If asked to name the factors that have the greatest effect on overall health and well-being, we might list good nutrition, regular exercise, and adequate sleep. Good gut health, however, probably wouldn’t come to mind. Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, founder of the Terrain Institute, and integrative nutritionist Kathie Swift, co-founder of the Integrative and Functional Nutrition Academy, say that’s a mistake.

“I refer to the gut as our highway to health or our pathway to pathology,” remarks Kathie. “It can be a delivery system for nutrients to support our health, or it can be a source of great distress due to digestive dysfunction from multiple root causes like leaky gut, dysbiosis (an imbalance in the microbiome, the delicate ecosystem of bacteria inside us), inflammation, and infection.”

A lack of diversity in the bacteria species contained in the gut can lead to digestive distress. The adverse symptoms are well-known: bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and so on, but a dearth of good and varied gut bacteria can have more far-reaching effects. In extreme cases, Maya says, it can contribute to conditions like multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, autism, and more.

Maya and Kathie point out that the gut is so powerful that has its own immune system, which takes in the outside world through the alimentary canal. The gut’s immune system determines whether a substance (for example, gluten, casein, chemicals, etc.) is friend or foe. “If it’s detected as foe,” Kathie says, “a cascade of events occurs that involves immune mediators, inflammatory molecules, and more. The ultimate goal is to have a balance in the gut’s immune system, one that isn’t over-reactive or under-reactive, as both ends of the spectrum can create problems.”

Because the gut is connected to all of the body’s systems, gut issues not only affect digestion, but can also affect other systems of the body such as the skin, immune system, and nervous system. “Most people know their gut health isn’t great by digestive symptoms they may be experiencing,” says Kathie, “but they need to be aware that nervous and neurological symptoms can have their origins in an unhealthy gut, too.”

Symptoms like fatigue, anxiety, sleep disturbances, circadian rhythm disruptions, and increases or decreases in appetite can be indications that the health of the gut is compromised, but more serious conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, depression, and schizophrenia can be traced to the gut, as well, according to Maya and Kathie.

“There’s an intimate connection between the gut, the brain, and the microbiota, which is referred to the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis,” explains Kathie. “Bidirectional communication exists between the gut and the brain, so emotions can impact the gut and, likewise, the gut can be a source of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric Acid), which influence mood and well-being.”

There’s a lot of buzz around psychobiotics right now,” Maya adds, “where probiotics are being developed that will directly target psychological symptoms like anxiety, depression and so on.”

To improve gut health, Maya and Kathie say it’s best to avoid highly processed foods and beverages that are high in sugar and contain trans fats and unsafe additives and chemicals, as these have been shown in large epidemiological studies to disrupt gut function. Some individuals may need to eliminate foods containing gluten; others may need to eliminate casein, for example.

Some of these foods essentially taunt the immune system to activate,” Maya explains, “and it’s very difficult for the gut to heal when these compounds are around. Removing one or more of them for a period of time may be necessary to restore gut integrity.”

Maya and Kathie emphasize that basic nutritional practices like consuming a more plant-based diet as well as eating mindfully and in moderation are important, but note that they aren’t the only ways to improve gut health. Stress reduction is equally vital.

“Although the gut influences the nervous system, the nervous system also influences the health of the gut,” Maya explains. “When we’re stressed, our sympathetic – ‘fight or flight’ — nervous system is activated. Digestion shuts down, and inflammation increases. When we’re calm, though, the parasympathetic – ‘rest and digest’ – nervous system is activated. Then digestive processes run smoothly, and overall inflammation is reduced.”

“Stress really is the enemy of a healthy gut,” Maya continues, “so activities that bring you joy or help you to relax are a wonderful way of employing a win-win to improve your gut health while also making you happier.”

Yoga, meditation, qigong, tai chi, gut-directed hypnotherapy, and time in nature, sometimes referred to as forest bathing, are all evidence-based, mind-body practices that reduce stress and thereby bolster gut health.

“We need to be in direct contact with nature on a daily basis if possible,” Kathie says. “Gardening, hiking, children playing outdoors — this helps our microbiome to flourish.”

“Soil is one of the most diverse sources of microbes on the planet,” Maya adds. “In one teaspoon of healthy soil, there can be as many or more microbes as there are people in the world.” Thus, eating food fresh from a garden or a farmer’s market increases our exposure to various microbes. “Animals can even expand our microbiome,” Maya continues. “It’s a wonderful side benefit of having pets.”

As for taking probiotics to improve gut health, Kathie says it’s a highly debated topic in gastrointestinal nutrition. While Maya tends to recommend probiotics and has a few “go-tos” that are tolerated well by her sensitive patient population, Kathie says in her clinical experience, some patients do well with probiotics, while others may not. “As the science of microbiomics grows,” she comments, “we’ll be able to better match the probiotic to the individual.”

What both agree on is that improving the health of the gut can be transformative in ways we might never have imagined. “You begin to experience an optimal sense of well-being,” Kathie concludes, “greater energy, and a lack of the annoying, frustrating symptoms that limit the possibilities of life.”

Originally published by Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health