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Gut Health 101: Improve Your Digestive Wellness Today

Gut Health 101: Improve Your Digestive Wellness Today

Think about it - the digestive tract is continuous with the outside world - it is literally a hollow tube running through our bodies from the mouth all the way out that is a direct connection to the outside world.

This physical reality speaks to the profound functions that the gut plays outside digestion, including being a first-line barrier for our immune system! Not to mention the ever-unfolding two-way communication that our body’s cells have with the ecosystem that lives within us in the form of our microbiome.

Not only are each of our guts constantly changing and adapting, but each of our 8.1 billion human microbiomes on this planet is unique!

Let’s dive into a wide-angle view of gut health, the microbiome, and how to support our health from the inside out!

What Is Gut Health and Why Does It Matter?

The term “gut health” is an all-encompassing phrase that can be used to describe everything from digestive function, elimination of waste, the balance or imbalance of our microbiome and more!

Gut health is an important focus in our overall health because we rely on ideal digestion, absorption, and our microbiome to literally create and utilize energy from food. We also rely on it for a plethora of immune functions, to acquire building blocks for our own proteins (amino acids), and to supply nutrients that are required in life-sustaining chemical reactions (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, etc.).

In our discussion of gut health, we’ll explore the following facets, all of which add up to manifest on the spectrum of dysfunction to health:

  • Mechanical and chemical digestion
  • Transit of toxic waste and elimination
  • The human microbiome
  • The gut-immune connection
  • The gut-brain connection

As our understanding of gut health and its body-wide implications continues to expand, know that our knowledge is unfolding and deepening all the time! The gut has many other connections to important body systems including our hormone function, blood sugar control, response to inflammation, and so much more!

Breaking Down Digestion & Gut Health

Both mechanical and chemical digestion are vastly important functions that we need for ideal gut health. The strength of both represents our overall ability to break down and absorb our macronutrients and micronutrients.

Both must be functioning well to ensure that we actually can absorb what we are eating!

Mechanical Digestion

As the term suggests, mechanical digestion is the physical breakdown of our food. It’s pivotal to start breaking down our food products into small enough pieces so that chemical digestion can take place more efficiently.

Mechanical digestion starts with the process of chewing! Chewing our food not only helps to prepare it for chemical digestion, but it also sends signals throughout our gut to secrete adequate amounts of digestive fluids and prepare the nervous system for processing our nutrition!

It then continues with the complex churning and muscular contractions of our stomach. This movement and squeezing further mixes our food with digestive juices to more adequately break it down - much like the way that a washing machine tumbles and churns our clothing to ensure cleanliness and mixing of detergent throughout the wash cycle!

Chemical Digestion

The phrase chemical digestion is self-descriptive and includes all of the enzymes and acids that help to break down our food products at the chemical level!

Chemical digestion actually starts with the saliva in our mouths. You may have noticed that the longer you chew a more complex carbohydrate, like a whole wheat cracker, the sweeter it becomes. This is because our saliva contains an enzyme that breaks down complex carbs into simpler, sweeter sugars!

The same chemical breakdown happens with our stomach acids, bile salts, and digestive enzyme cocktail that is released from the pancreas. Together, all of these chemicals are critical to breaking down our complex foods into simpler, absorbable compounds!

Transit and Elimination of Toxic Waste

As a functional medicine practitioner and Chinese medicine practitioner, I spend a good deal of time talking to patients about bowel movements for key reasons.

Simply put, bowel movements represent our body’s zoomed-out ability to detoxify!

The transit and elimination of waste not only signifies our digestive function but also our nervous system function. The “rest and digest” or parasympathetic nervous system plays key roles in the rhythmic contractions that move our processed waste through our extensive digestive tracts!

Ideally, we should be having between one and three well-formed, easy-to-pass bowel movements per day. If you’re not, it’s good to dive deeper into underlying reasons with the help of a healthcare practitioner, which may include a decreased functional ability to digest and absorb nutrients, dehydration, chronic stress, and many more potential underlying causes.

Gut Health and The Human Microbiome

The human microbiome is the term used to describe the 50-100 trillion microbial organisms that live within each of us. The total weight of this ecosystem of organisms is between 2-5 pounds.

The human microbiome, when balanced and full of healthy organisms, represents a perfect example of a synergistic relationship between us and our internal microbial gardens. The organisms benefit by having a place to live, and we benefit through a whole host of ways!

Our understanding of the microbiome continues to unfold, but here are a few well-documented benefits of this close relationship with these microscopic creatures.

  • Some species actually synthesize nutrients we rely on, including Vitamin K, some of the B vitamins, and healthy, anti-inflammatory fats in the form of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).
  • Some aid in detoxification and breakdown of many toxic substances in our food supply and our bodies.
  • They compete for resources with potentially pathogenic organisms such as other bacteria, fungi, and parasites.
  • Some produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.

When it comes to the microbiome, two words should come to mind - diversity and balance.

In fact, increased diversity and balance of these microbial organisms is associated with ideal health outcomes related to conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and some mental health conditions!

Important Gut Connections

As we continue to learn more about gut health, know that there is an ever-increasing number of relationships to other body systems and functions that unfold. These include the following connections and more:

  • The Gut-Immune Connection
  • The Gut-Brain Connection
  • The Gut-Heart Connection
  • The Gut-Skin Connection
  • The Gut-Liver Connection
  • The Gut-Hormone Connection
  • And many more!

I would like to spend a short amount of time on two individual connections. These are the gut-immune connection and the gut-brain connection.

The Gut-Immune Connection

Let’s set the stage for this immune connection discussion with the following fact. Did you know that the barrier between our digestive tract opening and our bloodstream is only a single cell layer thick?

In contrast, our skin is between 3 and 30 cells thick depending on the region, such as our eyelids and soles respectively.

Do you see how important this is for our immune system? When this lining is intact and functioning properly, it dramatically increases the integrity of our immune system response. If this lining becomes compromised, it can lead to a situation known as intestinal permeability (aka “leaky gut”) that can cause problems throughout the entire body. More on this topic another time.

Aside from the physical barrier, our stomach acid also plays a role in making sure that potential pathogens are destroyed before entering our intestines. This is why adequate stomach acid is important in addition to its role in chemical digestion!

The Gut-Brain Connection

Our digestive tract and nervous systems are intricately connected. As already mentioned, the transit and elimination of waste is a zoomed out representative of the function of our “rest and digest” nervous system.

The gut also produces a majority of the serotonin in our bodies - serotonin plays a role in digestive transit, motility, as well as mood and affect.

Additionally, the gut is referred to as “the second brain” because of its interactions with the nervous system. Our gut cells and microbiome cells alike are known to stimulate and interact with branches of the vagus nerve, our main “rest and digest” nerve highway. The vagus nerve connects to many other organs throughout our body.

This summary represents just a small portion of the zoomed-out ways that the gut and brain or nervous system are connected!

What is the Picture of Ideal Gut Health?

Let’s take a look at the good things that happen when our gut is optimally functioning in all of the areas we just discussed. It can be difficult to understand what “normal” or “abnormal” looks like because many people “get used to being a certain way” in these situations.

Here are some pointers that are the picture of ideal gut health:

  • Between 1-3 regular, well-formed, easy-to-pass bowel movements per day
  • A diverse and balanced microbiome (consider a functional medicine stool analysis for insight)
  • No symptoms such as bloating, distention, abdominal pain, nausea, gas, etc.
  • No acid reflux or other GERD symptoms
  • Healthy skin
  • Regular mood and affect, mental clarity
  • Strong immune system function and defense against colds and other infections
  • Regular maintenance of an ideal weight and body composition

Ways to Support Ideal Gut Health:

Nutritional Tips for Gut Health

  1. Eat a diverse array of plant-based, whole foods - Fibers and phytonutrients that give fruits and vegetables their vibrant colors are fuel for our health-promoting microbes. The more diverse the plants and colors within our diet, the more diversity is encouraged in our microbiome.
  2. Minimize inflammatory and processed foods - Processed foods with trans fats, high saturated fats, gluten, conventional dairy, added sugars and fried foods are associated with increasing inflammation in our digestive tracts. This situation may contribute to the onset of “leaky gut” and decrease the diversity and balance of our microbiome.
  3. Eat more probiotic foods or fermented foods - We used to rely on these as staples in our diets before refrigeration and food preservatives. They are incredibly beneficial, and examples include kimchi, non-conventional yogurts or kefir, kombucha, pickling, etc.
  4. Consider high-quality nutraceutical and supplement support such as Cielo’s Horizon - Depending on your symptoms, goals, or need for daily preventative support, you may consider supplemental forms of prebiotics, probiotics, postbiotics, herbal support, digestive enzymes, or antioxidant supplements. Consult your wellness practitioner for more tailor advice!

Lifestyle Tips for Gut Health

  1. Minimize stress - Our microbiome shifts and changes in response to short periods of acute stress to chronic prolonged stress. Stress reduction techniques and practices can be beneficial in increasing the resilience of our guts to such changes. (meditation, mindfulness, breathwork, yoga, forest bathing, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc.)
  2. Increase movement and exercise - regular movement supports the regular rhythm of our digestive function. You can also rely on exercises such as twisting poses in yoga to help physically benefit digestive function and transit.
  3. Maintain excellent hydration status - Hydration impacts virtually all areas of health and wellness, and our digestive function is no exception. Consider a quality, low-sugar electrolyte to support fluid balance in addition to regular water intake. Make sure to offset caffeinated drinks with twice as much water!

Conclusion: The Pivotal Role of Gut Health in Longevity and Quality of Life

This post just scratches the surface of the depth of information available in the area of gut health.

We’ll be talking about these topics in more depth, but the huge takeaway is that optimizing your gut health can play a pivotal role and be an influential starting point in longevity and quality of life, protect against chronic disease, and set you up for a thriving life. To stay connected and learn more, follow this blog, follow Cielo and Dr. Mittelstadt on social media, and keep diving into the fascinating world that is our gut health.

About the Author

Dr. Kenny Mittelstadt, DACM, DC, L.Ac., Dipl.OM.

Kenny Mittelstadt is a functional health practitioner and acupuncturist based in San Antonio, Texas. He is trained through the Institute for Functional Medicine and received both of his doctorate degrees with highest honors from Southern California University of Health Sciences. He focuses on empowering patients through wellness education and root-cause healing – transforming health through personalized, lab-based functional medicine programs!

Website: DrKennyMittelstadt.com

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