The Gut Health Epidemic

The Gut Health Epidemic

 Something too tiny to see has a bigger role in your gut health than you might think. We’re referring, of course, to the microorganisms that make their homes in your digestive tract. The average person has about 300 to 500 different species of bacteria living there. And while some microbiota (the general term for the microorganisms that inhabit any given space) can prove harmful, many are helpful—or even essential—for your health.


Having a healthy gut means having lots of good bacteria in your stomach. In fact, you have ten times more microbes in your gut than in your cells—10^14, to be more precise. That’s 1 followed by fourteen zeroes, or a hundred trillion of them. Most people don’t even have a reference point for a number that colossal, but they’re in there. 

With so many of them running around inside you, microbes’ roles are many and varied. For instance, they supply essential nutrients, get rid of toxins, synthesize vitamin K, and help in the digestion of cellulose. They also regulate gut motility (the stretching and contracting of the muscles in your digestive tract) and transform bile acid and steroids. Natural compounds like lignans (organic compounds that may reduce the risk of cancers and cardiovascular disease) need gut bacteria to do their jobs. Evidence even suggests gut bacteria play an important role gut bacteria play in your body’s anti-cancer immune response. 

Microbes also help your gut cooperate with other bodily systems. For instance, the gut absorbs beneficial substances produced by the liver. Gut bacteria may have a bigger influence in this area than scientists previously suspected: evidence suggests they even communicate with the central nervous system through neural, endocrine, and immune pathways to influence the way you think and act.


If we don’t take care of the bacteria in our gut, however, they can turn against us. If something throws your gut ecosystem out of balance—maybe antibiotics, illness, stress, aging, bad dietary habits, or an unhealthy lifestyle—the resulting disruption to your gut’s bacterial composition could have a negative (even serious) effect on your wellbeing. 

The most serious consequences of an unhealthy gut will start on the inside: an upset stomach, cravings for processed foods, or certain digestive disorders. And because an unhealthy gut’s effects ripple outward, you’ll be able to spot exterior signs soon enough, like a sudden rash or irritation. You may sleep poorly as well.

As debilitating as loss of sleep and digestive issues can be, an unhealthy gut can result in even worse effects. For example, given the way gut bacteria help your body fight off cancer, it’s a little ironic that, in the wrong concentrations, they can help cause cancer: specifically, gastrointestinal or prostate cancer. There’s even evidence that microbial alterations in the gastrointestinal tract level play a part in chronic HIV infection. Gut bacteria also have a direct link with the risk of cardiovascular diseases, bad sleep, rheumatic diseases, and kidney diseases.

All in all, poor gut health is the culprit at the heart of an epidemic of gut-related deaths in the United States. The statistics are sobering:

  • Abdominal wall hernia: 1,322 deaths
  • Chronic constipation: 132 deaths 
  • Diverticular disease: 2,889 deaths 
  • Gallstones: 994 deaths
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease: 1,653 deaths
  • Gastrointestinal infections: 11,022 deaths
  • Ulcerative colitis: 305 deaths
  • Irritable bowel syndrome: 21 deaths
  • Peptic ulcer disease: 2,981 deaths


So what can you do to promote gut health? Just as you need healthy nutrients to function properly, so do the microorganisms in your gut. 

The nutrients that feed them include dietary fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics. These substances are closely related. Fiber is part of food that comes from plants that can’t be completely broken down by your digestive enzymes. It can help reduce cholesterol and lower the risk of diabetes. Prebiotics are nondigestible compounds that stimulate certain good bacteria in the colon, while probiotics are live microorganisms that (in the right amounts) can deliver major health benefits.

The many studies to delve into probiotics’ effects have yielded some interesting results. According to current science, probiotics may fortify your intestinal barrier and prevent gut inflammation and other intestinal diseases. But that’s not the most interesting part. 

One study on mice revealed that probiotics can have an effect on the genes expressed in the digestive tract—including genes involved in immunity, nutrient absorption, metabolism, and making sure your intestinal barrier works the way it’s meant to. These findings were confirmed in a study on humans.  

And there’s more. The human digestive tract contains a large, complex neural network called the enteric nervous system, which maintains the communication between the digestive and central nervous systems. In other words, it coordinates the efforts of the brain, intestines, endocrine system, and immune system to keep your gut running smoothly. If it doesn’t work right, it could result in anxiety and gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Gut microbes like probiotics may play a key role here, helping to produce neuroactive and neuroendocrine molecules like serotonin. 

It should be noted that in people with severe autoimmune diseases, like HIV, probiotics can have a harmful effect. It’s always best to consult with your doctor before trying any new supplement. 


Certain foods are ideal for delivering the much-needed nutrients discussed above. High-fiber foods such as legumes, beans, peas, oats, bananas, berries, asparagus, and leeks can make a big difference in your gut health. Other helpful foods include garlic and onion (which studies suggest may have some anti-cancer and immune system-enhancing properties), as well as collagen-rich foods like bone broth and salmon. Make sure to avoid processed foods, high-fat foods, and foods high in refined sugars. These foods destroy good bacteria and promote the growth of bad bacteria.

You might not think it would make a difference, but chewing your food thoroughly and eating your meals more slowly goes a long way. Not rushing through your meal can help you fully digest your food, absorb nutrients, reduce digestive issues, and keep your gut healthy.

Another thing you can do to promote gut health is to drink plenty of water. Aside from the obvious health benefits, staying hydrated has been shown to have a positive effect on the mucosal lining of the intestines and help balance your gut’s good bacteria. 

Another time-tested way to help with gut health is to include the occasional apple cider vinegar, a drink made from fermented apple juice, into your diet.

Add some apple cider vinegar to your salad dressing to deliver lots of probiotics to the meal that can help ease a leaky gut. It may also help your body to digest food faster and boost your metabolism. Diluted in warm water, apple cider vinegar also curbs your appetite, which benefits weight loss. (Just make sure you’re not taking too much of it. The right amount of apple cider vinegar can take care of digestive issues, but prolonged use can have an adverse effect.) 

To make apple cider vinegar, first extract the juice from crushed apples. Then add yeast and good bacteria to begin the fermentation process. This converts the sugars in the juice to alcohol, which acetic acid then turns to vinegar. 

Of course, the right use of apple cider vinegar is just one of the many things you can do to keep your gut running smoothly. With a few careful adjustments and regular practices, you can maintain the balance of microorganisms in your gut and help ensure that your digestive system is healthy for years to come. 




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