You’ve most likely heard “trust your gut instinct” a time or two; that eerie feeling that creeps up as a warning to hold your horses, even when you don’t really know why. Maybe it’s even paid off for you in the past. While trusting your gut may be the universe’s way of letting you know that not everything is what it may seem, the same can be true for your actual gut.
Your gut is responsible for more than just digesting food. To learn more about gut health and how it impacts the rest of your body beyond your bathroom habits, we spoke to Aamer Agha, M.D., a gastroenterologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano and at the Institute for Digestive Health, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice.
Your digestive system plays a pretty fundamental role in your overall health, transforming what you eat into energy that is used to help keep the rest of your biological systems running and giving you energy to go about your daily activities. But it also plays a role in keeping your immune system healthy, to protect you from any infectious threats. It’s why you’re cautioned to only use antibiotics when you absolutely need to, and to wash your hands and utensils before you eat, or why you got that nasty stomach bug when traveling overseas that one summer.
“The usage of antibiotics reduces the number of good bacteria or ‘gut flora’ residing in our colon, which recent research suggests is fundamentally important in maintaining good digestive health, particularly colon health,” Agha explains. “The prevalence and overuse of antibiotics have led to the rise of multidrug-resistant organisms, or ‘superbugs’ as some have come to call them. But we are finding that taking probiotics after a course of antibiotics can generally be helpful to keep healthy amounts of gut flora thriving.”
Sure, you probably already know that your digestive system can let you know when you’re hungry or thirsty, when you need to go to the restroom, or whether eating that slightly expired yogurt was a bad idea, but Agha says it can also let you know when other systems aren’t operating at peak performance or if your diet is lacking.
One of the most common examples that most people will experience at some point is realizing that it’s been a while since your last bowel movement. While each gut is different, a healthy gut often has a pattern, so if you’ve noticed that you’re not visiting the restroom as often, as well as dealing with any of the following symptoms, constipation may be the culprit:
- Passing fewer than three stools a week
- Having lumpy or hard stools
- Straining to have bowel movements
- Feeling as though there’s a blockage in your rectum that prevents bowel movements
- Feeling as though you can’t completely empty the stool from your rectum
- Needing help to empty your rectum, such as using your hands to press on your abdomen and using a finger to remove stool from your rectum
While constipation is most commonly caused by a lack of fiber or not getting enough fluids, it can also signify larger issues such as an underactive thyroid or cancer. But your best bet is to check your diet first before jumping to conclusions.
“One of the most important tips for my patients is to be aware of how much fiber they take in,” Agha says. “The average American consumes 12 to 14 grams of dietary fiber a day, but the recommended amount is about double that, at 25 grams. Foods rich in fiber include whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and nuts. But of course, this will still vary based on portion size and food selected. I personally take over–the–counter fiber supplements in addition to my average diet which puts me right in that 25 grams range.”
When the microbiome is thrown out of balance for any reason, it’s often easy to tell. You experience bloating, gas, diarrhea, stomach pain or nausea. These imbalances often fix themselves after a short period of time, but if they’re persistent, it may be time to seek treatment. Gastroenterologists can test for specific conditions, such as an overgrowth of certain bacteria, to get you back to normal. But there are instances when an imbalanced microbiome won’t cause any immediate symptoms, which can be dangerous, because some of these bacteria are associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. An unhealthy balance has also been attributed to Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel diseases that can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract.
Furthermore, some kinds of gut bacteria may be part of the link cholesterol has to heart disease. When you eat foods like red meat or eggs, those bacteria make a chemical that your liver turns into something called TMAO (trimethylamine-N-oxide). TMAO may increase cholesterol buildup in your blood vessels. Too much TMAO also may lead to chronic kidney disease since people who have the disease don’t get rid of TMAO like they should.
So can you change your gut biome for the better? You definitely can! But Agha warns against popular cleanses or pills promising to detoxify the colon and give your gut a fresh start.
“There is almost no data to support using cleanses to detoxify the colon and there is no evidence to suggest that detoxifying the colon is even beneficial,” Agha says. “Over the years, I have spent a significant amount of time dispelling the notions of material being ‘stuck’ to the colon for years and that the colon requires some kind of annual or semiannual cleansing. It has become a sort of modern ‘snake oil’ which works much the same way a placebo can work for any ailment.”
Instead, turn to pre- and probiotics to naturally help balance things out. Probiotics and prebiotics occur naturally in your gut, but the kind found in some foods and beverages can add to the bacteria in your intestinal tract and help keep everything in balance. Examples of good probiotics and prebiotics are:
- Low-sugar, plain, natural yogurt
Prebiotics and probiotics can also make your immune system stronger since we talked about the link between your gut and immune health.
“Of course with all the important things the digestive system does, there is little argument about the importance of good health,” Agha adds. “Some of the biggest challenges to our digestive system in the modern age are the prevalence of processed foods (which lack adequate amounts of dietary fiber), the obesity epidemic and the rise of multidrug-resistant pathogens in the community. Keeping a healthy diet with a healthy weight, and maintaining your gut flora is a good general guideline to keep your gut functioning the way it should.”
If you haven’t heard from your gut in a while, you’re eliminating regularly, and you haven’t been dealing with any bloating or abdominal pain, you’re doing just fine. If it could talk, it would thank you for keeping it nourished and healthy!