The inner workings of your gut can be a lot to digest, but when you break it down into smaller pieces, it’s much easier to understand what your insides are made of.
Get to know your gut
Your gut is really just another term for your digestive tract, an intricate system that performs many vital functions to help break down the food you eat. As food enters your mouth and begins the process of digestion, it passes through several steps along the way, including your small intestine and large intestine.
In the small intestine, enzymes are released by the pancreas and bile from the liver to help break down food so the nutrients can be absorbed into your bloodstream. The large intestine absorbs large quantities of water and electrolytes and helps remove waste matter and other substances your body does not need.
Microflora or “Gut” Flora
There is a complex ecosystem of bacteria (also referred to as microflora or flora) that lives in your intestinal tract. This bacterial ecosystem is called the gut microbiota (or your microbiome). You're not born with this bacterial ecosystem; it starts to develop after birth and becomes more sophisticated and varied based on influencing factors such as your diet, stress levels, antibiotics and different life stages including puberty, pregnancy and menopause. Your gut bacteria are an integral part of your digestive system. When your diet and health change, so does the composition of your gut flora.
Good bacteria vs bad bacteria: why a healthy gut is important
You have about 100 trillion gut bacteria cells in your intestinal tract – that’s ten times the number of cells in your entire body! While most of these bacteria are not harmful, some can cause certain diseases. Under normal circumstances, the ‘good’ bacteria far outnumber the ‘bad’, but any shift in this balance may affect how well your digestive tract functions.
There are several factors that can influence the shift in gut flora, including stress, antibiotics, illness, aging, and diet.
Mind-gut: making the connection
Incredibly, your digestive system has its own nervous system made up of over 100 million neurons. In fact, ongoing research suggests this so-called “second brain” is always communicating what it feels to your other brain, without you even knowing it.
For example, everyone knows that feeling of having butterflies in your stomach. Clearly, there aren’t pretty-coloured insects fluttering about in your belly, but your gut is conveying this feeling to your brain. Similarly, research suggests that when your gut flora is out of balance (meaning there are more ‘bad’ bacteria than ‘good’), it may negatively affect your overall health and influence your mood.
Easy steps to pleasing your gut
The good news is, your gut health is in your control. There are many easy ways to improve your overall gut health. Remember, this doesn’t mean you have to make a drastic overhaul – even small steps can have an impact.
- Fill up on gut-friendly foods: there’s a long list of foods you can add to your grocery list that are good for your gut including lean meats such as chicken, turkey and pork, salmon and other fish, avocado and olives, yogurt, kefir, kimchi, bananas, whole grain breads, fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains. And if you’re craving something sweet, natural sweeteners like applesauce, maple syrup and pure honey are good alternatives to refined sugar.
- Exercise regularly: this can mean taking classes at a gym, or changing little parts of your daily routine like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or walking instead of driving
- Get a good night’s sleep: regular, restful sleep is vital to your overall health – try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day and avoid all screens close to bedtime
- Manage stress: be proactive and preventative in how you deal with stress by using techniques like meditation, exercise and calming activities to keep stress levels in check
- Drink lots of water: loading up on H20 can help with digestion, keep you hydrated and flush out toxins, which can lead to many benefits for your body
- Include probiotics: making probiotics a part of your wellness plan contributes to the health of your gut flora