Pop quiz: Name the 3 most important jobs your gut does every day.
Got your answers ready?
If you’re like most people, your list starts and ends with some variation of “digesting food.” And while it’s true that delivering nutrition to your body is a vital job, your gut performs a lot of other important tasks that often go unnoticed.
The good news is that your digestive tract doesn’t require your appreciation to keep performing.
If you don’t know its many functions, you risk unknowingly harming this system that plays a role in everything from your sex drive to fighting infection. Click to tweet
This post is the first in a 3-part series designed to help you better understand your gut, including common threats to gut health and how to prevent them. To get started, here are the top 3 ways your gut works to keep you healthy besides digesting and absorbing nutrients. (Some may come as a surprise.)
1. Your gut houses 70-80% of your immune system.
That’s right! Your intestinal tract is actually the largest immune organ in your body.1 It supports a variety of different cells and microbes that help manage your immune system – we’re talking trillions here. In fact, your gut flora outnumber other cells in your body 10 to 1.
Your gut is your first line of defense against bacteria, viruses, and toxins that can cause illness. It responds to foreign invaders with an elaborate chain reaction that creates and releases antibodies and white blood cells to fight infection and inflammation. Long-term imbalances in gut health can be linked not only to digestive issues, but also food sensitivities, vitamin deficiencies, allergies, and systemic autoimmune disease.2
2. Your gut helps maintain your mood and brain health.
Have you ever said the words “I have a gut feeling”? You were more right than you knew! The building blocks for neurotransmitters and hormones that help control your mood, appetite, sleep, and sexual desire are all created in your gastrointestinal tract.
In fact, 90% of your body’s “feel-good” neurotransmitter, serotonin, is made in your gut.3 Serotonin plays a key role in anxiety and depression, and altered serotonin levels have also been linked to diseases such as IBS, heart disease, and osteoporosis.4 That’s just one example of the important foundation your gut health provides for how you feel and think every day.
3. Your gut regulates appetite and weight loss.
While high school health class taught you that food is processed in your stomach and intestines, your teacher probably didn’t say much about ghrelin. Ghrelin is one of your satiety hormones (aka “hunger hormones”), and it’s released in your stomach. Ghrelin tells your brain when you’re hungry, and imbalances can cause you to experience cravings that have nothing to do with whether your body requires nutrition.5
Just as significantly, poor gut health can also lead to an overabundance of microbes that help you break down fiber and absorb fats from your food. This is one area where you don’t want to be an overachiever! The results can include obesity and increased risk for type 2 diabetes and metabolic disease.6
Take a second to think about the traits you most value in a good friend. Tops on my list would be: stays supportive, is quick to defend me, helps me feel good about myself, and acts as a positive influence in staying healthy. All of those descriptions apply to your gut, so it’s time to get a little more friendly with it!
In the next post in our series, we’ll cover the most common threats to gut health – I guarantee at least one of them already happened to you today!
1 Chassaing B, Kumar M, Baker MT, Singh V, Vijay-Kumar M. Mammalian gut immunity. Biomed J 2014;37:246-58