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While it’s difficult to have a serious conversation that involves talk of bowel function, tummy troubles are no laughing matter. In fact, according to the American Nutrition Association, nearly 70 million people suffer from some form of digestive issues every day. Some of these issues include…
- Acid reflux
- Abdominal pain
- Altered bowel habits (i.e., constipation, diarrhea)
And though some of these issues are short term and easy to control with things like lifestyle changes, a number of them can be difficult to manage and may be a sign of more serious gastrointestinal (GI) problems.
So what is it that lies behind those unwanted GI symptoms that, at times, leave you feeling completely miserable? Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be one simple answer, though there may be one major offender – OXIDATIVE STRESS. According to recent research, increased exposure to oxidative stress can contribute to GI dysfunction.
How so? Short answer – it’s complicated and there is still a lot to be learned. That being said, these new findings shed light on the ways in which overexposure to oxidative stress might interrupt gut function.
In order to understand the impact of oxidative stress on your gut, let’s do a quick refresher of what optimal GI function looks like.
The Inner Workings of Your Gut
Your GI tract is a long tube that starts at the mouth and ends at your behind. When stretched out, the whole digestive tract is about 30 feet long! To do its job, it requires cooperation from many organs including – the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon (large intestine), rectum, and anus. It also requires the help of the pancreas, liver, gallbladder and – believe it or not – the nearly 100 trillion microorganisms found throughout the gut. The function of your GI tract is to:
- Consume and digest food
- Absorb the nutrients contained in those foods
- Excrete waste leftover from the digestive process
- Act as a protective barrier against harmful substances
In order for these functions to occur, your gut must have the following –
Adequate intestinal barrier function
The gut wall forms a barrier between the inside of your body and the external environment. It works hard to allow efficient absorption of nutrients into the body while preventing harmful substances from entering the bloodstream. Tight junctions seal the gap between the intestinal cells and allow the selective movement of nutrients and other substances to cross over into the body. Damage to these tight junctions, and thus the intestinal barrier, is now being recognized as a culprit of gut dysfunction.
Proper communication between the gut and the brain (the gut-brain axis)
The ‘gut-brain axis’ refers to the communication that occurs between the gut and the brain.
This axis uses four major information carriers to send signals between the gut and the brain.
- Neural messages
- Immune messages
- Endocrine (hormone) messages
- Microbial (microorganisms) factors
These communication systems are important for several reasons including:
- Metabolic survival – the brain must interact with the gut to find appropriate food.
- Protection from harmful substances – the gut must distinguish between useful vs. useless or dangerous ingredients in the foods we eat.
- Microbial homeostasis – the gut must maintain homeostasis with the microorganisms living within the intestines as they are a key player in supporting nutrition, regulating the immune system, and communicating directly with the brain.
And because each of these systems work together to ensure proper communication, disruption to any one of them may have a significant impact on overall gut function.
Healthy intestinal microorganisms
Over the last 5 years, the importance of the gut microbiome (i.e., microorganisms living in the gut) on human health has become increasingly recognized. As mentioned previously, your gut contains nearly 100 trillion microorganisms, including over 500 different species of known bacteria. These microorganisms, especially bacteria, help to –
- absorb nutrients,
- maintain immune function,
- preserve intestinal barrier integrity,
- promote motility, and
- process waste products.
The establishment of gut microorganisms starts at birth, reaches maximum diversity during adolescence, and attempts to remain stable until later in life. So what happens if the composition or distribution of microorganisms change?
New research suggests that a disruption of the 100 trillion microorganisms might be connected to disrupted gut function. What are the sources of disruption? A growing body evidence suggests that factors such as antibiotic use, psychological and physical stress, altered GI motility, and dietary changes can interrupt the normal composition and distribution of gut bacteria.
How Stress Affects Your Gut
So now that you have an understanding of what it takes to maintain normal GI function, let’s go back to oxidative stress and its link to disrupted gut function.
Remember from the Stress & Your Health blog post that the cells in your body work best when the environment surrounding them is kept constant. Stress (from either external or internal sources) disrupts the environment around the cells and, if not kept to a minimum, can challenge the body’s ability to correct the disruption. This places cells under stressed conditions (called “oxidative stress”) and interrupts their ability to function normally. Over time, cell malfunction leads to a disruption of entire body systems which impacts your ability to function normally.
As mentioned above, in order to carry out its day-to-day functions, the gut must have:
- adequate intestinal barrier function
- proper communication between the gut and the brain
- healthy intestinal microorganisms
Though research is still in its infancy, current evidence suggests that overexposure to oxidative stress might disrupt each of these three components.
Here are some of the ways oxidative stress is thought to impede optimal gut function:
- Damages intestinal cell structures which could lead to decreased intestinal barrier function. This could then lead to invasion of pathogenic bacteria (i.e., bacteria that can cause infection).
- Induces significant alterations in the composition of gut bacteria by decreasing beneficial bacteria and increasing potentially pathogenic bacteria in the gut.
- Disrupts communication pathways along the gut-brain axis.
Boost Your Gut Health
Here are a few things you can do to keep your gut working at its best:
- Eat a healthful diet. Eliminate toxins from your diet as much as possible, and be sure to eat enough fiber to keep things moving through the digestive tract. Increase the types of foods you eat that keep your microbiome healthy, such as broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, blueberries, bananas, and beans.
- Try gut-calming substances. These include antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E, as well as L-glutamine, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, aloe Vera, and turmeric.
- Work on restoring healthy microorganisms. Probiotics, live strains of healthy bacteria, can help improve gut health. Prebiotics, from fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and tempeh, can also restore your microbiome to healthy levels.