Trust Your Gut

When it comes to your stomach, there’s much more happening beneath the surface than you might think. The connection between gut health and overall wellness is much larger than you may first realize.

Gut flora, or intestinal microbiota, consists of 10 times more bacteria than all the other cells in your body. That means it’s vital to assure that your gut, one of the largest parts of your immune system, is performing at its best because it plays a huge part in your overall health.

The gut fulfills a handful of roles in the body, including keeping the gastrointestinal (GI) tract functioning properly, fighting infections and regulating the body’s metabolism.

It’s not always a feeling of bloating or abdominal cramping that will alert you that you have a gut disorder. Other ailments such as heartburn, indigestion and anemia can be signs of an improperly functioning stomach. According to Dr. Edward Levine, associate director of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at The Ohio State University Medical Center, 20 percent of people in this country have consistent problems with irritable bowels.

If you think about the advice, “Wait 30 minutes to get in the pool after eating,” something your mother might have repeatedly told you to do as a kid, it makes sense. Exercising right after a meal means that blood is being diverted to skeletal muscles, away from the gut where it is needed to aid digestion.

“One of the ways to address a lot of the digestive complaints from people is a healthy lifestyle, and you can start with diet,” Levine said.

This includes eating foods rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables and bran cereals while avoiding processed foods.

Fermentable foods, or “good bacteria” such as high-quality yogurt, kombucha or sauerkraut, preserve nutrients in food and also contain the probiotics your body needs. Including fermented foods into your meals in some form will help improve your overall gut health.

Over-the-counter probiotics can also potentially help to some degree but are not a cure-all, Levine said.

Most probiotics only contain one to three different types of bacteria, which will only be beneficial if that’s the type of good bacteria your system needs. The GI tract consists of billions of bacteria types.

“It’s difficult to culture a lot of the bacteria in the intestinal tract because a lot of these are what we call anaerobic; they can grow but without oxygen and you can’t culture them. So, unfortunately, you can’t test the patient to see which one they need,” Levine said.

However, diet only plays part of the role in maintaining gut health. Stress can also play a large role in digestive distress because of the gut-brain connection.