According to recent research, if you have a gut feeling, you should listen. As Giulia Enders, author of Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, cites, “The gut is the second-largest collection of nerve cells, after the brain.” Her research underscores that the gut not only affects and largely steers other processes of the body like the immune system, but can also provide an enormous amount of feedback about the body’s health. Enders’ book was a surprise hit in Germany in 2014. It informs the reader, at times with humorous drawings and matter-of-fact mentions of taboo toilet topics, of the inner-workings of the gut, and took the 26-year-old microbiologist on an international book tour.
Food for Thought
In her thoroughly-researched exploration of the inner-workings of the digestive system, Enders suggests that the gut’s functioning even helps to determine the kind of person we are, due to the neural information exchange between the brain and gut. She explains that the organs borrow energy from one another, so that an overworked brain or bowel could adversely affect mood. Mounting evidence suggests that the health of the environment in the intestines is directly connected to seemingly separate faculties of functioning like our emotions, behavior, and mental health. She describes the gut as a sensory organ, not just one that performs a mechanical necessity in isolation. If you find yourself struggling with low energy or depression, the biological reason behind it might be the gut. Enders’ gut-brain axis experiments, as she calls the experiments that connect the microbiome of the gut to essential functions of the brain, show that depression may be caused by the kinds of bacteria that reside in the gut and send pain or distress-signals to the brain. These bacteria flourish when you partake in a diet which doesn’t promote a diverse flora of bacteria.
The gut and intestinal functions are in fact vital to the body’s cleansing and nutrient absorption processes, and therefore affect the body’s general wellbeing. The system is reliant upon a living microbiome of organisms — bacteria that act as the helpers to the functions of the intestines, both moving things along and aiding in the absorption of nutrients. They also almost single-handedly support and protect the body’s immune system. This means that the popular idea that the body and gut need “cleansing” might in fact be totally unnecessary, and possibly even harmful to the body’s microbiome balance.
Why isn’t a cleanse necessarily a good idea?
Most bacteria help produce energy for the gut by extracting energy from the food we eat by way of nutrients, says Enders in an interview on The Agenda with Steve Paikin. She theorizes that the media unintentionally fosters an environment that caters to germophobes which might account for the high interest in intestinal cleanses to get rid of “bad germs,” those highlighted in coverage of salmonella or listeria outbreaks in otherwise very gut-friendly and healthful foods like leafy greens. Good hygiene, she insists, is not about purging bad bacteria, but rather creating balance by “harvesting good bacteria” by for example eating a varied diet and taking probiotics. Probiotics are especially useful to take in salvaging the good bacteria in the gut when taking antibiotics for an infection located elsewhere in the body. This can help relieve symptoms of IBS or fatigue often experienced while taking the infection-killing medication which eradicates both helpful and those infection-causing harmful bacteria. Fatigue can be a symptom of the body using excess energy on digestion because it lacks a diverse and plentiful biome of bacteria in the intestines to aid in the process. Enders’ research has also found that the bacteria in overweight people is less diverse than that of normal weight people. She has also found hat some overweight people do have diverse gut bacteria, and that these people have less likelihood of suffering from common diseases caused by obesity.
What makes a happy gut?
Apart from adding variety and fiber to your diet, avoiding certain modern-day culprits may ease the symptoms of an upset intestinal balance. Fructose, although not necessarily as bad as other unhealthy additives and naturally-occurring ingredients, can be problematic due to the large quantities often consumed, and can result in bloating and stomach aches. Enders refers to fructose intolerance as the most common food intolerance today, more commonly occurring (and less often known about or discussed) than lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance and other food allergies. Stress, eating processed foods, and overuse of antibiotics are other enemies of a happy gut.
Dr. Vincent Pedre, author of Happy Gut, shares a backstory similar to that of Giulia Enders. They both became interested in the science of the gut due to personal struggles with mysterious illnesses. Dr. Pedre’s approach to medicine involves identifying food allergens that are causing irritation to the intestines and eliminating them. He also focuses on balancing the microbiome in the gut by tailoring diets to individual needs. He claims that a diet heavy in plants can also treat migraines and asthma. The Microbiome Diet, another publication that focuses on eating for the gut, geared towards weight loss, is written by Dr. Rahael Kellman of the Kellman Clinic.
But Enders is careful not to give advice. Instead, she describes the way the digestive system functions, because over-generalizing and following fad diets doesn’t take into account the highly individual environment and system that is in place for each person. Rather, she emphasizes the importance of educating yourself on how your body actually functions, and to listen to how you feel after eating certain things. It is important to learn how to read your own body and how what you consume makes you feel: developing a “body-feeling,” as Enders puts it. Others can’t tell you what is best, but maybe your gut can.
About the Author:
Sonja Hansen is a journalism graduate student at NYU, and particularly likes to write about wellness and lifestyle. You can follow her on Twitter @sonja_ah.