Happy Gut, Happy Life

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Gut health has become a hot topic with the rise of popular prebiotic sodas like Poppi, OLIPOP and probiotics like kefir and kombucha. For many, we know that our guts are important to tend to even if we don’t know exactly why.

What is the Gut? What is a Healthy Gut?
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It is powerful in that “it” sometimes reacts before you do. It often is our first intellect before our brains intervene. The gut is a coined term for the GI tract or the gastrointestinal tract which is a long tube that runs from the mouth to the rectum. Its primary functions are to break down food, absorb nutrients and to get rid of waste. It’s also home to trillions of microorganisms known collectively as the gut microbiome.

The microbiome or one’s gut flora is made up of good bacteria, fungi and viruses. It protects your body from a virus, bacterial infection or toxins. A healthy gut refers to a balanced microbiome with a diverse range of microorganisms.

Why Does Gut Health Matter?

Gut health has been commonly known to affect digestive function given the GI’s role. For example, a less healthy gut may be linked to a person’s constant bloating, constipation, diarrhea or IBS. Yet, interestingly, continuing research surrounding the gut has shown that gut health affects our mental health along with physical health beyond digestive issues.

The Gut-Brain Axis — Gut Health Affects Mental Health
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The gut is constantly sending messages to the brain. It’s a yapper. So much so that there are three lines of communication between the gut and the brain. Doctor turned content creator, Ali Abdaal and London-based dietitian Sophie Medlin laid out simply the science behind this connection.

The first is a chemical connection. The gut microbiome produces the chemicals serotonin and dopamine which make us happy and regulate our mood. Amazingly, 95% of our serotonin is produced in the GI tract.

The second connection is a hormonal connection between the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, both in the brain, with the adrenal gland situated above the kidneys. The adrenal glands assist in one’s response to stress by producing stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline.

A third connection is physical and occurs via the vagus nerve which is the primary nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system and controls digestion, heart rate and the immune system — typically things we don’t pay attention to. The parasympathetic nervous system deals with regular “rest and digest” of daily life whereas the opposing sympathetic nervous system controls fight or flight.

By understanding these connections, one can begin to picture how things could get messy if the gut is haywire — a possible reduction in the production of happy chemicals, an increase in stress hormones and being in unwarranted states of flight or flight.

Probiotics Versus Prebiotics
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First, there was probiotics … then, there was prebiotics. What’s the difference? Probiotic foods are foods that are rich in those healthy bacteria of the gut biome. Prebiotic foods are rich in the nutrients that the probiotic organisms need to survive.

Dr. Christine Lee, a GI doctor, in an interview with Cleveland Clinic recommends including probiotics and prebiotics in a diet to maintain a strong gut biome. For instance, fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles and apple cider vinegar have lots of probiotics. High-fiber foods like brown rice, whole grains, avocados, dates, almonds and beans provide that as well. She lists some prebiotic foods like bananas, greens, onions, garlic, soybeans, artichokes, sourdough and berries.

Probiotics and prebiotic supplements also exist. They can be useful, but Dr. Lee discussed doing research before investing in them. Moreover, standard healthy practices like hydration, rest and regular exercise help keep the gut healthy.

How do you keep your gut happy? Let us know on Instagram @VALLEYmag!


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