Gutsy, gut-wrenching, gutted, gut feeling. There are countless sayings, idioms, and pun surrounding the word gut — but what is the gut? Embarrassingly enough, it actually took doing research for this article to discover that “gut” isn’t a scientific term…or even a specific part of the body.
When we say the word gut, we’re actually referring to the gastrointestinal tract (no wonder we shortened it). And, surprisingly, the gut has a huge influence on your health, wellbeing, concentration — and yep, even on your happiness. And while we’ve covered gut health hacks a few times, we’ve never really dived in (metaphorically) to the gut.
Luckily for you, The Latch got some time to talk to Pernille Jensen, naturopath, clinical nutritionist, and founder of The Gut Cø about all things gut-related — saving us (and you) some very obvious, and potentially embarrassing, Google searches.
First things first…what actually is the gut?
Well, as we all now know, the gut is the gastrointestinal tract. And what happens there, is that food gets broken down into nutrients and waste. That’s the basic description of it anyway. The more in-depth one?
“The gut is where 100 trillion bacteria (good and bad) are housed, they make up your microbiota,” explained Jensen. “The good bacteria look after your immune system, the health of your gut lining, and digest food.
“The bad bacteria also have some functions and as long as they are kept in check by the good guys, they are beneficial to the human body. However, if they overgrow, they can have a detrimental effect on your health.”
As Jensen tells us, “The better the gut or digestive system works the better the human body will perform in every aspect of health and life.”
The reasoning behind this includes the absorption of nutrients. “When the digestive system is working optimally, the food can be digested well and the body obtains the maximum nutrients from the food ingested.”
The impact this has? It provides “the body with the required amounts of minerals, vitamins, protein, fat, and carbohydrates for repairing and renewing cells, rebuilding muscles, generating the right hormones, feeding the brain and sustaining energy throughout the day”.
Yeah… just a few basic, little things. Or as Jensen said, “All the above is crucial for a happy mind and healthy body.”
Why is the gut called the second brain? And what’s a gut feeling?
You may have heard the gut being referred to as ‘the second brain’ (and if you hadn’t before, well now you have). This second brain, also known as the enteric nervous system (ENS), is embedded in the gut lining. Oh, and it contains some 100 million neurons – more than in either the spinal cord, or peripheral nervous system.
As for what it actually does, its main role is “to release enzymes and control digestions.” Oh, but that’s not all. As Jensen taught us, “It can also release hormones into the bloodstream telling us if we’re hungry or anxious. New research is indicating that for every one signal the brain sends out, the gut sends nine back.” Yep. Nine. Show off.
If you’re curious about a gut feeling? Because the ENS is embedded in the gut lining, it sends signals to the brain via the vagus nerve. What does that mean? Well, you can feel anxiety, fear, stress, and happy feelings in the gut.
Jensen explained to us that, “We’re starting to think that a big part of our emotions is influenced by the nerves in our gut. For example butterflies in the stomach can be a result of some kind of stress response (good or bad) and 95% of serotonin (the happy hormone) is found in the gut.”
What impact does the gut have on the rest of the body? Can it impact our mental health?
One main way? The immune system. In fact, 70-80% of our immune system resides in the gut lining — when the gut is healthy and has a healthy ratio of good bacteria to bad bacteria, the immune system is working well.
Good bacteria does two things to enhance the immune system. “Firstly, they look after the health of the gut lining so the immune system is not compromised. Secondly, they can work as little immune defenders themselves by taking down invading pathogens and preventing further infection of the gut,” said Jensen.
What about the gut microbiome, what role does it play?
The aforementioned 100 trillion bacteria make up the microbiome. As for what they do, “The microbiome helps regulate the immune system, digest the food you eat and produce vitamins such as vitamin K, B12, thiamine, and riboflavin.”
How can we help out our gut?
There are two aspects, according to Jensen. One is “to feed the good bacteria prebiotic foods of fibre.” It’s found in food like the globe artichoke, leek, garlic, and onion, and is digested by good bacteria and “used as fuel to grow”. Probiotics (yes, they’re different things) are helpful in improving microbiome — by increasing some good bacteria and decreasing bad bacteria.
The second aspect: To “nurture the gut lining”. Not only does the gut lining house the ENS and part of the immune system, but it also prevents toxins, undigested foods and bacteria from penetrating the bloodstream.
When these do penetrate the bloodstream, it’s referred to as “leaky gut or intestinal permeability”. This can have “detrimental short and long-term effects on health, such as allergies, eczema, autoimmune disease, and fatigue”.
One suggestion for healing the gut lining? “Glutamine and collagen.”