Introduction to Gut Health
Oftentimes when we are about to do something, we have a feeling of foreboding nudging us to go ahead and do it or begging us to let go of the idea. This feeling is what we generally call our “gut feeling”, as it seems to stem from our gastrointestinal region causing either the emergence of butterflies in our tummy or a sudden uneasiness in our intestines. Now, most people regard it as our intuition guiding us in a way that sometimes defies all logic and reason, and many others think of it as an excuse that not-so-brave people make to avoid taking risks. But, this “gut feeling” is not all fiction, and in fact, has something to do with our real gut. So, let us discover more about our gut, the feelings it triggers, and why gut health is the key to overall health.
Before we dive into the details, we should set the record straight regarding what we mean when we say the word “gut”. Now, our gut goes by many names. Some refer to it as the digestive system, digestive tract or the gastrointestinal system, whereas others have a more narrowed definition of the gut, and refer to their intestines or stomach as the gut. But here at The Vedic Company, we go the Ayurvedic way and like to view things holistically, so we will consider the gut in its entirety. From the beginning to the end.
Gut or scientifically speaking, the gastrointestinal tract is a long, hollow, muscular tube that starts at the anterior end (mouth) and ends at the posterior end (anus). Along the way, it comprises the esophagus, stomach and intestines, along with the accessory organs (liver, pancreas and gallbladder) and is the center of all things related to ingestion, digestion, and egestion. It is a complex network of organs, glands, receptors, enzymes, hormones, and nerves that take their job very seriously and are efficient workers. The gut also houses a wide range of microorganisms, commonly known as gut-microflora, and collectively referred to as the gut microbiome. These microorganisms are mainly bacteria that have a profound positive impact on gut and overall health.
Our gut works day-in and day-out to break down complex food particles, secrete vitamins and hormones, and process solid waste for removal. It is quite the multitasker as it doesn’t focus on just one aspect, but does multiple things to ensure overall health and well-being. The saying “What happens in the gut, doesn’t stay in the gut” holds, because any change in the processes or malfunctioning of the gut leads to immediate negative results that can be seen externally as well as internally. On one hand, proper functioning of the digestive system leads to seamless digestion, absorption of nutrients, and excretion of toxins. On the other hand, a glitch in the system leads to faulty digestion, over- or under-secretion of enzymes and hormones, and also waste retention, each of which manifests externally in the form of acne, nausea, abdominal pain, jaundice, constipation and acid reflux, to name only a few.
The Gut Microbiome
Apart from the organs and their secretions, the gut-microflora is a significant contributing factor to gut health. These microbes, mainly bacteria, colonize the entire gastrointestinal tract but have a larger density in the intestinal region. They play a principal role in warding off harmful microorganisms, breaking down compound food, and secreting essential vitamins. They are the front-runners in digesting fibers, promoting secretion of good cholesterol, initiating a healthy immune response and maintaining a healthy weight.
But it should be noted that gut-microflora is a mix of both beneficial and harmful microorganisms. Ideally, when we follow a healthy lifestyle and diet, the number of good bacteria surpasses the bad ones and this leads to good gut health. But, the consumption of unhealthy foods and bad lifestyle choices has the reverse effect, as it reduces the number of good bacteria and leads to an increase in the bad ones. These result in a condition known as dysbiosis in which the microbes produce large amounts of gas and other chemicals, leading to intestinal discomfort and dysfunction.
Connection between Gut and Brain
Interestingly, the gut is also referred to as the second brain as it comprises an extensive Enteric Nervous System and maintains constant coordination with the Central Nervous System. The gut sends information to the brain regarding the various digestion processes, and the brain, in turn, sends signals back, triggering varied physiological and psychological reactions. Research has shown that the gut and the brain have a rather well-built connection and work closely together.
This gut-brain connection has further been strengthened by research suggesting that gut-related dysfunctions such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and functional bowel problems trigger a shift in the psychological and emotional processes leading to anxiety, depression, and other mood changes. The other way round is also seen when psychological and emotional stress leads to physiological changes in the gut. Also, the fact that the gut produces more than 90% of the body’s serotonin (hormone regulating mood and emotions) and releases major neurotransmitters such as glutamate, norepinephrine, nitric oxide and enkephalins further strengthen its position as the second brain. So, it is safe to say that “gut feelings” are not an excuse made by the weak-hearted, they are real and a happy gut is a happy you!
Ayurveda and Gut Health
The effect of gut health on overall health has been dealt with extensively in Ayurveda since time immemorial. Ayurveda has always considered health holistically and focused on the interconnections between the various systems and forces of the body. Any imbalance in one often manifests itself in the others, has been one of its core beliefs. In Ayurveda, the gut is referred to as koshta, the big channel through which life enters. It is the pathway through which energy enters our body and is of prime importance.
Agni or the digestive fire resides in the koshta and renders it the ability to digest food. Agni is of paramount importance as it is not only the driving force behind all the metabolic processes but also essential in immunological reactions. It is the force that strengthens and nourishes the tissues by breaking down complex food particles into smaller absorbable ones in a process known as dhatu parinama or digestion. Ayurveda strongly focuses on the power of Agni and believes that chronic ailments associated with digestive symptoms cannot heal without treating the digestive system first.
The gut or koshta being the prominent pathway of life and energy is connected to all other organ systems of the body and is responsible for overall health. It houses the three doshas or humors namely Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, along with Agni. These three doshas affect the physiology as well as the psychology of an individual and do alter the potency of the digestive fire. Sama Agni is the balanced digestive force or fire characterized by balanced doshas, a healthy gut, and strong immunity. It is the ideal version of our digestive and overall health. But alas! we live in the real world, which is not ideal. So, due to our dominant doshas, their aggravation, and our not-so-healthy lifestyle choices, we most often bear one of the three alternates (not-so-ideal versions) of the ideal Sama Agni.
People with a dominant Vata often suffer from irregular digestion due to the presence of Vishama Agni, which is characterized by irregular bowel movements, bloating, and acid reflux on a physiological level. These, in turn, lead to sudden mood swings and sudden intense feelings on a psychological level.
Those with dominant Pitta possess light and sharp metabolism. But the aggravation of the dosha can lead to hypermetabolism or Tikshna Agni, which causes acid reflux and heartburn. Psychologically, it manifests into restlessness and agitation.
Kapha dominant people are prone to sluggishness and are often found to have a slower metabolism or Manda Agni. It is characterized by slow and weak digestion resulting in under-activity and easy weight-gain.
When Agni is in its full potency, our digestive system functions properly, and there is unhindered nourishment of tissues and removal of wastes, which ultimately leads to the production of Ojas or our essence. Ojas is the elixir of vitality that is found within us and created by the nourishment of our bodies and the removal of toxins. It gives us inner strength and ensures the seamless working of our body and mind. Whereas, when Agni loses its potency and is weakened, the process of digestion is flawed which leads to the undernourishment of tissues and the build-up of toxins. This toxin build-up is known as Ama, which is the root cause of all diseases.
Ayurveda has always emphasized the importance of following a diet and lifestyle which is suitable for our constitution or prakruti, as it revives and maintains the potency of our digestive fire. A healthy gut is the essence of good health, just like Ojas is the essence of our being. What we put into our bodies in the form of food, exercise, and thoughts is a matter of paramount importance as it can affect our health in more ways than one. Either it can nourish our being and help us achieve optimal health, or it can cause an imbalance of our digestive forces and lead to a build-up of toxins.
Importance of Gut Health - Takeaways
The importance of gut health may have taken center-stage in recent times, but this knowledge has been prevalent in subtle ways since antiquity. It has been passed down from one generation to another through the verbal teachings of elders across tens of thousands of villages and communities in the Hindu civilization (modern-day Indian Subcontinent). Our mothers tirelessly waging war against our taste buds to make sure we eat enough greens and drink our milk is proof that mothers do know best, especially when it comes to our health. Our ancestors may not have known the exact molecular science behind some of their beliefs and choices, but that does not diminish the fact that they made significantly better choices when it came to food habits and health.
The customary age-old practices of having home-cooked meals with spices and ingredients that are good for our gut and eating a balanced diet with the colors of the rainbow are simple practices that ensure a healthy gut. Eating the colors of the rainbow is a simple technique that has been on the rise in recent times. It is recommended by dieticians and nutritionists, to ensure that people eat a wide range of differently colored foods to get different nutrients and vitamins that are associated with different food groups. In simple terms, it is a technique to get picky-eaters to incorporate a wide range of fruits and vegetables in their diet.
Our gut goes through a lot daily. The oily food with a considerable sprinkling of unhealthy ingredients we gorge on, the diet sodas we chug down, or even the medications we take without knowing their side-effects, all of them wreak havoc on our gut, bit by bit. But, with positive changes happening around the world in terms of people becoming more mindful of their health and lifestyle choices, it is the right time to re-evaluate our habits and make a positive shift.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it is the importance of good health. With the vaccines not available yet, the only thing we can depend on and fall back on is our health and immunity. We are now more aware of what we are putting into our bodies and conscious of the benefits of traditional ways of having meals prepared at home, fortified with nutritious ingredients that boost our immune systems. And one thing that is common in all the health-related bits of advice and suggestions is the importance of consuming nutritious food to maintain a healthy gut because good immunity stems from a healthy gut. Our gut is like the roots of a plant, the more you water the roots and provide nutrients to it, the stronger the plant grows. Similarly, the more we care for our gut, the stronger we get.
As I write about the importance of gut health, a particular phrase comes to my mind. ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’ is something we have heard very often. Putting aside the societal connotation attached to this phrase, I think this phrase sums up the effect of gut health on overall health, but it does require a few tweaks here and there. And so, I believe the more appropriate phrase would be ‘The way to a person’s heart, mind, and overall health go through his/her gut’.
So, go ahead and show some love to your gut because it is quite the multitasker like you, managing a multitude of things at all times and ensuring overall wellbeing. And like we function better when given the right environment and lots of love, our gut does the same.