At this point, you understand the major impact your diet has on almost every area of your life. Your athletic performance, ability to train, and even mental health are all affected by the foods and drinks you consume on a daily basis. If you eat highly processed foods that are loaded with sugar and fat (the bad kind!) you know how your body reacts: you feel tired, sluggish, bloated, and just out of it. If you’re feeding yourself clean and natural foods, however, you feel energized and ready to conquer even the toughest workout.
But have you ever considered how your diet and other lifestyle factors affect the health of your gut? While it’s often overlooked, a healthy gut is crucial to your overall well-being. In addition to its digestive functions, the gut makes up 75% of your immune system and contains so many neurons that it has even been called “the second brain.” It’s clear that your gut, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, is one of the most important organ systems in your body.
To help you feel your best so you can train your best, we’re going to review the importance of gut health and what you can do to start taking care of your GI tract.
Bacteria can be good for you
While often associated with being the cause of infections or disease, bacteria are good for you in certain instances, such as some of those that inhabit your gut. Known as the gut microbiome, beneficial bacteria in your digestive system have the capability of affecting your body’s absorption of vitamins and minerals, hormone regulation, digestion, vitamin production, immune response, and ability to eliminate toxins, not to mention your overall mental health.
Generally speaking, gastrointestinal health is determined by the levels and types of bacteria in your digestive tract. In fact, your gastrointestinal tract contains approximately 100 trillion microorganisms! Dr. Douglas Lord, M.D., explains that ideally there should be a balance of bacteria. An imbalance between beneficial and harmful bacteria is referred to as dysbiosis.
When dysbiosis occurs as a result of too many harmful bacteria, the gut’s mucosal layer can become damaged. Normally this layer is smooth and intact, acting as a selective barrier during the digestion process. Ideally, as food and other ingested substances are broken down, it absorbs only the nutrients and fuel that the body needs. For example, large proteins would be broken down into small amino acids which could then be absorbed properly. However, if it is damaged, the mucosal layer may become more permeable, possibly allowing food proteins to enter into the bloodstream. As a result, the immune system could become activated, leading to inflammation, food sensitivities, and many other symptoms both in the GI system and throughout the entire body.
A dysfunctional gut can even trigger changes in your mood. This is because your GI tract has its own nervous system, called the enteric nervous system (ENS), which consists of up to 600 million neurons. That is the same amount of neurons that you have in your spinal cord! These neurons release the same neurotransmitters as your brain, which might explain why you often get a “gut feeling” about something or “feel butterflies” in your stomach.
In fact, a 2015 Cell Journal study found that approximately 90 percent of the body’s serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in regulating mood, appetite, and sleep, is produced in the digestive tract. According to Dr. Douglas Lord, M.D., a lack of this “peripheral” serotonin, which is cultivated by certain bacteria in the digestive tract and affects mental health, has been linked to diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis.
Is “leaky gut syndrome” real?
Leaky gut syndrome is one of the more controversial topics surrounding the importance of gut health. Leaky gut syndrome refers to the increased intestinal permeability that was mentioned above along with the belief that the ability of proteins and microorganisms to pass through the gut lining can lead to various medical conditions, such as migraines and certain autoimmune disorders.
While increased intestinal permeability is a phenomenon recognized by mainstream science, claims for the existence of “leaky gut syndrome” as a distinct medical condition are mostly made by nutritionists and practitioners of alternative medicine. Many scientists and traditional medical practitioners call leaky gut syndrome a hypothetical condition because there is currently little evidence to support the theory that a porous bowel is the direct cause of any significant, widespread problems. (NHS)
Those who promote the idea of leaky gut syndrome often suggest treatments such as herbal remedies, gluten-free foods, and special diets described in books to be purchased. Once again there is little scientific evidence to suggest that these treatments are beneficial for many of the conditions they are claimed to help. (NHS) However, some think these practitioners are taking advantage of the lay person’s lack of knowledge regarding leaky gut syndrome in order to make a profit off of these “treatments”.
Until the evidence is more clear on leaky gut syndrome, it’s best just to keep things simple when taking care of your gut. Reducing the amount of processed foods in your diet and adding in more clean, natural foods is one of the most important steps you can take to promote a healthy gut. You can also avoid substances that are known to irritate the gut lining, such as alcohol, aspirin, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Reducing your intake of these causative factors can help restore the integrity of the gut barrier.
At Performance Inspired Nutrition, we recognize the importance of gut health and the impact it has on your performance and overall well-being. This is why we formulate our products with only the highest quality ingredients that are all natural. You’ll never find artificial sweeteners or other harmful additives that can wreak havoc on the gut in our products. We put our names on the labels to show our commitment to being better!