We start this blog series about the gut itself. Makes sense to do so, and what better way than to start at the beginning and go back to the basics of the gut, and why we should all be thinking about gut health.
The gut essentially is a term used to describe the 9-metre-long gastrointestinal tract; starting from the point food where enters the mouth and ending where it is excreted from the body. It is the viewed as the largest endocrine organ in the body (1), and the cells within it are referred collectively as the enteric endocrine system.
This means it is an organ that operates via neurons, endocrine cells and immune cells with over 30 gut hormone genes and a larger array of bioactive peptides (1). The caudal aspect, i.e. the lower 1.5 metres of the gut, houses around 3 trillion gut micro-organisms (bacteria, virus, fungi and other microbes) known as the gut flora/microbiota.
Put simply, the gut is complex, connected and outnumbers our own cells 10-fold and contains genetic material that 150 times greater than our own (2). That is what makes the gut so incredible, astonishing and critical in all we do, we eat, and how we digest. It impacts more than we think or fail to realise.
The diverse array of organisms in the gut, most of which are bacteria, help to fight inflammation, while others promote it. When the gut is at its optimal state, these two types keep each other in balance. We call this homeostasis. But when that delicate balance gets skewed; known as dysbiosis - inflammatory bacteria can dominate and produce metabolites that pass through the lining of the gut and into the bloodstream, spreading the inflammation to other parts of the body.
Studies in both animals and humans have linked strains of bacteria, and poor gut health from dysbiosis, to numerous conditions, from lower immunity function to emotional stress and chronic illnesses, as well as IBD, cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and Type 2 diabetes (3,4).
Gut health has even been linked to anxiety and depression, and to neurological conditions like schizophrenia and dementia. The makeup of gut bacteria also varies between lean and overweight people, suggesting that it may play a role in causing obesity (5).
The links between gut health and conditions are numerous, nonetheless what this demonstrates is the gut really is that unchartered territory we should all be looking into and realising that by being more gut conscious and gut healthy, mainly through the benefit of diet, of which can be typically found by plant-based eating (6), we could be doing our bodies the world of good for the long term.