“To successfully manage gut health, it is vital that you not only advocate for your own health but that you partner with a supportive, progressive, knowledgeable team of doctors that work well together to achieve your health goals.” – Latanja Banks, NOWINCLUDED Community Member

The phrase “gut health” has become more popular over the past several years, and rightfully so. Your gut — also known as your digestive system or gastrointestinal (GI) tract — includes the entire pathway from your mouth and throat, to your stomach, to your intestines and anus. It’s the system that helps your body digest food, absorb the nutrients it needs, and get rid of what it doesn’t need.1 

Your gut is so important that when there are problems with your gut, these issues can lead to medical conditions. The reverse is true also. Some medical conditions can directly affect the gut or lead to poor gut health.

Below you’ll learn about 4 medical conditions that can be linked to gut health in different ways, as well as 3 tips on how to improve gut health. 

What is “gut health”?

Usually, when people refer to gut health, they’re talking about what’s known scientifically as the intestinal microbiome or gut microbiome — the collection of good, bad, and neutral bacteria, viruses, and fungi found in your gut. Some are helpful to your body, some can be harmful, and some can have little-to-no effect. Many scientists believe that having the right balance of bacteria, viruses, and fungi is the key to gut health. And when that balance is disrupted, medical problems can result.2

It’s been said that a person’s gut microbiome is as unique to them as their fingerprint is. There are trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi in your gut — 10-100 trillion by some estimates!3 But the specific types of bacteria, viruses, and fungi and the proportions of each vary from person to person and can change over time. Your gut microbiome can be influenced by factors like genetics, your diet, lifestyle, medical conditions, and medications.3 

4 Medical Conditions Where Gut Health Could Play a Role

Before diving into the examples below, it’s important to note that this isn’t a complete list. Gut health may be linked to other conditions like liver disease, certain cancers, and autism.4 But the following 4 examples will paint a clear picture of how gut health is related to your overall health.

As you learn more about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel disease (IBD), you should know that IBS is not the same as IBD, even though they have some symptoms in common. IBD is an inflammatory disease, but IBS is not. And both are treated differently.5

Inflammatory Bowel Disease 

Years ago, it was believed that only white people in Western cultures — like the US — developed IBD. In reality, IBD is a global disease and this incorrect belief has led to IBD being underdiagnosed in Black communities.6 This means that there is likely a larger percentage of Black people who have IBD than statistics may suggest. 

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) sounds like a single disease, but is really a group of diseases that can happen when your immune system attacks your digestive system.7 This leads to inflammation and a host of symptoms. IBD symptoms can vary from one person to the next, but most people with IBD experience7:

  • Frequent and sometimes urgent bowel movements
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Cramping
  • Bloody stools

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the two most common types of IBD.

Research shows that people with IBD have viruses in their guts that cause inflammation.8 Because many studies have shown a link between the microbiome and IBD, there are several studies being conducted to determine whether making changes to a person’s gut bacteria can serve as a treatment tool for people with IBD.9, 10

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Through research, it’s becoming increasingly clear to scientists that the gut microbiome plays a role in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).11 IBS isn’t considered a disease, but rather a condition that happens when the muscles inside the GI tract don’t work the way they should. Usually, they squeeze and relax in a consistent pattern which helps move food through the intestines. But in IBS, the pattern is not regular.7 

This leads to discomfort in the stomach and changes to bowel movements. Some people have IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D) and others have IBS with constipation (IBS-C).7

Obesity

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 40% of American Adults are obese and about half of Black adults in the US are clinically obese.12 Obesity isn’t caused by a single reason. Western diet and lifestyle play a significant role, and the gut microbiome may also.

Gut bacteria play a role in how your food is digested, how your body absorbs nutrients from that food, and how your body stores fats, which means that your gut bacteria can affect your weight. It can also influence how much of certain hormones your body produces, including hormones that make you feel hungry.13

Early research supports the idea of a connection between gut health and obesity. For example, scientists at Emory University recently found that a specific type of gut bacteria produces a chemical that promotes obesity.14 On the other hand, there are good gut bacteria that are actually helpful to the body and have been shown to increase metabolism, which can help people maintain a certain weight.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a common chronic disease, especially in Black communities, but did you know that diabetes and gut health are related too? Here’s how.

Gastroparesis is a condition that affects the way your body digests food.15 It slows digestion, causing food to leave the stomach and enter the intestines much more slowly than usual, which can lead to symptoms like16

  • Feeling uncomfortably full after eating
  • Pain or burning around the stomach area
  • Bloating and burping
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting 

The number one cause of gastroparesis is diabetes. 

Many people with gastroparesis also have what’s known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). Because food is not leaving the GI tract at the speed it should, bacteria grow quickly in that area. SIBO can cause additional symptoms like diarrhea and situations where the body can’t get enough nutrients from food, which is known as malnutrition.17

Similar to obesity, researchers have done studies to find out whether there are any gut bacteria that could affect a person’s chances of developing diabetes.18 According to a study from 2021, groups that had gut bacteria that produced a certain chemical were more likely to have type 2 diabetes, and other studies have found similar connections.19

How to Improve Gut Health: 3 Tips for Improving Gut Health

There are many ways to improve your gut health, but here are 3 strategies you can start working on right now.

  • Reduce stress. There’s a connection between your gut and your brain, and being under stress can sometimes cause or worsen gut issues like IBS.20 Beyond gut health, lowering stress can also help you manage other parts of your health like your heart health.
  • Eat a diet with a variety of foods, including foods high in fiber and fermented foods. High-fiber foods (like fruits, vegetables, beans, oatmeal, and whole grains) and fermented foods (like yogurt and kimchi) help supply your gut with good bacteria.21 If you’re not used to eating many fermented foods, make a game of experimenting with them with your family and friends. 

Talk with your doctor about prebiotics and probiotics. Prebiotics and probiotics can also be a source of good bacteria.22 Because these are supplements, you should speak with your doctor before taking them.

References:

  1. Northwestern Medicine. 7 Reasons to Listen to Your Gut. https://www.nm.org/healthbeat/healthy-tips/7-reasons-to-listen-to-your-gut
  2. Staudacher, H. M., & Loughman, A. (2021). Gut health: definitions and determinants. The lancet. Gastroenterology & hepatology, 6(4), 269. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-1253(21)00071-6
  3. Turnbaugh, P. J., Ley, R. E., Hamady, M., Fraser-Liggett, C. M., Knight, R., & Gordon, J. I. (2007). The human microbiome project. Nature, 449(7164), 804–810. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature06244
  4. Zhang, Y. J., Li, S., Gan, R. Y., Zhou, T., Xu, D. P., & Li, H. B. (2015). Impacts of gut bacteria on human health and diseases. International journal of molecular sciences, 16(4), 7493–7519. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms16047493
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): What Is It? https://www.cdc.gov/ibd/features/inflammatory-bowel-disease/index.html
  6. VeryWell Health. Racial Disparities in Inflammatory Bowel Disease. https://www.verywellhealth.com/racial-disparities-in-inflammatory-bowel-disease-5075032
  7. Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America. Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Similarities and Differences. https://www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/pdfs/ibd-and-irritable-bowel.pdf 
  8. National Institutes of Health. Viruses in the gut influence inflammatory bowel disease. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/viruses-gut-influence-inflammatory-bowel-disease
  9. Johnson & Johnson. Have IBD? Read About the Next Frontier in Disease Research That Taps Into the Microbiome. https://www.jnj.com/innovation/next-frontier-ibd-research-gut-microbiome-treatments
  10. Zheng, L., & Wen, X. L. (2021). Gut microbiota and inflammatory bowel disease: The current status and perspectives. World journal of clinical cases, 9(2), 321–333. https://doi.org/10.12998/wjcc.v9.i2.321
  11. Pimentel, M., & Lembo, A. (2020). Microbiome and Its Role in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Digestive diseases and sciences, 65(3), 829–839. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10620-020-06109-5
  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adult Obesity Facts. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html 
  13. GoodRx. The Link Between Gut Health and Obesity. https://www.goodrx.com/well-being/gut-health/link-between-gut-health-and-obesity
  14. Emory University: Emory News Center. Scientists identify obesity-promoting metabolite from intestinal bacteria. https://news.emory.edu/stories/2022/01/hs_bacterial_metabolite_obesity/story.html 
  15. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes and digestion. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/library/features/diabetes-digestion.html
  16. Wauters, L., Hui L., Talley N.J. (2022). Disruption of the microbiota-gut-brain axis in functional dyspepsia and gastroparesis: Mechanisms and clinical implications. Frontiers in neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2022.941810
  17. Mayo Clinic. Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/small-intestinal-bacterial-overgrowth/symptoms-causes/syc-20370168
  18. Chen Z., Radjabzadeh D., Chen L., et al. (2021). Association of Insulin Resistance and Type 2 Diabetes With Gut Microbial Diversity: A Microbiome-Wide Analysis From Population Studies. JAMA Netw Open, 4(7):e2118811. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.18811
  19. Medical News Today. Meet the bacteria that might help treat diabetes. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/meet-the-bacteria-that-might-help-treat-diabetes
  20. Harvard Health Publishing. Pay attention to your gut-brain connection – it may contribute to your anxiety and digestion problems. https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection 
  21. MD Anderson Cancer Center. How to improve your gut health. https://www.mdanderson.org/cancerwise/how-to-improve-your-gut-health

Healthline. 9 ways to improve your gut bacteria based on science. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/improve-gut-bacteria