Your digestive tract doesn’t just take up a good chunk of your abdominal cavity, it also holds down the fort in several areas of your life. Most of us recognize our GI tract as a “purveyor of nutrients”, what we fail to realize however is everything else it does. If the average Joe really knew all that our colloquial “stomach” did for him he’d probably take his diet quite a bit more seriously. After all, choosing what you eat each day is one of the easiest ways to have a huge impact on your health and wellbeing—you could be in control! If you don’t believe me, take a look at the 5 major roles the GI tract plays in your life listed below. It may just make you reconsider:
Fermentation and Hydrolysis of Nutrients
this is a no-brainer; our GI tracts break down food into nutrients for us, what’s the big deal? It turns out that most of the organic compounds we ingest (in the form of food) do not react readily with water (the first and most important step in hydrolysis/the breakdown of our sustenance). Thankfully, our GI’s provide us with enzymes (think: lactase, lipases, carbohydrases etc.) to help get the party started.
A lack of these enzymes results in an “intolerance”, think of your lactose intolerant friends who’re naturally low on lactase and thus have trouble imbibing dairy products. Help your gut out by knowing your limits. Can you eat dairy? Gluten? No? Then steer clear so your guy can focus on making sure you’re operating optimally, rather than “scrambling” to handle the chaos you’ve just incited.
Immune System Regulation
Yes, you read that right! Your gut is a true champion of your health. It houses plenty of your protectors—especially the antibody known as IgA. According to Frontiers in Immunology IgA is a major player in defending against rotoviruses (the most common cause of severe life threatening diarrhea). WebMD notes this type of antibody is meant to protect the body from foreign substances that may be introduced. Food is foreign, and can carry all sorts of deadly pathogens if we’re not careful—your GI works hard to ensure stray bugs are squashed before any real damage can be done. The composition of your gut bacteria also plays a factor in keeping you healthy. According to Revista de Gasteroenterologia de Mexico our microbiotas have been deemed “essential for correct body growth, the development of immunity, and nutrition”.
Disruption or alteration of the microbiota has been linked to asthma, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and Celiac disease. Clearly what you eat has a direct effect on how well you are.
Barrier against pathogens
This point goes hand and hand with #2 above. Your gut doesn’t just play host to immunological actors, it is one. According to the December 2013 issue of Immunology the GI tract consists of “a vast array of immunologically active structures and cells”.Lined with epithelial cells (akin to what your skin is made of) capable of immunological surveillance and responses, your gut has a variety of structures that make it “smart”.
Recognition, removal, and even the ability to determine whether an anti-inflammatory or an inflammatory response is best are all abilities of the gut. With such a wide variety of “barrier cells” and responses, most pathogens don’t ever even make it out of your tract to do you harm in the first place.
According to Dr. William Li M.D. co-founder of the Angiogenesis Foundation, angiogenesis is the growth of new capillaries (blood vessels) in the body and is used all the time by the body for healing and reproductive processes. Abnormal blood vessel growth has been linked to serious ailments like cancer, diabetic ulcers, cardiovascular disease, stroke and age related blindness. Angiogenesis of the GI tract specifically, prevents major injury (like those peptide ulcers) from getting out of hand.
Dr. Paul B. Eckberg a Stanford Infectious Disease Specialist notes that our “endogenous gastrointestinal microbial flora” not only helps prevent “endothelial damage” and “regulates fat storage” but also stimulates intestinal angiogenesis! What you eat becomes more important than ever, as it fosters what kind of microbiota flourishes within you and that has a direct effect on your body composition and the health of your gut—and you!
This may also seem like a strange one, but it does make sense. This time we’re talking about your colloquial gut—your belly. I mentioned above that research shows your microbiota have an impact on your body composition. Well, it turns out that microbiota is heavily fostered by your environment (your surrounds and even what you eat).
Dr. Chana Palmer of the Canary Foundation examined the developing microbiotas of newborn infants. Each was vastly different as time passed, except for the dizygotic (fraternal) twins. Though genetically only as similar as the average brother and sister, their similar exposure and diet (milk from the same mother) produced “strikingly parallel…patterns” in their gut. “You are what you eat” may be a truer saying then we previously thought.
Your GI tract is a super hero. It works hard for you, but it can’t operate optimally without your cooperation. The scientific literature is beginning to reveal that what you eat really does matter. If you’re hoping to make some changes for the better, I suggest you look to the scientifically backed ancestral Mediterranean diet for gustatory inspiration. Mechanisms of Aging and Development noted in their December 2013 issue that spectral diets—such as the Mediterranean—have time and again been “more beneficial” than just eating single nutrients or specific food items. With thousands of years of anecdotal evidence, and thorough scientific backing, it really is the diet of a (healthy and happy) lifetime. Help your gut out, and look into the Mediterranean diet today!