Fun Fact: Did you know that your gut is technically outside your body?!
I know this sounds extremely strange, but technically, we have one long tube running through our body. The term for this tube is the ‘alimentary canal’ and is comprised of the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, intestines and anus.
This tube is pinched closed by your mouth, anus and certain sphincters along the digestive tract. However, technically, this canal is not completely and permanently sealed shut from the outside world. Hence, from a physiological perspective, we say it is outside of your body. Crazy, right?
The gut is ‘outside’ our body for a very important immunological reason. You see, our environment is naturally filled with billions of bacteria. This is not to scare you, as bacteria play a very important role in sustaining life on earth. However, our body is not equipped to let any ol’ bug from the outside world into our bloodstream.
Therefore, our gut contains a very sophisticated immune system to make sure that the bugs that we swallow and eat are not given free reign into our bloodstream. This is why bacteria and food are kept ‘outside’ our body and safely enclosed within your gut until deemed safe enough to pass through our gut’s immune defences and into our blood.
Until now, you may have thought that the chief function of our gut is to digest food but there is so much more that this amazing organ does! Read on for the scoop on this fascinating system that does more than merely make your poop…
How Immunity Works In Your Gut
To truly understand the role of gut health for immunity, we need to examine your Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue (GALT). The GALT thinly lines the mucosal layer of your gut wall and acts as a ‘filter’ and detection system for everything that travels through your gut and could be potentially absorbed into your bloodstream.
The GALT is richly populated with special clusters of immune cells known as ‘Peyer’s Patches’. The role of the cells within these patches is to identify harmful bacteria within your gut, ensnare these potential pathogens and disarm them before they can enter your bloodstream (and thereby hitch a ride throughout your body!) These Peyer’s Patches also stimulate a chain of immune reactions that stop further movement of invading bacteria throughout your gut lining.
Ultimately, this defense system is extremely important to stop harmful bacteria from invading your body!
What About Your Friendly Gut Bacteria?
Gut bacteria, gastrointestinal flora, microbiome, microbiotic health, gut flora and friendly bugs… The ‘good’ bacteria in your gut have more nicknames than Snoop Dogg’s employed throughout his career. But nonetheless, they collectively refer to many strains of bugs that carry out wonderful work to keep our gut in tip-top condition!
From an immunity perspective, having plenty of the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut helps to keep the ‘bad’ bacteria in check. When ‘bad’ bacteria are too prolific, they smother the lining of your bowel so that the sentry cells within the Peyer’s patches cannot perform their task of protecting you properly. The result? You are more vulnerable to pathogens that you pick up from the environment and may find yourself getting sick more often than you’d like!
Good bacteria also ferment fiber and resistant starch to form a fatty acid called butyrate. Butyrate increases blood flow to your gut wall, which is great for healing! This fatty acid also provides essential energy to the cells that line your colon and is extremely important for the repair and growth of healthy colon cells. This is one of the reasons why resistant starch and fiber is associated with lower rates of colon cancer.
Inflammation In Your Gut
A healthy gut flora has been shown to reduce inflammation, a key factor that is associated with many diseases. These include everything from the common cold, through to cardiovascular diseases, cognitive issues, arthritis and even cancer. Probiotic treatments have even been shown to assist with certain types of eczema!
Why Have I Heard That I Have A ‘Brain’ In My Gut?
Our gut is full of nerves and neurotransmitters that form a neural network called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The ENS is wired directly to the brain, hence why stress and anxiety can exert such a powerful effect on our digestion. Research is only beginning to uncover how complex the functions of the ENS are, including the fact that our gut cells even produce the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter, serotonin! This mechanism has prompted some fascinating research into the link between our gut and certain behavioral disorders.
What Affects Our Gut Health?
Many factors in our modern environment negatively impact our gut health. From a young age, most of us are given antibiotic medications, which interfere with our microbiome. While antibiotics are designed to attack pathogenic (bad) bacteria, they indiscriminately wipe out our good bacteria as well!
Pesticides, herbicides and other agricultural chemicals have similar actions to antibiotics; after all, they are applied to kill bugs that attack plants, right? Sadly, these residual chemicals wind up in our gut when we eat non-organic food and hurt our friendly tummy bugs, too! Remember, agricultural run-off makes its way into our waterways, so unfiltered water can also be contaminated with compounds that reduce our gut flora.
Being ‘over-hygienic’ in the home can also contribute to imbalances in your gut flora. In particular, anti-bacterial sprays and lotions unfavourably impact your microbiome. Our bodies naturally require some exposure to dirt and germs to build a healthy, robust immune system but an over-emphasis on ‘cleanliness’ can interfere with this natural process.
Key Steps To Support Gut Health
PROBIOTICS: These restore the ‘good guys’ in our gut, especially if you’ve been through a recent round of antibiotics.
EAT ORGANIC: Avoid the pesticide sprays that kill off bugs on our plants… and in our gut!
GO GREEN: Use non-toxic cleaning aids in your home.
USE ANTIBIOTICS AS A LAST RESORT: Antibiotics can be life-saving in certain situations, however unnecessary use clears out our good gut bacteria.
KEEP UP THE H2O: Our bodies need to be hydrated to keep bad bacteria propelling through our digestive tract to be easily eliminated.
GIVE YOURSELF DIGESTIVE REST: Our gut cannot rest and repair when we overeat or eat too often. Whilst there are many benefits to eating small, regular meals, try to avoid snacking constantly.
EAT PLENTY OF FIBER, RESISTANT STARCH AND PREBIOTICS: This is A-grade fuel for the friendly bacteria in your gut.
INCLUDED FERMENTED FOODS: These support healthy gut flora too!