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It takes guts: The importance of gut health

It takes guts: The importance of gut health

The significance of gut health can’t be overstated—it plays an important role in your overall health. Your gut, also known as your gastrointestinal tract, is a part of your digestive system, and includes the:

  • Esophagus
  • Large intestine (measuring approximately 5 feet, including the cecum, colon, rectum and anus)
  • Mouth
  • Small intestine (measuring an incredible 20–25 feet, including the duodenum, ileum and jejunum)
  • Stomach

Your gastrointestinal tract processes your food, breaking it down into carbohydrates, fats, minerals, protein and vitamins that fuel your body. Your digestive tract also absorbs water and eliminates waste and toxins. All of these go toward maintaining a healthy gut.

What’s involved in gut health?

Your gut health relies on different types of bacteria along with other microorganisms like fungi, protozoa and viruses in your digestive system. Microbes such as bacteria and yeast work to digest food, but their role may involve more than digestion. Medical researchers are exploring possible links between less diverse gut microbiomes and the development of certain health conditions, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer, mental health, and immune system or autoimmune diseases.

Poor gut health = tummy trouble

As beneficial bacteria in your gut work to maintain balance, different gastrointestinal illnesses can leave you feeling under the weather, including:

  • Acid reflux, which occurs when stomach contents back up into your esophagus, causing regurgitation (food/drink rising into the throat) and heartburn (that scorching feeling in your chest after eating spicy foods). Acid reflux is usually treated by avoiding trigger foods, eating at least two hours before bedtime, and taking over-the-counter medication if needed. Recurring acid reflux is a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
  • Celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Gluten is naturally occurring in products made from wheat, barley and rye. In people with celiac disease, gluten causes stomach pain and damages the small intestine. Complications of long-term celiac disease include malnutrition, anemia and osteoporosis. Treatment involves avoiding foods and products that contain gluten, especially processed foods, where gluten-containing ingredients may be difficult to identify.
  • Constipation or the reduced ability to eliminate stool. Nearly everyone experiences the discomfort of constipation at some point. It can be attributed to a lack of dietary fiber, pregnancy or post-pregnancy, advanced age, and certain medications or supplements. Treatment typically includes medications, exercise and dietary changes. Prolonged bouts of constipation can also be a symptom of a bigger health problem.
  • Diverticulitis and diverticular disease, inflammation and chronic inflammation of pouches that push through weakened tissue in the colon wall. Symptoms may include lower abdomen pain, diarrhea or constipation, bloating and rectal bleeding. Treatments include a fiber-rich diet, medications, colonoscopy, and procedures to drain abscesses or treat complications like fistulas, intestinal blockages or tears, or inflamed peritoneum.
  • Gastritis or inflammation of the stomach lining. Gastritis is often caused by a bad bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (or H. pylori). If you have gastritis, you may experience indigestion or stomach bleeding, but the illness is often symptomless. Treatment typically involves medication, depending on the cause of the gastritis, and may include dietary changes, too.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. GERD is frequent or chronic acid reflux (regurgitation and heartburn) caused by a weakened esophageal sphincter that can’t properly close. Recurring and/or worsening acid reflux is a warning sign of GERD. Treatment can include changes in your diet to avoid acid reflux-trigger foods, weight loss, head elevation during sleep, medication, and surgery when conservative methods aren’t effective. Take our quiz to learn if you have GERD risk factors.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, the two most common IBDs:
    • Result from a weakened immune system
    • Can damage the gut
    • Cause symptoms that may include recurring diarrhea, fatigue, stomach pain, weight loss and rectal bleeding

IBD is usually treated with medication, although surgery may be necessary in some cases.

Protecting and improving your gut health

Support your gut health by:

  • Eating a healthy diet, typically one chock-full of leafy greens and other fiber-filled vegetables, whole grains, lean sources of protein, and healthy fats like those found in nuts, avocados, fish and plant-based oils
  • Being physically active nearly every day for at least half an hour a day
  • Getting the recommended amount of sleep—seven to eight hours for most adults
  • Managing stress. Your gut and nervous system appear to be connected. Multiple studies suggest that stress can negatively impact gut health and vice versa. During stressful times, try relaxation techniques or talking with a trusted friend to help you keep calm and carry on.

Trust your gut to our gastroenterologists. Get additional information and find a doctor who can help you learn how to have a healthy digestive tract.