5 Amazing Things Your Gut Can Do (And Why You Should Keep It Happy)

Our gut bacteria may be microscopic, but their impact on our health is huge

by

Girl eating gut health conscious foods

Presented by Activia

“There are trillions of bacteria in your gut, which means there are more bacteria than human cells in your body,” says Nanci Guest, a registered dietitian and nutrigenomics researcher at the University of Toronto. Gut research is especially hot in the science world right now, as researchers discover more about the amazing ways our microbiome—all the microbes living in and on us—affect our health and well-being. Here are five surprising ways your gut is doing your body good.

Your gut…can affect your mood

Weepy? Cranky? Stressed? It may be all in your gut. A recent report on the “gut-brain axis” in the journal Nature found more than 50 per cent of people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) also have depression or anxiety. “The bacteria in the gut produce molecules similar to neurotransmitters that can drive important changes in the neurons, and this can affect mood and even behaviour,” explains Fernando Forato Anhê, who earned a PhD in physiology/endocrinology from Laval University in Quebec City and is now a biochemistry and biomedical sciences researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

You should also know that 90 per cent of your serotonin (the “feel-good” hormone) receptors are located in your gut, which is even more reason to keep it happy with the right balance of good bacteria. Researchers from the UK recently found that eating a healthy Mediterranean diet and avoiding inflammation-inducing processed foods may be one way to do so, and may even help prevent symptoms of depression.

Your gut…keeps you regular

If you feel bloated after every meal or find yourself running for the restroom, there could be something amiss with your microbiome. Gut bacteria produce enzymes that help the body digest food, and neurons in the gut control how fast food moves through the digestive system. “If the transit is too slow, people have gastrointestinal issues like bloating or constipation,” Forato Anhê says. “If it’s too fast, they can have too many bowel movements with loose or liquid stools and problems with nutrient absorption.”

While everyone poops at a different frequency—anywhere from three times a day to once every other day is in the healthy range, says Guest—we should pay attention to our individual patterns and seek medical advice if there are significant changes. Ongoing research on gastrointestinal conditions looks promising for chronic constipation sufferers: A 2019 paper in the Swiss journal Frontiers in Medecine suggests that effective treatments with probiotics (beneficial live bacteria found in specially fermented foods, like some yogurts), prebiotics (non-digestible plant fibres found in many fruits and vegetables that nourish your gut bacteria) and synbiotics (a combination of the two) could be on the horizon.

Your gut…changes your heart

“Bacterial molecules in our gut can drive atherosclerosis (the formation of plaque in the arteries), which can block blood flow and lead to heart attack and stroke,” says Forato Anhê. Most heart attacks occur when a plaque in the arteries ruptures and a poorly functioning gut can not only increase the chances of this happening, but also reduces your arteries’ ability to widen, restricting blood flow and increasing the chances of a clot. A 2017 paper in Circulation Research recommends further studies into how conventional medication combined with probiotics could help cardiac patients.

Your gut…keeps your weight in check

Your gut not only determines how your body digests food, it also produces chemicals that help you feel hungry or full and affects how fat is stored in your body. Some gut bacteria stimulate insulin secretion, then release it into the bloodstream, which allows your body to use (and store) glucose from carbs for energy. “One of the body’s protein receptors triggers insulin secretion and is activated by fragments of bacterial cell walls in your gut,” Forato Anhê says. If this gets out of control, you’re at a higher risk of obesity and of developing Type 2 diabetes. To keep your gut bacteria working well, Guest recommends focusing on food, not supplements. “Healthy dietary patterns are key, with a focus on high-fibre carbohydrates, plant-based proteins, plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy, nuts, seeds and plant-derived fats.”

Your gut…improves your athletic performance

Researchers are discovering that the performance, recovery and type of sport an athlete plays are all linked to distinctive microbiomes. Studies on everything from the delay of symptoms of fatigue to the efficient supply of energy to cells suggest that to athletes, a healthy gut is (podium) gold. Researchers also agree that a diversified population of microbes working together produces the chemicals and signals your body needs to work efficiently—and if you want to improve the diversity of your microbiome, an active lifestyle is the way to do it. “When blood is shunted away from the gastrointestinal system during exercise, it seems to allow the population of more bacteria strains,” Guest says.

With all of this research behind your amazing microbiome in mind, there has never been a better time to love your guts!