“The concept of good health being a basis for performance was alien to me as an athlete for a long time, and I paid a high price….”
Why Your Gut Health Could Be the Root Cause of Your Health Issues
This is not just a buzzword used by influencers and Gurus to sell supplements. It’s also not just how well you poop, though that does matter. We now know the health of your gut has wide ranging implications for the health of your whole body hence gut health is worth paying attention to.
Your Gut Function
The gut technically starts in your mouth and from there acts as a tunnel that moves what you eat through various mechanical and chemical processes breaking food down into nutrients to the size and form that the body wants so they can be absorbed for use. Everything left behind is waste and excreted when you go for a number 2 (1).
This process of digestion seems like a straight forward way of getting nutrition from food but there is also another major function performed by your gut.
What’s Your Body’s Defence?
Your intestines are the largest site of immune active cells within your body. This may not seem necessary until you consider that every bite of food you take is introducing something from the external environment into your body.
The external environment is full of things you do not want in the body, viruses, bacteria, mould, parasites and even material in food. For this reason, the intestines need to function as a barrier that is both able to protect against the external environment as well as being able to absorb valuable nutrients.
In order to handle these requirements, the gut has adapted by lining itself with one layer of cells bound tightly together that only allow recognised nutrients through and into the blood stream; whilst keeping everything else out.
As insurance to this system, directly behind this layer of cells are cells of the immune system which are ready to identify and neutralise anything which may have mistakenly slipped through the gut lining and into the blood stream (2).
The Bacteria Living in Your Gut
This adds another variable to the gut environment. Your intestines are not sterile; they house a community of microbes in the form of bacteria and even some viruses and parasites that work in symbiosis with your body and with each other. In fact, microbes outnumber your body’s own cells.
When working in harmony, as they should in a healthy gut, these microbes’ help with the breakdown of some foods, keep the microbiome population in check, produce by-products that can help maintain the integrity of the gut lining, as well as regulate appropriate immune responses (3).
So What Is the Relevance To Health?
Potentially – a lot.
If the single layer lining of the intestines is irritated and inflamed, this can cause the spaces between the cells to open up which is known as intestinal hyper-permeability or leaky gut. This allows larger particles or pathogens that shouldn’t be allowed through into the blood stream. These particles get detected by the immune system which reacts with an inflammatory response. The cell layer of the gut has the ability to heal itself, but won’t if whatever caused the irritation in the first place is not eliminated.
Over time, the immune systems exposure to these larger particles through the gut wall can cause inflammatory responses in parts of the body that are not immediately relevant to the gut. For example; allergies, autoimmune disease, brain fog, joint pain and fatigue have all been associated with intestinal permeability (4,5).
It is also possible for the symbiotic environment of the microbiome to get out of whack; you could have too little or too much diversity, an overgrowth of a particular species or not enough of another. This can contribute to intestinal permeability or provoke an immune reaction of its own as the body tries to balance the gut environment (6,7).
The microbiome is an extremely novel area of research and the reality is we don’t yet how its impacts on health or vice versa, we just know that there seems to be a strong correlation between what your microbiome looks like and your expression of health (8).
In practice, intestinal permeability, unbalanced microbiome, and immune dis-regulation will all be relevant to varying degrees for issues where gut health is the cause.
How Can You Tell if This Applies To You?
Regular digestive symptoms are obvious and probably a good indication that something is up. Otherwise, any health concerns you have that may be keeping you from your goals could be gut related.
Therefore, the best way to find out is to book a consultation with a nutritionist literate in the functional medicine model. Through case history and recommendation of tests it is possible to see if the root cause lies in gut health. Once a root cause has been identified there are numerous dietary strategies or supplemental interventions that can help restore balance to your gut environment.
Evolutionarily speaking, every genetic polymorphism that exists must have conveyed evolutionary advantage at some point or it would not exist. For example, in the context of food scarcity, a gene that encourages calorie-dense food consumption may be an advantage.