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Your body’s many systems all work together to create a peaceful flow, so when one system goes off balance it can trigger a domino effect, creating a cascade of health problems that follow. One system particularly responsible for optimal well-being is your digestive system — a strong, yet delicate ecosystem that relies on the presence of good bacteria and specialized immune cells to control the presence of bad bacteria or other harmful invaders. In fact, your digestive health directly impacts your immune health, and vice versa, since 70 to 80 percent of your immune system is actually located in your digestive system.
When your digestive system malfunctions, it can result in poor nutrient absorption and malnourishment, leading to a number of chronic problems and symptoms like acid reflux, indigestion and irritable bowel disease. In order to avoid these complications, it’s important to understand exactly what happens in your digestive system and how it is connected to other vital systems within your body that influence immunity, energy, mood and even behavior.
Immune health, probiotics and mood
Your immune system is an important part of digestive health: It is comprised of cells, proteins, tissues and organs that all work together to defend the body against bacteria, toxins, infections and diseases. Gastrointestinal immune cells are a vital part of the lymphoid branch of immunity, which secretes lymphocyte cells to attack harmful invaders. These gut-lymph tissues include specialized areas called Peyer’s Patches and other gut immune cells, which all work to identify and kill pathogens, toxins or other health-robbing substances we may have ingested into our system via the gastrointestinal (GI), or digestive, tract.
In addition to specialized immune cells, your GI tract is also home to numerous species of probiotics or good bacteria, which help prevent the overgrowth of harmful bacteria, yeasts and parasites. Good bacteria are also critical for overall immunity. They have been shown to enhance the function of Natural Killer immune cells. Probiotics also form a barrier on the intestinal wall, serving as a powerful line of defense to prevent pathogens from being absorbed.
The many strains and species of probiotics or good bacteria in our digestive tract are vital to our health for a number of reasons. They assist in digestion, manufacture vitamins and protect against the overgrowth of disease-causing organisms. Recent research also suggests that each person’s internal ecosystem of friendly bacteria is unique, and can influence our neurology and mental states, including the development of our brains during infancy. Bacteria colonize the gut in the days following birth during a sensitive period of brain development. Studies show that microflora in the gut can influence behavior throughout our lives by inducing changes in the expression of certain genes that control brain and neurological function. Pre-clinical studies have likewise shown that higher levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut can reduce anxiety, depression and neurotic behavior, and even combat the effects of stress.
The gut-neuroendocrine system connections
The neuroendocrine system (the hormonal and nervous systems that work closely together) also plays an important role in digestive and overall health. Your gastrointestinal system is the most abundant source of regulatory neurotransmitters and neuropeptides outside the brain. An example: Serotonin, one of the brain’s chemicals that influences mood, actually has its highest concentrations in the gut. Scientists and researchers are currently studying the numerous links between our nervous system, hormones and immune system. The gastrointestinal system serves as rich ground for observing these connections.
One interesting link is the improvement that many digestive-supporting herbs and supplements effect on brain and neurological function, hormone balance, immune health and more.
Supplements are especially important for digestive health. They can offer significant and relatively fast-acting support for components of your digestion that are not functioning optimally.
Here’s a list of key nutrients for digestive and overall health:
- Probiotics and prebiotics: These are two of the most important supplements you can take to help restore healthy digestion. Probiotics provide live strains of friendly bacteria that are crucial for digestive and overall health. Prebiotics ensure that your friendly flora enjoy a nourishing environment in which they can thrive.
- Zinc: An important nutrient for digestive health which also plays critical roles in hormone regulation, immune health and neurological function.
- Chinese cardamom: Offers numerous benefits for digestion, increases antioxidant levels and boosts immunity. Also helps to combat unhealthy cellular growth and balance hormones with the compound Indole-3 Carbinol.
- Cinnamon: Soothes digestive discomfort, improves digestive capacity, boosts immunity and balances blood sugar.
- Ginger root: Improves digestion, reduces inflammation, purifies the GI tract, increases antioxidant levels and boosts immunity.
- Fish oil: Reduces inflammation and heals GI tract lining, improves nutrient absorption, balances hormones, improves neurological function and boosts immunity.
- Proteolytic enzymes: Increase digestive capacity and nutrient absorption, boost immunity and increase vital energy.
Additional tips for improving digestive health and well-being
There are many factors that influence the health of our digestive system. Some of the most common causes of digestive discomfort include poor diet, late meals, rushed eating, food allergies and, most of all, stress. Simply taking the time to slow down and eat healthy foods in a mindful way can greatly improve digestive health and relieve tension.
To improve overall digestion for optimal health:
- Include an abundance of fiber in your diet from fresh fruits, vegetables and whole, unprocessed grains.
- Avoid processed foods, commercial meats and trans-fats (unhealthy fats).
- Have your doctor test for food allergies and sensitivities.
- Refrain from eating for two to three hours before bedtime.
- Drink plenty of filtered water and herbal teas for proper hydration.
- Find healthy ways to relieve stress such as meditation, exercise and laughter.
- Practice yoga for improving digestive function and reducing stress.
- Limit your use of over-the-counter and prescription drugs.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol which damage friendly bacteria.
The gluten-free movement
If you have ongoing digestive or immune issues, it is possible that you may have an undiagnosed gluten sensitivity, which is common for many people. Gluten-dense foods can interfere with digestive capacity and have also been found to contribute to the onset of inflammatory conditions, autoimmune disorders, neurological and behavioral illness, skin diseases, osteoporosis, chronic fatigue and a host of other degenerative conditions. If you suffer these symptoms and test negative for gluten intolerance or celiac disease (the autoimmune condition wherein gluten damages the small intestine), following a strict gluten-free diet for as little as a week or two may still help clear up your symptoms dramatically.
Time-tested wisdom validated by science
These intriguing connections confirm what traditional healing systems have proposed for thousands of years: Individual digestive ecosystems play a large role in how we look, feel, think and act. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) teaches that there are direct relationships between different systems of the body. Western medicine is uncovering many of these same relationships, such as the complex gut/brain connection, from a scientific standpoint. These striking parallels between modern science and ancient healing wisdom will continue to become evident as our research-based understanding of human physiology sheds new light on time-tested philosophies of health and healing. This is particularly relevant to digestive-supporting botanicals and nutrients, which also offer numerous health benefits to other related systems in the body.
Many natural remedies offer broad-spectrum health. In the case of digestive health, however, the seemingly diverse effects offered by many digestive remedies give us a more in-depth perspective on the direct connections between gut health, immune health, brain function and overall well-being. For optimal health and wellness, listen to your gut!