There's good news in the quest to demystify the role our gut plays in our overall wellness. While the complex workings of our intestines have long been suspected as key in our immune system, emerging research continues to surprise us with new insights into the importance of our intestines.
Protection from the inside out
Our gut is a major player in our immune system, and the lining of our intestines actually protect us from bacteria living outside our bodies, according to Dan Peterson, assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Peterson and his colleagues are researching how gut bacteria and the cells of our intestinal walls react when disease occurs, and how the microbiome in our digestive tract can help us trace bacterial secretions that contribute to different types of cancers.
The more we learn about the microbiome in our intestinal system, the more likely we are to learn how to maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria. With the decreasing cost of genetic sequencing, we can better identify different flora and fauna in our systems, and find out how human genetics dictate how certain individuals have a difficult time with some foods when others don't.
The "second brain"
Did you know that approximately 90 percent of our body's serotonin is produced in the gut? Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that allows communication between nerves and cells. Our gastrointestinal system may not be able to file tax returns, but as Dr. Siri Carpenter wrote in an article for the American Psychological Association, our gut is "the only organ to boast its own independent nervous system, an intricate network of 100 million neurons embedded in the gut wall."
The enteric nervous system (ENS) communicates with secretions from gut microorganisms and exchanges information with the brain through the vagus nerve. It's not surprising that stress and anxiety affect our digestion, and with emerging research, we're learning just how important our digestive system is to our mental well-being as studies show that gastrointestinal issues may trigger mood changes.
"For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these (IBS, constipation, bloating) problems. But our studies and others show that it may also be the other way around," said Dr. Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, in "The Brain-Gut Connection."
Yes, you read that right. There is a center for neurogastroenterology at one of the world's most respected medical institutions. Think of this the next time you hear the phrase, "trust your gut"!
Mental and emotional wellness
Keeping the inhabitants of our digestive system happy may be a key to our mental health as well. This is encouraging news for those who struggle with chemical imbalances in the brain that lead to depression and anxiety. Early research into the effects of manipulating gut microbiomes shows promise in the fight against mental illness.
An advanced understanding of probiotics and the development of synthetic compounds designed to mimic their beneficial effects may soon provide options for patients with treatment-resistant depression, and breakthroughs in gut research may allow us to prevent many causes of chemical imbalances from ever emerging.
Whole body wellness
Advances in genetic sequencing, neuroscience, and gastrointestinal microbiomes are opening up new frontiers in treatments for common ailments. Now that we realize that gut bacteria outnumber our very own human cells by a ratio of ten to one and we're better equipped to learn about how they function and interact among themselves and with our bodies, we have reason to be optimistic.
Why do some foods make us feel energetic, while others weigh us down? What medications disrupt our intestinal microbiomes to the point when we need to balance the scales? How do yoga and deep breathing help stimulate the vagus nerve, thus promoting better mental and gut health?
We've always had broad-stroke answers to these perennial questions about our gut, but soon we'll have finely-calibrated answers as emerging research technology fuses breakthroughs in microbiology with genetic and cultural factors unique to us as individuals.
As we learn more about the importance of our gastrointestinal tract, we validate our goal of whole-body wellness and nurturing of every part of our mind, body, and spirit.