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Everything you should know about gut health

The do’s and don'ts for learning about how to keep your gut happy

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Gut health used to be a taboo topic. It was considered too personal and, quite frankly, too gross. However, with the growth of microbiome studies, it has become a widely embraced topic that’s even talked about frequently over social media. Since there is so much information on the internet about how to maintain a healthy gut, it is important to know what information is credible and backed by research, and what information could be harmful for your health. 

When people are talking about gut health, they are referring to the gastrointestinal system, commonly known as the digestive system. This system is comprised of the mouth, stomach, esophagus, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, colon, and rectum. Professor William DePaolo, director of the UW’s center for microbiome sciences and therapeutics, explained just how significant it is that our digestive systems are kept healthy.

“Gut health is very important because we have five hundred different species of bacteria that reside in our guts, and if you add up all of the bacterial numbers, it’s the same amount of cells in our body,” DePaolo said. “We’re basically as much bacteria as we are human.”

Additionally, the gastrointestinal system affects much more in the body than typically thought. 

“If you think about your gut, it touches almost every organ system in our body, from our nervous system, which controls depression and anxiety, to our cardiovascular system and our liver,” DePaolo said. “Any sort of perturbations to that community is going to have ripple effects.”

So what does a healthy gut look like? The answer is different for everyone. Gut microbiomes are like fingerprints, according to DePaolo. They’re completely individualized. The microbiome system is also very complex and ever-changing, depending on what you put into your body. 

“It’s not a stagnant system — it’s alive and it’s changing with your daily cycles and your daily rhythms,” DePaolo included. “Doing things that are unhealthy to your body, and especially taking in fast food and processed foods are going to perturb that system, they’re going to alter the bacteria that are present, and that’s going to put you off into potentially a state where you are more likely to have inflammation, which could lead to more diseases and chronic diseases as well.”

The food we eat has a huge impact on the content of bacteria in our gut. According to DePaolo, additives, preservatives, and artificial ingredients in foods kill the good bacteria and leave a plethora of overpowering bacteria — not necessarily bad bacteria — which offset the balance in the gut. 

While there is a lot you can do that is bad for your gut health, there is also a lot of good you can do. Probiotics are supplemental pills you can take that are filled with natural good bacteria. However, because each microbiome is different, not all probiotics will be beneficial or right for everyone.

“Not all probiotics are created equal,” DePaolo said. “It’s like fitting something into a glove versus a parking space. You can’t just park any probiotic into a person — it has to fit them like a glove. It’s a matter of taking time and being patient and testing out the different products.”

DePaolo advises that people try out different probiotics and note the bacteria on the label. If there’s no change in how you’re feeling, it might not be the right fit. He recommends a “two-week wash out” before trying a new probiotic with different bacteria listed. 

An important thing to keep in mind is to always talk to your doctor before changing your diet or taking probiotics to ensure no preexisting health conditions will be compromised. 

“The gut has the most immune cells of the body,” DePaolo said. “You don’t want to start messing with that system … Too much information out there is not a good thing, so make sure that the information that you have is good: it comes from a good source and is not trying to sway you one way or another.”

Reach writer Bella Swart at Twitter: @BellaSwart4

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