Summaya Ali, MS, RD
The gut is the control center of our physical and emotional health. It is a powerful yet delicate system that constantly works to empower our bodies by providing nutrients for growth and maintenance, as well as support for periods of healing. The gut is also home to trillions of bacteria unique to each person. They can be influenced by the foods we eat, our environment, and our genetics. The bacteria serve as our security team, help with weight management, and even promote good sleep.
The gut can be called the “second brain” because it is so closely connected to our actual brains through nerves and hormones. Ever felt butterflies in your stomach before a big event or had your mouth water while waiting for your favorite food to arrive at a restaurant? That’s the gut-brain connection in action. Therefore, it is especially important to maintain a healthy lifestyle that will foster a good relationship between the two.
The stomach is a muscular organ about the size of a fist. It expands up to four times its size when full and can hold about four cups of food. Stomach muscles contract to churn food, and strong acids facilitate the breakdown process. Food then moves to the small intestine, which is a 20-foot-long muscular tube. Digestive juices are released by different organs, and these juices break down carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Nutrients are extracted from the food and then absorbed into the bloodstream. The food mass then travels to the large intestine, where bacteria create beneficial compounds from leftover food components. Finally, the large intestine absorbs water and forms waste products that will be removed from the body.
A disturbance at any point during the digestive process can bring on troublesome symptoms or develop into complex conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or colorectal cancer. Diseases of the gut are associated with inflammation, severe gastrointestinal symptoms, and poor food absorption. These diseases carry a high risk of nutrient deficiencies and can result in poor overall health.
Possible causes of gut problems include poor dietary choices, medication, antibiotics, chronic stress, infections, poor dental health, and chronic inflammatory conditions and surgeries related to their treatment. This can also be influenced by gut bacteria (what bacteria are there, what they are producing, and their metabolic activity). Bacterial imbalance causes gut problems, as the harmful bacteria overpower the good ones and exert negative effects. The following symptoms can be a red flag for gut problems:
The digestive system and brain communicate with each other through hormones and chemicals via the vagus nerve. It is a two-way street, and what happens in the gut does not stay in the gut. When trouble happens, it can be local (digestive diseases) or distant. This is when harmful bacteria translocate to other organs and activate an immune response. Over time, this chronic inflammation may lead to heart disease, infectious lung disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and various forms of cancer.
Digestive problems can be a cause or effect of anxiety and other emotional problems as well. A large majority of patients with anxiety disorders have gut problems, and those with gut problems are at three times as much risk of developing anxiety disorders. When the bad bacteria overpower the good ones, they make our intestines more prone to invaders. Then toxins and other harmful substances can enter and start an inflammatory response that extends to many organs, including the brain.
Fortunately, we know that gut bacteria are quick to respond to even small positive changes. A 2018 study by Marcel van de Wouw et al. in the Journal of Physiology demonstrated how administering short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) was able to reverse the adverse physiological effects of chronic stress and restore appropriate brain function in animals. From this study, we learned that by adopting diet and lifestyle behaviors that help good bacteria thrive, we can make a meaningful difference to our gut health and, ultimately, our brain health.
If a food is good for you, it is also good for your gut. Bacteria feast on fiber and produce SCFAs, which are the gut’s absolute favorite food. For many years, research consistently cited the Mediterranean diet as an excellent approach to reducing cardiovascular disease and overall mortality. Many of the foods in this diet contain antioxidants, which can grab hold of harmful compounds in the body and prevent them from doing any further damage. In recent years, this eating pattern has also been recognized for improving gut bacterial diversity and strengthening brain health. Here is what it emphasizes:
As a healthcare professional, I find that we seem to repeat the list of foods to eat less of more often than patients would like to hear. I find it helpful to explain the effects of these foods in simple terms and how to work around them in a manageable way. Here are some points to consider:
Sugar. The more we eat it, the more the body relies on it. Harmful gut bacteria are those that favor sugar. When they feed on sugar, they start to take up too much space in your gut and begin exerting negative effects. You don’t need to remove sugar completely, however; just eat less of it.
Start by limiting your “liquid sugar” consumption, meaning sugary drinks. Many people jump to zero-calorie sweeteners in an effort to reduce their sugar consumption. I discourage this because over time, these products can cause harmful alterations in gut bacteria. Also, though the tongue senses sweetness, there are no calories coming in. That confuses the brain and increases sugar cravings. This cycle leads to more sugar and calorie consumption and increases a person’s risk for diabetes and obesity.
Red and processed meat. Processed meat contains large amounts of salt and added chemicals that irritate the gut. We normally associate the saturated fat content of red meat with heart disease, but research shows an added layer of concern. A study by Meng Wang et al. in the 2022 edition of Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology found that chemicals produced by gut bacteria after eating red meat may cause atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (that is, hardening of arteries and risk of a heart attack or stroke).
My recommendation is to avoid processed meat and have red meat only occasionally. Add white meat or fish to your diet more often. Another idea is to switch a meat dinner with a vegetarian one a few times a week.
Ultra-processed foods. Processed foods often get a bad reputation. Many healthy foods undergo some processing, and that is completely okay. Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, contain thickeners, coloring agents, and preservatives that extend shelf life. These have been shown to cause detrimental effects on gut health and, subsequently, on various other body systems.
When purchasing packaged foods, look for short ingredient lists. Avoid foods with ingredients like:
The food you eat can be the most powerful influence in your life. Feed your gut with more whole foods and drink more water to keep your gut functioning well.
However, your diet isn’t the only important factor in determining your gut health. Another way to keep your gut healthy is to move. It doesn’t have to be at the gym; even your living room can work just fine. Exercise combats disease, promotes good blood circulation, and stabilizes your mood.
You should also practice stress management. The stress may not go away today, but you can overpower it. Give your stress a ten-minute appointment. Talk to yourself about it, draw it on paper, or keep squeezing a stress ball. After ten minutes, tell your stress that you are not available.
Most importantly, remember that we often stress over things that are not in our control. Leave them in the hands of your merciful Lord and be at peace with that. He never disappoints anyone.
Summaya Ali holds a master’s degree in nutrition from the University of Illinois and is a registered dietitian. She is a regular contributor to Halal Consumer Magazine. She works with a variety of conditions, and two of her favorite areas of practice are chronic kidney disease and cardiovascular disease.