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Health & Wellness

The Importance of Gut Health

The digestive system is a complex and vital part of the body that people often underestimate. It's easy to make the mistake of thinking that digestion is just food going in, turning to calories, and waste going out. In truth, there is so much more to it than that.

There are trillions of microbes living on and in the body. Indeed, there are more bacterial cells in the bodies than there are human cells. The body contains around 40 trillion bacterial cells only around 30 trillion human cells. 1 It's almost fair to say that humans are made up of primary bacteria. 2

gut health Microbes in the Gut

There are more than 1,000 bacteria in the human gut and each of these bacteria plays an important role in supporting the healthy functioning of the body. Collectively, these microbes can weigh as much as 2kg, which is similar to the weight of the brain.

The bacteria work together to help with the health of the gut, and in some ways, they can protect humans from disease too. Of course, there are some “bad” gut bacteria that can make people sick, but the “good” bacteria can help protect the “bad” bacteria from colonizing the gut. 3

Humans are exposed to bacteria in the womb and also pick up some microbes during the birthing process. 4 Those bacteria will grow and any new bacteria that humans are exposed to will also have an impact on overall gut flora.
The bacteria can affect the body in a number of ways. Babies have bacteria that can help digest breast milk, breaking down the sugars that are so important for a baby to get the energy to grow. 5 As people get older, the bacteria required for the optimal function will change. Older children and adults that eat high fiber diets will need bacteria that can help to digest that fiber, for example.

The bacteria in the gut also influence brain function and support the immune system, meaning that the importance of gut health goes far beyond mediating digestion. 6

Gut Health and Overall Wellness gut health

Gut health can affect overall health in many ways. For example, people who suffer from celiac disease are at risk of suffering other conditions as a result of how their condition affects the gut, especially if it goes undiagnosed for a long time.

Those with celiac disease cannot process gluten-containing foods properly. The gluten causes damage to the small intestine and that damage prevents the intestine from being able to absorb nutrients properly. 7 It can take a long time for the cells of the small intestine to recover properly after they have been damaged, and during that time, a person may develop nutrient deficiencies, skin conditions, and osteoporosis as a result of the inability to absorb nutrients.

One area of gut health that has been attracting a lot of research lately is that of gut health and weight. Researchers have noticed that the gut microbiota is like its own miniature ecosystem and that the diets people consume can change the balance of microbes in the gut. 8 , 9

Changes in diet can create large, usually temporary, shifts in gut bacteria within 24 hours, and the gut bacteria present in the body can have an impact on a health in a significant way, including regulation of inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), the risk of cardiovascular disease, and even type 2 diabetes. 10

The reason that researchers are paying so much attention to gut health is that it is thought that it could be a clue as to why some people struggle with obesity. Researchers have found that the proportion of beneficial bacteria, in particular, bacteroidetes, is reduced in those who are obese, but that when obese people follow a low-calorie diet, numbers of these bacteria increase. 11

One theory suggests that people who eat high-calorie diets that are full of fats or sugars and low in fiber and nutrient-dense foods may have different gut microbiota than those who eat a more healthy diet. The gut bacteria could actually be fueling cravings for more low-quality food, and if individuals can get through those cravings and stay on a good diet for long enough to change their gut flora, they may find it easier to lose weight.

Additionally, gut health is not just about the bacteria found in the body. It is also about the quality of the food that people eat and how well it passes through the intestines. For example, government health departments recommend that people aim to eat between 25 and 30 grams of fiber per day from food (rather than supplements) to help to prevent both constipation and diarrhea and also for the protective effects that the fiber can have in general. 12

Perhaps most notably, there is a condition called intestinal hyperpermeability, or “leaky gut syndrome” which is relatively rare but also a good demonstration of how brains and guts are linked. Digestion, health, and mood are all linked to the gut, and if something is wrong with the digestive system, then it could cause numerous problems. Indeed, there are some new studies which show that digestive function could impact thinking skills and memory, as well as mood. 13

gut health Promoting Good Gut Health

If you want to promote good gut health, then it can be as simple as improving your diet and getting more exercise. The challenge is figuring out what is going on in your body and then making the right decisions to support good health.

Some people have food intolerances, which can negatively impact gut health and your gut's microbiota can be an indication of your allergy risk. 14 Some people have mild allergies that could go undiagnosed for quite some time. Getting tests to determine your gut health and identify allergies can help you to determine what foods you should be avoiding.

Furthermore, there is a growing trend towards using probiotics to promote gut health, but researchers are divided when it comes to how effective they really are. Not all probiotics are alike, and there are so many different kinds of bacteria, that it can be difficult to be sure that the bacteria you are taking in would actually do the job that you hope it will do. Researchers are not sure what dosage of probiotics would be required for different people and for different therapeutic effects. 15 Some probiotics could be nothing more than a waste of money.

If you want to improve your own gut health, then eating a lot of fiber-rich whole foods and nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and protein is a good first step. Try to avoid foods that are rich in sugars.

If you are just starting to eat a lot of fiber when that is not something that you normally do, then start slowly. Add a few grams to your daily diet at a time and work up to a larger amount. Your gut microbes will need to adapt to your new fiber-rich diet.

With patience, you should find that the microbes that feed on sugar start to die off and are replaced with ones that prefer a healthier diet. Changes can happen quite quickly and when they do, you should notice them in your overall mood and wellbeing. Remember, though, good changes can happen quickly, but it is easy to fall back into old bad habits as well if you aren’t careful.


In the process of working towards improving your gut health, abdominal pain, bloating, or constipation and diarrhea may be issues that you face as you transition between diets and lifestyles. You can often remedy bloating and gas with essential oils, and some oils, such as peppermint can help with nausea too. 16 , 17 Essential oils can be rubbed into the abdomen (diluted in a carrier oil to avoid skin irritation), used aromatically through a vaporizer or diffuser or added to a bath. Just a couple of drops of oil is enough to have a therapeutic effect.

Photo Credits: Lanatoma/, Poylockla/, AnatomyInsider/, Shaynepplstockphoto/

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