Your Guide To A Healthy, Happy Tummy

Your digestive tract plays a role in mood, immunity, and intuition. Here’s how to harness its power to prevent stomach problems.

Your Gut Is Your Shield Against Germs

If you’ve ever had food poisoning, you know your gut is an uncompromising vigilante. When a nasty microbe hitchhikes a ride into the body on the back of real food, the gut quickly recognizes the interloper and strong-arms it to the nearest exit. To make the ID in the first place, it calls upon a reliable army of sentries, millions of immune system cells residing in its walls.

If the fact that the gut plays a major role in immunity sounds surprising, consider that the whole purpose of the immune system is to differentiate what’s you from what’s not you. Then consider that every day, you introduce pounds of foreign material—your daily bread—into your gut. The immune system has to decide what’s okay to let through and what’s not, so it makes sense to headquarter that process right where the food comes in.

This powerful system gears up from day one. A newborn’s gastrointestinal tract is entirely germ free, but immediately after birth, pioneering bacteria begin to colonize it. The first few years of life, everyone’s gut develops a unique extended family of bacterial species, determined in part by genetics and in part by diet, hygiene, medication use, and the bacteria colonizing those around us. Perhaps bacteria’s most important job: stimulating and training the body’s immune system and, by its overwhelming presence, crowding out more harmful critters.

The specific microbial mix (your gut contains thousands of species of bacteria) you wind up with has a big impact on your health. Besides making you more resistant to disease, the balance (or lack thereof) of microbes in your gut may lower your risk of obesity or influence your risk of autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Clearly, this extended family deserves coddling. Just in time for cold and flu season, here are immune-boosting ways to protect it:

1. Steer clear of detoxes. Colonic “cleansers” rid the colon of good bacteria and can cause overgrowth of bad bacteria.

2. Avoid overusing antibiotics. They kill not only pathogens causing your ailment but also good bacteria.

3. Consume foods with probiotics. Look for yogurts and soy milks that contain strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. In addition to protecting against colds and flu and promoting healthful bacteria, probiotics can help relieve diarrhea caused by infection or antibiotics, irritable bowel syndrome, or Crohn’s disease.

Did You Know?

  • Your digestive tract is 30 feet long, thumb width at its narrowest, and about 1.5 inches in diameter at its widest.
  • Your gut boasts its own independent nervous system, an intricate network of 100 million neurons embedded in the small intestine’s wall that keeps food moving through the digestive tract, regulates the absorption of nutrients, and helps direct the body’s immune defenses.
  • Your gut houses 75% of your body’s immune system cells.