. Stress has the ability to impact almost all of our most important organs – including the gastrointestinal system. When we are stressed, the body focuses on getting us ready for a fight-or-flight situation, rather than making sure we are digesting the dinner we just had properly. Stress is associated with a disruption of several immune-related components as well as hormones and signaling molecules related to digestion. Moreover, stress has been shown to be linked to a low-grade inflammation that can either be systemic or directed towards certain areas of the body, such as the gastrointestinal system. Certain genetic markers can show if an individual has increased levels of pro-inflammatory signaling proteins in the blood, and with that knowledge it is possible to take action to decrease the inflammation.

Aside from the fact that gut-related issues cause various troublesome symptoms, they can also be related to issues with absorption and metabolism. Such issues are often hard to identify and manifest in various deficiency symptoms such as skin, hair and nail problems as well as a lack of energy and motivation and trouble concentrating. If our gut health is poor, it is very likely that our ability to sufficiently absorb and metabolise various macro- and micronutrients is compromised. This too is an area where genetic insight might be helpful.