Years ago, the term “gut health” was strictly limited to digestion. The average doctor and person for that matter assumed that it was regarding digestion, assimilation and elimination. Fast forward a few years and now gut health is essentially the central hub of our body and had finally earned the respect it deserves! Scientists have discovered the following:
– 95% of serotonin is produced and stored in the gut. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that carries signals between neurons in the brain. It regulates mood, cognitive function, sleep cycle, digestion and more.
– 70% of the immune system is located in the gastrointestinal tract. Certain cells lining the gut excrete large quantities of antibodies into the gut that appear to affect disease states in the body.
– Bacteria in the gut affect metabolism, which can ultimately impact your ability to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
– “The gut microbiota that resides in the gastrointestinal tract provides essential health benefits to its host, particularly by regulating immune homeostasis. Moreover, it has recently become obvious that alterations of these gut microbial communities can cause immune dysregulation, leading to autoimmune disorders.”
The gut microbiome is the community of microbes that live in our guts. There are trillions of microbes in our gastrointestinal tract, most of which are bacterial and is a combination of bacteria, fungi, viruses and protozoa that can have either hurt or harm human health depending on their ratio. Most nutritionists, naturopathic doctors and holistic practitioners refer to bacteria as either “good” or “bad” bacteria. The less talked about subject is how our hormonal levels can affect out gut bacteria and overall health. That’s what we’ll be talking about today!
Signs of an Unhealthy Gut:
The main causes of an unhealthy gut are a resultant of lifestyle factors such as diet, aging, environmental toxins, stress, and other factors can contribute to an imbalance of gut microbiota known as gut dysbiosis. Diet has the biggest impact as we have 3-5 opportunities per day to nourish or damage our cells every day. Processed foods, sugars, refined carbs, bad fats, and drinking alcohol are the biggest contributors to poor gut health. Taking antibiotics can also lead to dysbiosis, as these medications kill both the good and bad bacteria in your gut.
Symptoms of an Unhealthy Gut:
– Stomach pain/cramps, food sensitivities
– Brain fog, headaches, congestion
– Mood disorders (anxiety, depression)
– Sinus congestion
– Poor sleep or insomnia
– Diarrhea, constipation, frequent gas, bloating, and/or belching
– Frequent heartburn
– Chronic bad breath
– Skin problems (acne, rosacea, eczema, dry, flakey skin)
– Immune system disorders
Diseases and health conditions related to poor gut health: 5
– Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
– Inflammatory bowel diseases, i.e. ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease
– Celiac disease
– Leaky gut syndrome
– Colorectal cancer
– Heart disease
– Polycystic ovary syndrome
– Liver disease
– Parkinson’s disease
The Connection Between Gut Health and Hormones:
Hormones are referred to as the body’s chemical messengers. They relay information from our endocrine system, entering into the bloodstream and then deliver the message to their target organ such as the liver, pancreas, thyroid…etc. Our endocrine system is a collection of glands that regulate our bodily functions. All of our cells in our body have a specific endocrine receptor that is anxiously awaiting its message to jump into action and perform its important role. Our hormones are responsible for helping to maintain homeostasis, this includes our body temperature, metabolism, cognitive function, blood glucose levels, sexual function, and so much more. Our gut not only produces hormones directly, but it also tells the endocrine glands how much of each hormone should be produced and secreted. But the table can be turned upside down, a change in hormonal levels can cause our guts to take a turn for the worst. Doctors have now found there to be a correlation between gastrointestinal symptoms around the time of menses and early menopause that occur when estrogen and progesterone levels naturally start declining.
Hormonal Effect on the Gastrointestinal System:
The first organ we will discuss is estrogen. A recent scientific study discovered that the gut microbiome is home to a collection of microbes called “estrobolome.” They are able to metabolize estrogens and modify the amount of estrogen circulating in the bloodstream. Estrobolomes are also responsible for producing an enzyme that converts estrogen into its active form, which allows it to bind to estrogen receptors. Too little or too much of this enzyme can lead to dysbiosis, creating a hormonal imbalance and potentially leading to the creation of estrogen-related diseases. We’ve all experience rollercoaster levels of estrogen when our period is on the horizon, but it is crucial to ensure estrogen levels are at a healthy level to prevent bone loss, protect our cardiovascular system, and promote healthy brain function and a healthy reproductive system. Changes in estrogen and progesterone levels can cause rhythmic muscular activity within the gut to be disrupted, resulting in digestive problems. A particularly stressful period resulting in heightened cortisol levels can also cause stomach pain and feelings of nausea.
The second hormone we will look at is melatonin, also known as our sleep hormone. This hormone is responsible for regulating our sleep/wake cycle, also known as our circadian rhythm. A neurotransmitter called serotonin, which is produced in our gut, is the precursor for melatonin. Poor sleep can lead to low levels of melatonin, but researchers have discovered that chronic sleep deprivation can affect the composition of one’s gut bacteria and lead to dysbiosis. If we are experiencing chronically high levels of stress, our bodies release cortisol. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone that is secreted by the adrenal glands during stressful times and is controlled by the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands. This trio of glands is referred to as the HPA axis. The HPA axis regulates our nervous system, specifically the sympathetic nervous system. Researchers have found that high-stress levels alter the HPA axis and can negatively affect the digestive system in the form of gut motility, nutrient deficiencies and the exacerbation of pre-existing gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS, IBS, GERD…etc.
The last hormone we will discuss is the thyroid gland, the small but mighty butterfly gland located anteriorly to your esophagus in the middle of your neck. This organ is essential for life and affects every tissue in our body and helps to regulate our heart rate, body temperature, metabolism, bone density, brain function and metabolism. It is responsible for producing hormones called triiodothyronine and thyroxine. Too little or too much estrogen being produced in our bodies can cause an increase in thyroid (T4) levels and conribute to the development of hypothyroidism. Coming from the other point of view, if our gut microbiome is impaired, thyroid-stimulating hormones can be elevated, which triggers the increased production of T3 and T4. This can lead to the development of hypothyroidism which is linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease, infertility and mental health illnesses.
Our hormones and gut health are intimately related. We cannot affect one without affecting the other. But what we can do is take daily actionable steps to promote both a healthy gut microbiome and hormonal levels.
Seven Steps for Healthy Hormones:
- Drink plenty of water
- Breathe – practice meditation, yoga or a stress relieving practice
- Obtain good quality sleep
- Exercise for 30 minutes per day – walk, run, weight train…etc
- Eat a diet high in lean proteins, healthy fats, fibre and vegetables
- Avoid sugary or processed foods
- Eat when you are hungry and avoid distractions like watching tv or looking at your phone when eating so you can be aware of your body’s fullness cues
By Lindsay Mustard. Lindsay is a Holistic Nutritionist, Osteopathic Natural Practitioner and firefighter-in-training with a burning passion for health and fitness. In her osteopathic practice, Lindsay works with clients to craft a unique plan that is tailored to their specific health goals. Her nutritional practice was built around a whole food and supplement approach.
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2 Fields H. The Gut: Where Bacteria and Immune System Meet. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Nov 2015.
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6 Clarke G, Stilling RM, Kennedy PJ, Stanton C, Cryan JF, Dinan TG. Minireview: Gut microbiota: the neglected endocrine organ. Mol Endocrinol. 2014 Aug;28(8):1221-38. doi: 10.1210/me.2014-1108. Epub 2014 Jun 3. PMID: 24892638; PMCID: PMC5414803.
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