"Each day we put pounds of foreign substances (food, drinks, medications, and supplements) into our mouths, hoping that our bodies will be able to sort out friend from foe," says Elizabeth Lipski, PhD, CCN, CHN, author of Digestion Connection. "Because of this interface, the digestive system is the seat of our immune system, runs our metabolism, makes vitamins, and communicates with every other cell in our bodies."
More From Rodale News: 11 Surprising Facts About Your Gut
Gut bacteria affect your health in at least six ways.
#1. Smoothing Food Digestion
Unsurprisingly, the bacteria in your digestive tract are instrumental in, well, digesting your food. Interestingly, the researchers point out that these bacteria are able to break down food that humans can't, such as fiber, making important vitamins and amino acids available for your body to take in.
#2. Resisting Metabolic Disorders
Obesity and type 2 diabetes are impacted by the gut. Research has shown distinctive bacteria differences between obese and non-obese individuals and that, as people lose weight, their gut composition changes, too.
Bonus—getting an out-of-whack gut back on track may also help you lose weight, too.
#3. Defending Against Outside Germs
The bacteria in your gut protect you from harmful germs in three ways:
Acting as a Barrier. The researchers explain that the cells along your digestive tract have attachment sites that can be used for nasty bugs trying to creep into your system to make you sick. Fortunately, the good bacteria can also latch onto these attachement sites, effectively blocking the pathogens from getting in.
Competing for Resources. In addition to competing for entry points, healthy bacteria also squirrel nutrients away from harmful pathogens, making your gut an inhospitable environment for the invaders.
Actively Fighting Other Germs. The bacteria in your gut also generate bacteriocins, antimicrobial substances that inhibit the growth of their competitors.
More From Rodale News: Do You Have a Leaky Gut?
#4. Causing Gut Inflammation
While the cause of irritable bowel syndrome is unknown, imbalanced gut bacteria have been implicated in low-grade intestinal inflammation, a common characteristic of the condition. The researchers believe that this may be due to a failure of the gut bacteria to effectively bar pathogens from sticking to the walls of the intestinal tract.
Similarly, inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, are linked to patches of gut bacteria imbalances leading to chronic inflammation. (Check this list to make sure you're avoiding these 9 things that could wreck your gut.)
#5. Preventing Allergies
A healthy microbiome in your gut is also important for children to protect against allergies. "The intestinal microbiota stimulates the immune system and trains it to response proportionately to all antigens," explain the researchers. "An altered composition of intestinal microbiota in early life can lead to an inadequately trained immune system that can, and often does, overreact to antigens." The hygiene hypothesis says that living in an environment that is too sterile can lead to such imbalances, too.
When a healthy microbiota goes awry, you can get what the researchers reffered to as the "atopic march." Atopic describes an allergy that leads to a reaction even in parts of the body not exposed to the allergen. It starts with atopic eczema, continues to asthma, and then to rhinitis (irritation of the nose).
#6. Connecting With the Brain
We're not talking about listening to a gut feeling, but there is a conversation going on between your brain and your belly and it's called the brain-gut axis. "Significant progress has been made over the past decade in recognizing the important ways in which gut microbiota relate to brain function," the researchers note. And this goes both ways. For instance, feeling stressed (a mental reaction) can alter the gut bacterial composition. On the flip side, gut bacteria can communicate with the central nervous system to influence the host's stress reactivity.
Now that you know how vital it is to take care of your gut, start eating these 8 gut-friendly foods.