Go With Your Gut: The Basics of Digestive Health

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Written By Toni McKinnon, AsktheScientists.com

You really should start trusting your gut. That’s because it has a huge impact on your mood, brain, and overall health.

The gut—which is a short way to say stomach, small, and large intestines—processes your diet. It absorbs the energy and nutrition you get from your food. So, without good gut and digestive health, your cells aren’t getting what they need to thrive every day.

Any discussion of gut health has to start at the microscopic level with your microbiome. This collection of bacteria and other microbes lives in your intestines and helps you process the food you eat.

It’s totally normal for the gut to be home to trillions of bacteria. There’s actually as many microbial members of your microbiome as human cells in your body. You’ll find them mostly in the large intestine and to a lesser extent in the small intestine, but not much in the stomach. The harsh, acidic environment of the stomach isn’t very inhabitable. Most of these single-celled primitive organisms are just hanging out where the food stays the longest, waiting for free meals.

But you benefit, too. Your gut bacteria help out, breaking down food. And all it costs you is a little bit of space at the Hotel Intestine and a meal.

Adding Probiotics to Your Diet

This win-win symbiotic relationship is typical. Most of the microbes (also called microflora) are harmless if they stay in the right place and in manageable quantities. Of the 40,000-plus different strains and species, there are well-studied bacteria shown to help.

We call these probiotics. And you’ve probably heard that term a lot.

There’s a definition—provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations—that’s widely accepted: “Live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” But most people probably know probiotics as “good bacteria.”

Labeling the bacteria “good” might be going a little bit too far. Even if it’s compelling and simple, it’s not perfectly accurate to start calling some bacteria heroes and others villains. All bacteria are selfish and are just looking after themselves and their descendants. We just happen to benefit from that selfishness sometimes.

Because we do gain health benefits from some, it’s important to maintain a thriving population of bacteria shown to be helpful/useful. Probiotics can help provide reinforcements that can tip the balance of gut bacteria in a positive direction.

Research on probiotics shows ties to healthy digestion, and even healthy immune function. That makes sense because your gut contains a high concentration of immune cells that can help the good bacteria take foothold which helps to support a healthy immune system.

Not all probiotics are created equal, though. When you’re looking for one to help balance your belly, make sure to look at the research. Two of the most clinically studied strains are Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.  One of the core benefits of these strains is supporting a healthy gut microbiota by making the gut environment more favorable to the healthy strains of bacteria that already live inside you, so those groups can thrive.

Other Tips for Good Gut Health

Taking a probiotic is just one way to help maintain your gut health. Lifestyle factors can play a big role. That’s because you are the environment for your microbiome, so you have the chance to influence the type of bacteria that coexist with you.

Bacteria are still living organisms, so you don’t have total control. But here are five ways to provide the best environment possible for beneficial bacteria:

  1. Eat a balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables.
  2. Make sure you get plenty of fiber—beneficial bacteria like it and it’s good for overall health.
  3. Exercise regularly.
  4. Get plenty of restful sleep.
  5. Find ways to productively deal with stress.

About the Author

Toni McKinnon RN, CCRP, & USANA’s Director of Health and Science Education

“Nurse Toni” is a Licensed Registered Nurse (RN) and a Certified Clinical Research Professional (CCRP). Toni began her career at a local trauma one hospital specializing in orthopedic nursing. She joined USANA’s department of Research and Development in May of 1996 to be a resource for health and nutrition information for customers, and to help start the human clinical research program. She has been involved in human clinical research for over 20 years and is a co-author of several scientific, peer-reviewed manuscripts. She has written numerous research-related articles on nutrition and health and has been responsible for overseeing the organization of third-party published research to support product efficacy and safety. She formally joined the Department of Health and Science Education in November of 2014. Toni is the creator of USANA’s Ask the Scientists website and the weekly Nutrition Spotlight eNewsletter. Both resources help educate consumers on the role of nutrition in health.