The human gastrointestinal tract (GI) is an essential part of the body. Within this complex system exists approximately 100 trillion bacteria, 300-500 bacterial species, and 2 million genes. Collectively the bacteria that resides in the GI is known as microbiota, It may seem contradictory, but microbiota has an integral role when it comes to the importance of gut health.
At birth, the intestinal tract is completely sterile. It becomes populated with bacteria through maternal feeding and environmental factors. The intestinal microbiota found in a newborn GI tract is proteobacteria and actinobacteria. The presence of these bacteria is influenced by factors such as gestational age, natural vs. c-section birth, and exposure to antibiotics.
By the time a person is 2.5 years old, the composition of the microbiota present in the gut wall resembles that of adult bacteria (firmicutes and bacteroidetes). It’s estimated around 60 tons (equivalent to 120,000 lbs) of food passes through the GI tract during the average lifetime.
What Influences Your Gut Health
Despite the complex ecosystem of the GI tract, it maintains a constant environment until the later stages of life. This is often the result of physiological and dietary changes. In addition to age, there are other factors that influence an individual’s gastrointestinal health.
- normal GI function depends on peristalsis which is the ability to propel, mix, and maintain food contents in a specific order
- environmental factors
- medication (specifically antibiotics)
- health status
- physical activity
Out of these factors, diet has been shown to have a significant impact on GI microbiota and overall gut health. For example, studies have shown fiber and foods high in resistant starch or in non-starch polysaccharide fiber, lead to an environment that is strong and promotes the production of different bacteria in the human gut.
Why Bacteria Is Important
The idea of bacteria being beneficial to the human body may seem contradictory, but there are many crucial health benefits.
- metabolizes nutrients from food and certain medications
- serves as a protective barrier against intestinal infections
- helps to shape and strengthen the gut wall
- produces Vitamin K which helps to make blood clotting proteins
- provides a source of energy
- helps regulate the immune system
Determining Good vs. Bad Bacteria
Due to certain receptors at the epithelial level, the body is able to determine good microbiota bacteria from harmful pathogens. A good example of this would be E. coli and the physiological effects that result from an increased presence in the digestive system.
Chemical and physiological changes within the GI tract can lead to various digestive disorders. Inflammatory diseases and infections that occur in the digestive system are often the result of altered bacterial composition. This change is known as dysbiosis which can lead to several different gastrointestinal disorders, including the following.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- a condition in which the colon muscle contracts more
- it can be triggered by certain foods, medicine, and emotional stress
- usually begins in the early 20’s and 30’s and is more common in women
- abdominal pain/ cramps
- increased gas
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBS)
- Inflammation of the small and large intestine
- 2 types include ulcerative colitis and Chron’s disease
- the cause is unknown
- can be treated with medicine but may require surgery
- rectal bleeding
- intestinal obstruction
- condition with pouch-like protrusions in the colon
- common after the age of 60
- usually are no symptoms unless the diverticula become inflamed or infected which is known as diverticulitis
- inflammation of the diverticula in the digestive tract
- pain in the lower left abdomen
- may require medication and surgery
How You Can Improve Gut Health
Similar to improving your physical health, improving your GI health requires you to create and maintain healthy eating habits. Studies have shown that diets containing a proportional balance of fruit and vegetables and low in meat contain lead to diverse microbiota. The following are some foods that are healthy and will help you create better digestive health.
Read More: Healthy Eating Habits
Foods Rich In Fiber: helps to provide energy, nutrients, and vitamins to microbes which help maintain gut balance.
- whole grains
Fermented Foods: creates a protective lining in the intestines, which shield it from pathogenic invaders such as salmonella and E.Coli.
- increases antibodies, builds a stronger immune system, and reduces sugar carb cravings
- probiotic yogurt (probiotics help promote good gut health)