To lead a healthy life, all organs of our body should be functioning efficiently. So, on the one hand, we talk about grave prevalent non-communicable diseases like Diabetes, many Heart diseases and heart diseases that can lead to heart attacks, and we put a lot of emphasis on these diseases, which is plausible and understandable. But at the same time, we should not undermine the importance of our gut and diseases or ailments that afflict our gut ( actually by gut we mean stomach, small and large intestines, spleen, liver, etc) should never be overlooked. Why? Because our gut isn’t only related to digestion and absorption of our foods alone. In addition, our gut is also part of our immune system i.e that system which helps us fight or prevent infection. Many types of research done in advanced Nations like America and U.K have proved this to be a fact. As a result, these Nations have created awareness in the general public about the role of diet or foods and other factors like stress etc. in gut’s health and in our general well being.
In this article, let me concentrate on the immunological role of our gut and let me briefly discuss the players in our gut that helps in both digestion and immunity.
So, human gut is populated with bacteria. In fact, if you weight the total bacteria in your body, it comes to be few pounds. And not all bacteria are bad or evil. There are healthy bacteria in our body too. These bacteria, also known as commensals, stay in our gut and help in manufacturing certain vitamins like Vitamin K and they also aid in digestion and absorption of our foods. These healthy or good bacteria live in harmony with bad bacteria. But many factors destroy this balance or harmony, creating overpopulation of bad bacteria and certain conditions in our gut known as a leaky gut syndrome. Here, basically, the normal permeability of intestine is disrupted leading to transfer of toxins from our gut to bloodstream. This can be a precursor to other diseases like Inflammatory bowel disease ( a condition where there is blood in stool and fever, weight loss, anemia etc), many immunologically mediated illnesses like Celiac disease and Irritable bowel syndrome, a condition where there is either long-standing constipation or diarrhea with abdominal pain and bloating. Under normal or healthy conditions also, if the good bacteria vs bad bacteria situation is ticked off balance, we suffer from too much abdominal gas, bloating or fullness of stomach after a meal. If these latter conditions persist, you should consult your doctor because they might be signs of something sinister like Large bowel carcinoma or cancer.
Factors that can lead to overpopulation of bad bacteria
1) Bad diets: consumption of more processed and junk foods, sugary drinks, soda etc. when you consume too much sugar, bad bacteria feed on them since they love sugars and then they let off a bad gas. At worst, they can contribute to inflammation in our gut.
Some people don’t tolerate too much dairy products. Most adults can’t digest milk properly due to a lack of an enzyme called lactase. They are called lactose intolerant. In them, milk can actually cause inflammation of their gut and aggravation of or invitation to many conditions of the gut that are immunologically mediated.
2) Eating habits: Dining at irregular hours, staying hungry or being on empty stomach for longer hours, fasting too frequently, not chewing food adequately etc. are detrimental to gut health. When you stay hungry for longer hours, bad bacteria travel from intestine’s upper part to the lower part, thereby becoming abundant and over populated. There is a lack of balance between good bacteria and bad bacteria as a result.
3) Stress. Our brain is connected to our gut. Certain hormones are released more when we are more anxious and stressful. Stress can lead to leaky gut syndrome and other gastrointestinal problems. Stress can also perpetuate and flare up conditions like Inflammatory bowel disease.
4) All other gastrointestinal infections like an infection of g.i tract by giardia, worms or helminths like Ascaris and infection by bacteria like E.Coli etc. The latter i.e infection by bacteria is a more common cause of the disruption of the integrity of gut wall or epithelium and causation of aforementioned illnesses.
What is the solution?
If you are suffering from any conditions mentioned above, you should consult a gastroenterologist or a doctor specializing in stomach or gut problems.
For general readers the advice is to eat healthy, sleep well, discard stress and stressful situations from your life, perform mindfulness and relaxation exercises, indulge in enjoyable activities like going walking and hiking with friends and family, spending time with family, reading books, and if you’re into one of the arts painting, drawing etc.
But most important of all is to eat foods that are called “probiotics”. What are probiotics? They are natural equivalent or food equivalents or sources of good or healthy bacteria. They stay in our gut, displace bad bacteria by creating a competition for food among them, and maintain an intact or healthy gut environment, enabling us to become less prone to g.i problems and infections. Yoghurt, pickles, gundruk, kimchi etc are rich natural sources of probiotics. Overall, the big idea lay in trying to populate your gut with healthy bacteria by the names of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium.
Also, you should eat pre-biotics too. Prebiotics are carbohydrates that are not easily digestible. Hence, they aid probiotics or work with them and increase the population of good bacteria. They are found in bananas, legumes, and asparagus.
All in all, eat healthily and take care of your gut. It will take care of you.
Dr. Ujjwal Bikram Khadka, medical doctor, coach, and author of best-selling children’s series, Pintogabs.