The gut is a big, complicated, and fascinating topic. And, like all big, complicated, fascinating topics, there are a lot of ideas about what is “right” and “wrong” when it comes to the gut. I have devoted my life to researching the gut and helping people improve their lives by improving their gut microbiomes. During my years of research about the gut’s role in our health, I have learned some fascinating things, and I continue to learn every day. Here are seven basic facts I think everyone should know about gut health.
1. Gut health involves more than “gut stuff.”
Yes, things like irritable bowel syndrome, upset stomach, diarrhea, constipation, etc. are important gut issues, but the gut also plays a role in every system in your body. Gut health affects your whole health and your long-term ability to fight off neurodegenerative diseases, perform your best physically and cognitively, and maintain emotional balance.
2. What is in your gut is more than the food you eat.
The gut turns food into various substances you need. For example, you take in a burger and your gut gives you serotonin (among other things). If you give it the right building blocks, the gut can manufacture, so to speak, the products needed to keep you going.
3. One diet does not fit all.
The idea that there’s one healthy diet that is right for everyone is a myth. Vegan, keto, Atkins, etc. eating guidelines all include some nutrient-dense whole foods that support gut health. But, what your body needs is more complicated than a ten-word internet meme can express. Simply put, everyone’s lifestyle is different; our bodies are different; our guts are different. What you really need is variety to get all the nutrients your body requires. To further complicate matters, everyone has unique dietary needs. What keeps your friend feeling and looking great may not work for you.
4. One exercise program does not fit all either.
Not everyone has the time or inclination to do the same workout. And frankly, if you can’t bring yourself to practice yoga because you find that it’s too boring, yoga should not be part of your exercise program. The important part is that you’re moving. Exercise benefits your overall health and your gut health, so find what works for you and fits your lifestyle.
5. Gut microbiome testing works.
The gut processes what you put into your body and gives you something back. Blood testing for certain metabolites shows what your gut is producing and distributing into your blood. This allows you to see how effective your diet and lifestyle are and what might need a tune-up. In fact, the gut shows so much about your lifestyle. With blood tests that evaluate metabolites, a scientist can infer many things about your life, such as if you lift heavy weights, if you’re getting enough sleep, if you’re stressed out, and more. There are specific markers tied to aspects of your life and we can see how the metabolites involved are able to do their jobs. Alternatively, other types of tests available include stool sample tests. Stool sample gut microbiome tests have drawbacks. Although they are useful for purposes like parasitology (testing if you have parasites in your colon), they draw an incomplete conclusion about what is going on in the gut microbiome based on what comes out in waste. Stool sample tests don’t measure the gut’s ability to process food—just what is in your stool. You’re not seeing the substances that circulate in the blood; you see only what substances leave the body.
6. Food allergies may not be as prevalent as we think.
Remember, variety is good for gut health, so if you suspect you have a food allergy, see your doctor and find out what’s really going on. The best way to know is to get tested for the allergy. You may be surprised to learn that what you perceived as an allergy to a specific food is a sensitivity to a food additive, a certain protein, or something else entirely. Or, you may have intestinal permeability, otherwise known as “leaky gut syndrome,” a condition where food particles are able to come out of the intestine into the body cavity and the body attacks them as foreign substances. After all, the body is just doing its job. It doesn’t know the difference between a dire threat and undigested cantaloupe. Start with a trip to your doctor.
7. Bacteria are complex.
The majority of things in life aren’t simply good or bad (but maybe that’s a topic for a different blog post). We need bacteria just as we need many things that can’t be put into one of two categories. Most of the time when you hear about bacteria in your everyday life, you hear about the types no one wants to come in contact with: flesh-eating bacteria, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Listeria, Salmonella, etc. We have soaps and wipes and hand sanitizer to indiscriminately kill all bacteria on contact. But bacteria is a huge category of living things, many of which aren’t necessarily harmful. It is, perhaps disappointingly, complicated. However, when we talk about gut microbiomes, certain bacteria can be in the wrong quantities. Having too much of any substance (even water) is a detriment to our health. Rather than thinking about bacteria being good or bad, it’s better to remember that our guts require bacteria to be diverse and balanced.
Everyone is looking for quick answers. It’s easy to adhere to one set of rules, grab onto the latest trend, or oversimplify, but the true solutions are usually somewhere in between. There are nuances and complexities in the enormous topic of gut health. And when you look for ways to improve your total health, start by looking at your gut health. You are a unique individual. Find out what’s really going on in your gut, and then explore how you will be able to modify your health with solutions that work for you.
Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 2012 from Boston University School of Medicine. She holds a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Erika is the Executive Director and Founder of Science from Scientists, an award-winning, National non-profit which sends real, charismatic scientists into classrooms to improve the attitudes and aptitudes of 3rd-8th-grade students in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM). She is also the CEO and co-founder of Ixcela, a biotechnology company aimed at developing tests and interventions to improve gut microbiome efficacy and health.