Gut health: Is it that important?

Oct 22, 2021
At least 20 per cent of the population suffers from some degree of gastrointestinal problems. Source: Getty Images

Over the past few decades, there has been increasing emphasis on the importance of gut health. The function of the gastrointestinal tract is to digest and absorb the nutrients we need, on a daily basis. The GI tract also excretes the waste products of digestion.

The process of digestion begins in the stomach, and most of the nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine. Most of the excretion of waste occurs in the large intestine, culminating in the production of faeces.

The gut microbiome

There is a growing focus on the importance of a healthy gut microbiome. The gut microbiome is the extensive array of gut bacteria mainly found in our large intestine. There are up to 1000 different species of bacteria living in our gut and, in reality, human beings are 10 per cent human and 90 per cent bacteria.

The functions of the gut microbiome are: 

  1. To assist in host nutrient metabolism or – in other words – work closely with the gastrointestinal tract to absorb appropriate nutrients.
  2.  In our modern world, we are exposed to many synthetic chemicals and pharmaceutical drugs. The gut microbiome allows us to process these chemicals and excrete them when necessary.
  3. One of the important aspects of a healthy gut is to have a healthy lining between the inner tube of the gastrointestinal tract known as the mucosal barrier or epithelium and the other layers of the gut wall. If this inner lining is working well, this promotes a healthy gut. Having healthy bacteria living in your colon and throughout the rest of the gut maintains this healthy lining which prevents toxic nutrients from being absorbed but allows the absorption of healthy, necessary nutrients.
  4.  Many people do not realise that 70 per cent of the immune system is found in the gut. Having healthy bacteria in the microbiome facilitates a healthy immune system.
  5.  Finally, having a healthy gut microbiome protects against pathogenic bacteria, which can lead to disease. In a healthy gut, there are 85 per cent healthy bacteria and about 15 per cent unhealthy bacteria, which are being controlled by the healthy bugs to prevent disease.

The gut nervous system

We cannot, however, see the gut in isolation and realise that all organs in our body are connected, working together to promote healthy living. There has been a recent emphasis on the gut-brain axis, with many researchers now calling our gut the “second brain”. In the central and peripheral nervous systems, there are two types of cells. Firstly, the neurons, which carry the electrical or chemical signals throughout the system and to the rest of the body. Secondly, the glial cells which are the support and maintenance cells i.e. the immune system of the nervous system. Many researchers are now referring to this as the glymphatic system.

It is now well established that the glial cells play an important part in the gut nervous system, regulating how food travels through the gut.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated the strong connection between neurons and the glial cells and, in particular, the way in which these cells affect gut motility. Motility is basically the way the gut is constantly moving, similar to the movement of a worm. Without this constant movement, food and fluid would be stuck in different parts of the gut. With this constant movement, there is a free flow of food and nutrients throughout this system.

The gastrointestinal system

Food being propelled through the gastrointestinal system is called peristalsis and this is basically involuntary rhythmic contractions of the smooth muscle in the wall of the gut. This allows a bolus of swallowed food to move rhythmically through the gut allowing digestion, absorption and excretion of waste products. It appears that the very intricate nerve networks within the gut, control all gut functions in a very specific, regulated manner with strong communication between the brain and the gut.

At least 20 per cent of the population suffers from some degree of gastrointestinal problems, which includes anything from heartburn, dyspepsia and peptic ulceration to irritable bowel syndrome and the more serious inflammatory bowel conditions.

With a strong gut-brain connection, it is no surprise that, with the increased complexity of modern living with all its concomitant stressors, people who are under significant stress will suffer more gastrointestinal diseases. Thus, the key to good gut health is not just swallowing a pill to suppress acid production in the stomach or taking a laxative to improve constipation but a more global and holistic approach to your life in general. A healthy gut is a great start to a healthy body.

Dr Ross Walker is the current president of the Gut Foundation of Australia, which was founded a number of years ago by the gastroenterologist, Professor Terry Bolin. The mission of the Gut Foundation is to educate the public regarding the importance of gut health, along with facilitating research into this important subject. To read more from Walker, click here. To read more health articles from all of our writers, click here

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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