Want to make your digestive tract happy and the rest of your body strong and healthy? Get busy tending your garden — the one in your gut.
Yes, there’s a massive garden filled with beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms from top to bottom in your gastrointestinal system. Maintaining this flora is not only essential for proper digestion and elimination, experts say a healthy “gut garden” fights off disease and maintains overall vitality.
“Your gut contains billions of bacteria and it forms a large percentage of your immune system,” says Niraj Jani, M.D., chief of gastroenterology at Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC). “It’s like a roadmap that goes from your mouth to your anus. When it’s unbalanced with a lack of good bacteria, it blocks absorption of nutrients from food, which can adversely affect the liver, pancreas and kidneys.”
The gut is actually a series of organs leading from the mouth and esophagus all the way to the colon. It transforms the food you eat into the nutrients your body needs to live and thrive. If it fails to do that properly, it leads to upset stomach, irregular elimination and often aggravates conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.
A lack of good bacteria is a leading cause of diarrhea, which depletes electrolytes and is bad for your kidneys. Acid reflux, another common result of an imbalanced digestive tract, can cause trouble swallowing and even esophageal cancer over time, Dr. Jani says.
“Our microbes are intimately involved in every aspect of our health, from ensuring our digestive well-being to influencing our likelihood of being obese and our risk of developing cancer or diabetes,” says Robynne Chutkan, M.D., author of “The Microbiome Solution: A Radical New Way to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out” (Penguin, 2015). “They even play a role in our brain chemistry and mental health, affecting our moods, our emotions and our personalities.”
It helps to think of your body as composed of multiple living, breathing parts — a massive microscopic community whose health is directly connected to your own.
“(It’s) essential that we learn more about where our microbes come from, what they do and why we literally can’t live without them,” Dr. Chutkan says.
Tending your garden
Today’s busy lifestyles make it all too easy to compromise our guts. Stress and junk diets can be devastating to digestive health. But there are a number of steps you can take to correct depleted gut flora.
“Some gastrointestinal problems are caused by infections, but a lot of them are self-induced,” Dr. Jani says. “The best way to correct them is to maintain a nutritious diet with lots of fruits and veggies, along with a healthy amount of fiber. Eating in moderation and avoiding excess is also important.”
And while antibiotics are essential for fighting infection and eliminating bad bacteria, most are indiscriminate and wipe out good bacteria, as well. That’s when it’s time to regrow the garden, Dr. Jani says.
“Probiotic supplements are especially effective after taking a course of antibiotics,” he says. “And yogurt is good to include in your daily diet, to get as much good bacteria in your system as possible.” He especially recommends yogurt that contains the B. infantis probiotic culture.
A gut feeling
Everyone knows that awful feeling, often striking at the worst possible time: a churning, uncomfortable sensation that demands immediate attention. Many people allow these symptoms to persist over weeks, even years, without seeking a doctor’s advice or treatment.
They simply find it embarrassing to talk about things like diarrhea and constipation. And while it’s probably not the best topic for cocktail parties, it’s important to discuss persistent and severe symptoms with your doctor.
Everyone experiences occasional bouts of indigestion, irregularity and diarrhea. But make an appointment with your physician if there’s a sudden change in bowel habits or unexplained weight loss, Dr. Jani says.
“Also see a doctor if there’s persistent pain or difficulty tolerating food — and, of course, blood in your stool,” he added. “And if you’re 50 or over, get a colonoscopy.”
When symptoms begin to appear, it’s smart to start a food journal and bring it to your doctor’s appointment. It can be very helpful in determining the root cause.
“Use the journal to keep track of when the symptoms started and what you were eating at the time,” Dr. Jani says. “It’s important to write down any new medications you’ve taken, and let the doctor know if you’ve been traveling recently.”
Don’t be shy about going into detail about your symptoms. Rest assured, your doctor has seen and heard it all, he says. Seeking prompt treatment can prevent a host of serious problems and steer you toward a lush and healthy gut garden for life.
—Bob Young for Greater Baltimore Medical Center