1. Brain Health: The mind/gut connection
Gut bacteria produce hundreds of neurochemicals the brain uses to regulate physiological and mental processes such as learning, memory and mood. Did you know that gut bacteria manufacture about 95 percent of the body's supply of serotonin? Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that influences both mood and gastrointestinal (GI) activity.
The mind and gut are connected via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve coming from the brain. This nerve is connected to several parts of the gut including the stomach and intestines. It connects 200-600 million nerve cells and acts as an information highway sending messages and signals between the brain and intestines. An example of this connection would be the feeling of butterflies in your stomach.
One of the most direct and quick ways to calm the vagus nerve is through dietary change. Emotions send messages to your gut and food sends messages to your brain.
2. Digestive Health: Digest and absorb nutrients
The most plentiful and important bacteria in the small intestine is the Lactobacillus species. Lactobacillus helps digest carbohydrates and supports the breakdown of sugars in dairy products which are a common source of food sensitivities. When breaking down these sugars, Lactobacillus produces lactic acid. Lactic acid helps release digestive juices and enzymes from the stomach, the pancreas, and the gallbladder. It also increases the absorption of minerals such as calcium, copper, magnesium, and iron.
Bifidobacterium is the most densely populated bacteria in the large intestine or colon. Like Lactobacillus, it produces lactic acid and helps with the breakdown of carbohydrates, as well as fat and protein during digestion. Bifidobacterium breaks food down into smaller components that the body can more readily absorb and use. These bacteria also synthesize biotin, vitamin B12, folic acid, and thiamine.
When our system is low on digestive enzymes, it can have a hard time breaking down certain foods. Our body’s enzyme production declines with age, environmental pollution, genetics, and the processed foods in our diet.
3. Immunity: 80% of your immune system is in your gut!
The gut is the entry point for exposure to pathogens (bad bacteria and viruses that can cause disease). Everything we eat and drink passes through our gut; therefore your gut's immune system needs to be thriving and healthy in order to avoid illness.
The gut is comprised of cells, proteins, tissues, and organs which work together to defend the body against harmful bacteria, infectious diseases and toxins. The gut mucosa connects with the largest population of immune cells in the body. Their aim is to secrete cells that attack harmful invaders. These cells work together to protect the mucous membranes of the small intestines from infection. They do this by releasing white blood cells known as T-cells and B-cells to defend the inside of the digestive tract from infection.
If these defenses are down, intestinal permeability can occur. Intestinal permeability causes the immune system to go into overdrive; the immune system attacks things such as gluten which have passed through these permeable holes in the gut lining. One of the first signs of leaky gut is food intolerances. If the gut is left unhealed, this can lead to autoimmune conditions and other health issues.
Conclusion: How to keep your gut bacteria happy and healthy
Eat a balanced diet focused on whole foods throughout your life
Avoid or reduce refined carbohydrates (sugars, bleached flours, processed foods)
Reduce total carbohydrates - those that you do you eat should be unprocessed roots and vegetables
Eat fermented foods such as kimchee, yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kefir for the "beneficial bacteria" that help stabilize the gut microbiome
Avoid antibiotics unless medically necessary - overuse alters gut bacteria, our health and, potentially, our behavior
Avoid fad diets - focus on a balanced, varied diet with whole foods, particularly vegetables, and unrefined sugars