Many of us consider our gut to be simply an automated food processing system that, at best, does little more than digest our food and at worst, is the source of discomfort and illness. But have you ever considered that your intestine is your largest organ? Its average length is greater than the width of a tennis court and its surface area is approximately 200 times the surface area of your skin. So why is our gut health so important? There is increasing emerging evidence that the size and complexity of our gut plays a vital role in more than just nutrient absorption; it’s also connected to our immune system, mental health and general wellbeing.
Nutrient absorption – we are what we absorb, not just what we eat
Taking the food we eat and processing it so that we can absorb and utilise the nutrients is the most obvious role of our gut. Having been broken down by the acidic stomach, the majority of nutrient absorption takes place in our small intestine, but this absorption varies between 10-90% depending upon the health of our intestine.
Three ways to increase nutrient absorption:
- Drink a glass of water 30 minutes before each meal. This will prime the digestive system
- Chew your food for longer. This will boost the digestion process and food will taste better
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol whilst eating
The gut-brain axis – your gut instinct
Our gut contains a network of neurones equivalent in complexity and size to the brain of a cat, and we all know how intelligent cats are! This neural-network, known as the ‘Enteric Nervous System’, not only controls digestion but it also connects directly to our brainstem to provide two-way communication with the unconscious part of our inbuilt master computer. One of the key messengers in this network is serotonin. In the brain, this messenger is well known for producing feelings of positive wellbeing and happiness, yet approximately 90% of the body’s serotonin is made in the digestive tract.
This ‘second brain’ in our gut determines not just our digestive health, but it also affects our mood and even the way we think and therefore behave. Maybe our ‘gut instinct’ has a more rational basis than we previously realised!
The immune system – battling the bugs
The immune system is our body’s natural defence force. Ready, armed and willing to attack any foreign invaders, the immune cells are housed in our lymphoid tissue. Examples include our lymph nodes and spleen, but 70% of lymphoid is in our intestine which makes it the body’s largest immune organ.
Our micro-biome – the good, the bad and the ugly
We now understand that our gut factory is not fully automated, it actually houses a huge workforce! Bacteria are often considered the bad boys of biology causing infection, disease and illness, and whilst for some bacterial strains this is true, there are many other bacterial strains that are vitally important for us to survive. They co-habit in our bodies, living and working in our large intestine – the micro-biome.
There are over 40 trillion bacteria in our gut, making up 1-3% of our body weight and in fact, there is more bacterial genetic material in our gut than there are human genes in our body! These good bacteria support our immune, gut-brain axis and digestive system in many ways, including producing enzymes, vitamins and hormones we cannot make, and enhancing the absorption of certain minerals. Ensuring we cultivate our good gut bacteria, encouraging their growth and productivity is essential to our overall health and wellbeing.
Three steps to boost your micro-biome:
- Exercise regularly
- Vary your diet with lots of nutrient dense vegetables and berries
- Avoid refined sugar and processed food.
Making the right choices on a daily basis to promote good gut health will not only improve your digestive health but it will also support your immune system and mental health. Optimal intestinal health truly is the key to good general wellbeing.