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Healthy Gut, Healthy You.

Practical Tips for Making Your Gut Happier

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, wrote over 2,000 years ago: All disease begins in the gut. But what does “gut health” mean? How does it affect other parts of your body? And what can you do to improve your gut health if it’s out of balance?

Recently, we sat down with board-certified gastroenterologist Dr. Assaad Soweid of the CalvertHealth Medical Group to get his take on these questions; how to recognize when there’s a problem and get some practical tips for making your gut happier.

Q. Why is good gut health important?

First of all, the gut is simply not a tube as we used to study where food goes in, gets absorbed and is excreted. It’s way beyond that. It’s a system where a lot of other functions of the body are affected. Your digestive tract is home to some 500 different bacteria. This is called “the microbiome” and it plays an important role in things you wouldn’t imagine like the immune system, regulation of weight, obesity, skin diseases, even mood conditions and cancers. So, gut health is important because it can impact many other systems in the body.

In the gut, there are good bacteria, the beneficial ones and the not so good kind. If there’s an imbalance in favor of the not so good, at the expense of the beneficial bacteria, then you have diseases. Your immune system gets affected and you get lower immunity, inflammatory conditions and autoimmune diseases. You can have obesity, impairment in your metabolism and absorption of nutrients. So, basically bad things can happen.

The good bacteria protect you from a lot of things, help you digest better, improve your immunity, help you combat depression, cancers and obesity. This, by and large, depends on the microbiome, what we eat and drink and how we treat our GI tract.

Q. What are the signs of an unhealthy gut?

With an unhealthy gut, you can have excessive gas, which denotes maldigestion of foods. You can get bloating, constipation, diarrhea and heartburn. Obviously, in a healthy gut you are regular and you don’t have these symptoms.

But again, it’s not only the gut symptoms. Signs of an unhealthy gut include other things – like depression, unintentional weight changes and sleep disturbances. (More than 90 percent of serotonin, which is key to regulating sleep, is produced in the gut.) It can also show up as chronic fatigue and eczema. Inflammation in the gut caused by poor diet or food allergies may cause increased “leaking” of certain proteins out into the body, which in turn can irritate the skin. So, it’s not only the size of an unhealthy gut but also a lot of other ailments outside the GI tract that’s important for people to understand. Of course, not all sleep problems are caused by the gut but it’s definitely contributing to this.

Q. What causes poor gut health?

While food has a big impact on your gut health, there are also a number of lifestyle factors to watch out for. These include: smoking, frequent antibiotic use, certain medications such as laxatives and chronic stress. I tell all my patients you need to reduce stress. As a matter of fact, I’ve done a study that is being published by one of my fellows looking at the value of “mindful meditation” in patients with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). It’s a form of breathing exercises you can do in bed in the morning and evening for 5-10 minutes a day. Our preliminary data in a small randomized study showed that when people do that, they feel better.

Q. How can I improve my gut health?

Eating a variety of foods that are good for gut health is the best way to ensure our gut bacteria is diverse. In fact, research has shown that what you eat can change your gut microbiome within a week. A healthy diet should include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Fiber is the main fuel for good bacteria. Prebiotic foods such as apples, bananas, asparagus, artichokes, onions and garlic also help boost good bacteria. We also have to eat slowly, because when you eat slowly, regardless of everything, you digest better.

You can also look after your gut by making sure you exercise regularly, drink plenty of water and get a good night’s sleep. While many studies have had positive results on the impact of probiotic supplements, more research is still needed. We have seen it can be helpful in certain diseases like Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis and C. diff (Clostridioides difficult) infections, which is the antibiotic-associated infection that comes with the use of antibiotics.

Q. When do I need to see a gastroenterologist?

If you’re having any symptoms that are outside the norm, especially if they’re acute (severe and sudden onset). There are also what we call “alarm symptoms” that call for prompt attention. Red flag symptoms include seeing blood or black color in the stools, vomiting, severe abdominal pain, fever, weight loss and difficulty swallowing. You also need to consider other factors such as age. For example, if a young person in his or her 20s, has reflux, then it’s probably a good idea to make some changes in diet and lifestyle. But if an older person has reflux, then it could be associated with certain diseases, so they should see a physician.
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