Learning about gut function is important but it can also be tricky with all those confusing terms. To help break it down and make it all bit more, well, digestible, we’ve come up with a list key words and definitions to make it all a but easier to take in (no more gut puns we promise).
The Gut Microbiota
‘Microbiome’ and ‘Microbiota’ are often thought to mean the same thing, but in fact they are different. The gut microbiota are made up of various bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms that happily co-exist and serve a vital function in the human gut.
The Gut Microbiome
Now we know what gut microbiota are, we should know where they, their microorganisms and surrounding environmental conditions, live. Well this is where the gut microbiome comes in. The gut microbiome, is essentially the house they stay in, aka the entire habitat of the human gut.
Whilst we develop our microbiome during infancy, through diet, exercise, sleep and the environment we live in, we can influence the balance of our gut microbiome throughout our entire lives.
Learn more: Why not read more about Gut Health Foods
Bacteria are teeny tiny single-celled organisms that are found just about anywhere – on the ground, in the sea, on our skin and in our gut. They are classified into five different groups, depending on their shape, and although we often think of bacteria as ‘bad’, some are actually friendly bacteria that are found naturally in our bodies, and may be passed from mother to baby at birth.
What are bacteria, and why are some called good and bad? Bacteria are very VERY small single-celled organisms that are found just about anywhere you can imagine but today we’re focusing on one location, the gut. Depending on their shape, they are classified into five different groups, and although we often think of bacteria as ‘bad’, some are actually friendly bacteria that occur perfectly naturally in our bodies.
Do you know that everyone’s bowel patterns can vary greatly? It’s perfectly normal to have up to three bowel movements a day or just three a week! But if you find yourself having less than three a week, or hard, lumpy, or dry poos, then you may be constipated. Not sure why it’s happening? It could be caused by a number of factors like dehydration or not getting enough fibre, your medication, a lack of activity in your lifestyle and conditions like IBS. It is important to speak to your doctor should you notice any marked changes in your bowel movements.
When it comes to the other end of the spectrum, diarrhoea is when you experience three or more loose stools in one day. Normally, our digestive system takes the nutrients and fluids from the food we eat, and passes on the waste for our bodies to get rid of. However, if there is a disruption somewhere along this process, stools can become less solid and more runny. Diarrhoea can be caused by several conditions such as IBS, gastroenteritis, medication side effects, stress, anxiety or food intolerances. Generally, though, most cases are usually short-lived and can be treated quickly. Again, it is important to consult your doctor if you notice any dramatic changes with your bowel movements.
The digestive system is an amazing set of processes that work to turn all the food we eat – apples, pizzas, sandwiches and more – into essential nutrients that our bodies use for energy, growth and repair. It starts in the mouth and moves down through the oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum and out of our bodies at the anus. It’s a highly efficient system that’s designed to break down food, absorb nutrients and get rid of waste.
Our bellies are home to a variety of bacterial cells – actually, there are more bacteria in your gut than in the whole body! These bacteria usually live in harmoniously, however, their balance and variety can be disrupted easily, which is known as dysbiosis.
The gut-brain axis is a two-way street of communication between the gut and the brain. These two are connected in both a physical and biochemical way, like a perpetual loop of messages going from the brain to the gut and back again. That’s why you can sometimes get those little flutters in your stomach when you’re feeling anxious or stressed – it’s because your gut and brain are inextricably linked, with gut function being a vital part of our mental wellbeing. So yes, always trust your gut!
Learn more: Why not read more about the Gut-Brain Axis.
The immune system is an incredible collaboration of communications and pathways that work together to guard us from any potential danger. It does this by identifying threats like dangerous bacteria, viruses, allergens or toxins and prompting the body to begin its protective process. Some parts of the immune system respond quickly, while others act more slowly, but are better at remembering prior threats and how to protect against them in the future.
Learn more: Why not read more about Gut Bacteria and the Immune System.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, is a recurrent and long-term issue that impacts the digestive system. It’s quite common, with 1 in 10 people worldwide experiencing it, and causing symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhoea. While the exact cause of IBS is still unknown, there are many potential factors that might be involved, such as pressure, food sensitivities, gastroenteritis, modifications in the gut microbiome, and connections between the gut and the brain.
Our intestinal walls are composed of many cells crammed together with tight junctions between each. These cells act as a boundary, managing which substances pass through during digestion. Water and important nutrients can pass through to be used by our bodies. However, when the junctions between the cells become loose, extra substances such as toxins are able to travel from the gut into the bloodstream: this is what we call ‘leaky gut’.
Have you heard the term “Probiotics” a lot recently and aren’t sure what it means? The EC Regulations covering nutrition and health claims in the UK mean ‘Probiotic’ cannot be used in communications to the general public yet as there are no authorised health claims. To make things easier to understand, probiotics are often used to describe ‘friendly bacteria’ or ‘live cultures’.
Prebiotics are what “feed” the helpful bacteria in our gut. They are indigestible carbohydrates that travel through to the stomach and enable the good bacteria to flourish. Nature has provided us with many food sources for prebiotics, such as onions, garlic, chicory root, asparagus, and bananas.
We find gut function truly incredible, and we don’t want it to be overwhelming! To learn more about the gut, immune system, and microbiome, you can check out our blog, where we’ve made the information easier to…digest! (ok one more)