The gut is a dynamic organ which plays a variety of roles in our body. Not only is it that organ which nourishes us with essential nutrients, but it is also our primary buffer to external pathogens and autoimmune diseases. In addition, it stands in crucial relationship with the brain, as it supports the production of vitamins, hormones and neurotransmitters—all of which enable optimal mood and brain function.
Gut and Pathogens
In the absence of the physiological role of the gut, our body would be rendered susceptible to the litany of external toxins, bacteria and pathogens that accompany the food we ingest. The gut structurally consists of the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and the rectum. The first line of defence is the stomach which due to it’s highly acidic environment does not allow parasites and bacteria entering it to survive, thus protecting us from gastrointestinal infections and illnesses. The small and large intestine have an extensive layer of tightly connected epithelial cells called the ‘Intestinal lining’ which acts as a barrier and prevents foreign parasites from entering the bloodstream.
A Leaky Gut!
Since the past decade we are seeing an increase in digestive issues such as allergies and intolerances to certain foods. It has been indicated that perforations in the intestinal lining is the cause behind our body’s rejection of these foods. These perforations occur overtime due to toxins like the pesticides we ingest with our fruits and vegetables and the additives, colourings and preservatives present in processed foods. The low fiber and high sugar content of most processed foods also affect the health of the intestinal lining. With time these harmful toxins break the tight bonds in the lining and cause what we call a ‘Leaky gut’. This leads to undigested food particles escaping through the walls of the intestine into the bloodstream, where the body’s defences see them as imposters and attack them causing inflammation in the gut. This phenomenon is called the ‘Leaky gut syndrome’.
It has now been determined that the cause of autoimmune diseases of the gastrointestinal tract such as Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and Irritable bowel disease is a combination of genetic predisposition and increased permeability of the intestinal lining or a leaky gut. One of the common irritants is ‘Gluten’ the protein found in wheat, spelt, rye and barley. In people who suffer from ‘Celiac Disease’ gluten is seen as one of those supposed imposters. Wheat which has been an age old grain with it’s own health benefits is beginning to get bad press due to the gluten it contains. However, it has not been verified if the gluten content has increased in wheat overtime though it has been proposed that the cause of this increased intolerance to gluten is due to the overload of processed wheat products in our diets. The undigested gluten trickles from the intestine into the bloodstream posing like an adversary to the immune system and triggering an attack. A leaky gut can also potentially play a role in instigating other autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, arthritis and also mental illness such as autism.
Immune system and our gut microbes
The gut microbes or friendly bacteria present in our digestive system are ten times more than the cells in our body and they have multiple functions. Their foremost function is to communicate with the immune system, about three quarters of which resides in our gut, helping it discriminate between foreign bodies and our own healthy cells. However, in the case of a leaky gut the friendly bacteria signal to the immune cells that the protein or gluten that has leaked into the bloodstream is an enemy. In attacking gluten the immune cells end up attacking healthy cells as well. This causes inflammation in our body and the autoimmune response leads to symptoms like bloating, constipation, chronic diarrhea, stomach pain, vomiting, and chronic fatigue. These are common symptoms in autoimmune diseases like Celiac, Crohn’s and Irritable bowel diseases.
These friendly gut bacteria also help absorb nutrients from food. They have the ability to break down indigestible carbohydrates or resistant starches like oats, potatoes, certain legumes, green bananas that the body has no other mechanism to digest. In breaking down these foods the microbes ferment them and it is in this fermentation process that they release useful chemicals called SCFAs or short chain fatty acids which help synthesize hormones and vitamins B and K. These short chain fatty acids also protect neurons in our nervous system, support optimal brain function and can reduce our susceptibility to mental diseases like dementia.
Heal your gut
Integrative nutrition health coaches and integrative medical professionals will advise you to work on maintaining a healthy gut as it is a powerful organ that has a huge impact on your health and well being. One way to do that would be to repair or maintain the permeability of the intestinal lining. We can easily do this by periodically giving our guts a rest from gluten, soy, dairy, additives, preservatives, processed foods, sugar and refined carbohydrates. This can heal the gut by enabling the gaps between epithelial cells in the intestinal lining to close.
The other way to keep our digestive system healthy would be by ensuring that our gut bacteria are well nourished and happy. In order to support a healthy and diverse army of microbes or microbiome in our gut we have to feed them with high fiber vegetables like oligosaccharides, which are plant carbohydrates comprising of short chain glucose molecules. Some oligosaccharides are legumes, onions, garlic, asparagus, jerusalem artichoke, leek and jicama. These are also termed as prebiotic foods. You can also add probiotic rich foods or foods enriched with good bacteria to your diet like fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and tempeh. These additional bacteria will help the the community of friendly bacteria in your gut to flourish.
With an impermeable intestinal lining and a diverse and robust microbiome in our gut we can avoid our susceptibility to digestive illnesses, autoimmune diseases and ensure a healthy functioning brain. The aim is to work toward keeping our gut healthy ensuring optimum well being and vitality!