A Beginner’s Guide to Gut Health: Part 2

As we have discussed in A Beginner’s Guide to Gut Health – Part 1, ‘Gut health’ refers to the overall health of your digestive tract. Gut health is a rapidly growing and really interesting field of research. This is largely due to the complex links it has to so many areas of our overall health and internal systems. 

In part 2, we will be discussing the link between gut health and lifestyle factors such as sleep and stress, as well as the impacts of things such as exercise on gut health. 

Can gut health impact my overall well-being and mood?

Aside from impacting your physical health, your gut can also have an impact on your mental health. The intricate mechanisms of this are not yet fully understood. However, through something named the ‘gut-brain axis’, our microbiomes communicate with our central nervous system. This occurs through the enteric nervous system (also known as the ‘second brain’) that covers our gastrointestinal tract. This seems to work two ways – from the gut to the brain, and then the brain back down to the gut.

The GI tract communicates bidirectionally with the brain through the gut-brain axis, which involves neural, hormonal, and immune signalling. This connection influences mood, emotions, and cognitive function, meaning that any disturbances in the gut can affect mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and stress. This is often why individuals with particularly bad anxiety also suffer from digestive problems like IBS.

How does stress impact gut health? 

The physical and mental effects of stress are often downplayed but can have a huge impact on your body, including your gut health. Periods of stress can upset the balance of your digestive tract, worsening existing problems and even creating new ones.

When feeling stressed, our brains activate the sympathetic nervous system, also known as our fight or flight response. It prepares the body to protect itself from any imminent danger by conserving functions that aren’t immediately needed for survival, including digestion, as the emptying of the stomach is delayed, which can cause stomach aches, indigestion, and a host of other uncomfortable symptoms.

As the stomach slows, stress can cause increased motor function in the large intestine. This is why bowel urgency or diarrhoea can often be experienced in particularly stressful times.

Unfortunately, this can become a vicious cycle. This is because experiencing such symptoms can amplify stress further, which can lead to further gastrointestinal issues, or exacerbate already-existing issues.

What role does sleep play in gut health? 

It is well-known that getting enough good-quality sleep is really important for your overall health, but are gut health and sleep connected in any way? The answer is yes, it does appear as though the two are interlinked.

Gut Microbiota: Accumulating evidence suggests that disturbed sleep patterns or insufficient sleep duration may alter the balance of beneficial and harmful bacteria in the gut, potentially contributing to dysbiosis (an imbalance in the gut microbiota).

Digestive Processes: When you sleep, your body focuses on repair and restoration. Getting enough sleep allows for optimal functioning of digestive processes. This includes the release of digestive enzymes and the maintenance of a healthy gut lining.

Gut-Brain Axis: Sleep disturbances can affect the gut-brain axis. Changes in sleep patterns may influence gut function and vice versa. Therefore, potentially contributing to gastrointestinal issues or altered mood.

Can exercise help improve gut health?

Much of the research into gut health is complex. However, recent research has underscored the dynamic interplay between exercise and the gut microbiome. Regular physical activity has been shown to positively modulate the composition and diversity of gut microbes, setting the stage for several potential benefits.

These include:

  1. Enhanced Microbial Diversity
  2. Reduced Inflammation
  3. Improved Digestion/ Reduced Symptom Severity

To delve a little bit deeper into this, head over to our blog here.

As you can see gut health is intricately linked to a number of areas of our health. This therefore hints at how important staying on top of these areas can be for good gut health. 

We’ll go into this and some practical tips for supporting your gut health in Part 3 – coming soon!

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Meghan Foulsham

Published by Meghan Foulsham

Meghan's fascination with metabolism and the effect of diet on the body covered in her BSc Biochemistry, paired with being a passionate mental health advocate, led her to a Master's degree in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition. Using this, Meghan works with clients to help them reach their goals in the most sustainable way, without sacrificing or risking their mental health.

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