The surprising conditions linked to gut health

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05 March 2019

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Did you know poor digestive health can be linked to depression, migraines and more? Here’s why it’s important to keep your gut healthy and what you can do to help.

More than 2,000 years ago, the ‘father of modern medicine’, Hippocrates, said: “All diseases begin in the gut”. Fast forward to now and medical research confirms that an unhealthy gut microbiome – the community of ‘bugs’, including bacteria and fungi, in our gut – has been linked to several mental and physical health conditions, including depression and arthritis.  

Before we continue though, an explanation - the gut refers to the organs of your gastro-intestinal tract: gall bladder, large intestine, liver, oesophagus, pancreas, small intestine and stomach. And the number one rule to keeping it healthy is eating well. “The most effective way to look after your gut is to eat a good diet,” says Professor Terry Bolin, President of The Gut Foundation.

Maintaining good gut health may help to reduce your risk of not just digestive conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but some other medical issues too. While plenty more are being studied, here are three surprising conditions related to poor gut health.

Anxiety & depression

“Among surprising conditions linked to gut health, affective disorders such as anxiety and depression are front and centre,” says US-based Dr Prakash Gyawali, Medical Doctor of Gastroenterology and member of the Best Doctors global network of specialists, “There is a strong link between the brain and the gut,” he adds. And as Harvard Medical School explains, “The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion”, which is why you might have ‘butterflies’ in your tummy when you’re nervous or feel sick when you’re worried. “Anxiety and depression can be associated with a higher likelihood of functional bowel disease, including IBS, and these conditions can also increase the perception of gut sensation,” says Dr Gyawali.

Additionally, while some research has been done, medical professionals believe that a healthy microbiome may be linked to better mood.

Migraine

In another example of the power of the complex gut-brain connection, a team of researchers at the University of California San Diego found that people who suffered migraines had higher levels of nitrites – the broken-down form of nitrates – than those who don’t get migraines. Nitrates are found naturally in healthy food, including leafy greens, but are also added to foods, such as processed meats, to prolong their shelf-life. “Migraines are also considered a by-product of functional bowel disease,” says Dr Gyawali. The message here is to avoid foods with added nitrates if you believe they trigger your migraines.

Arthritis & joint issues

In recent years, gut microbiome has also been studied in relation to rheumatoid arthritis. In 2013, New York University School of Medicine researchers revealed that 75 per cent of people who were recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and not yet treated for it, had the bacterium Prevotella copri in their gut.

Another small study in 2014 found that RA patients who had a daily supplement of the probiotic Lactobacillus case had significantly less inflammation than subjects who didn’t take the supplement.

How to maintain & improve gut microbiome

While some factors can’t be controlled, such as your genes, there’s much you can do to improve the health of your gut. “To keep your gut healthy, eat a high-fibre diet, drink plenty of water, exercise regularly, don’t smoke or drink too much alcohol,” says Dr Gyawali. Since some medication can wipe out the good gut bacteria along with the bad, Dr Gyawali also recommends not taking antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, but of course follow the advice of your medical practitioner.  

Eat this for a healthy gut

“A varied and balanced diet with foods from the five healthy food groups - vegetables/legumes, fruit, lean meats/poultry/fish/eggs/nuts/seeds, fibre-rich grains, and dairy products - is considered good for overall health,” says Dr Gyawali. When it comes to animal protein, fish and poultry are healthier than red meat,” he adds. You’ve likely heard the term probiotics and prebiotics, too, which Dr Gyawali says may be of value but with a preface, “Additional research is needed to define which agent provides the most benefit.” 

About Best Doctors

With an eligible policy from MLC Life Insurance, you and certain of your family members can access Best Doctors – a service which connects you with a network of more than 50,000 leading medical specialists from Australia and around the world for a second medical opinion when you need it most, helping to ensure you have the right diagnosis and treatment plan. Learn more about Best Doctors.

References

  1. https://theconversation.com/gut-feeling-how-your-microbiota-affects-your-mood-sleep-and-stress-levels-65107
  2. https://msystems.asm.org/content/1/5/e00105-16
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/oct/18/migraines-could-be-caused-by-gut-bacteria-nitrates-food-trigger-study-suggests
  4. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/gut-microbes-linked-rheumatoid-arthritis
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5483870/
  6. https://www.reliasmedia.com/articles/135375-lactobacillus-casei-supplementation-improves-inflammatory-markers-and-disease-activity-scores-in-rheumatoid-arthritis

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