Last Updated: September 24, 2019
A well-functioning and healthy gut allows nutrients and water to enter your body easily and efficiently. As a result, when your gut health is compromised, your body can’t effectively absorb nutrients.
There are two factors that impact can your gut’s ability to absorb nutrients:
- your gut mucosa
- your gut bacteria
Additionally, some foods may distress the gut which can further limit nutrient absorption.
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A Healthy Gut Strengthens Your Gut Mucosa
The gut mucosa describes the barrier lining your digestive system that separates you from the outside world. This barrier consists of:
- a thick mucus layer
- the endothelial wall of your intestine (the physical “skin” of your digestive system)
- your microbiome
Combined, these three layers form a dynamic structure whose primary role is to allow nutrients into your body.
Carbohydrates, protein, water-soluble vitamins, and minerals are all actively transported by gut cells across the mucosa and into your bloodstream. Fat, on the other hand, transports passively across your mucosa. It simply diffuses from an area of high-fat concentration to an area of low-fat concentration (without the use of cells).
With an unhealthy or inflamed gut, the tight links between the cells of your intestine break down. As a result, you see a large increase in gut permeability (a condition called “leaky gut“).
This harms your gut’s ability to move nutrients across your mucosa and into your bloodstream.
Additionally, a leaky gut allows large, undigested, food molecules into your body. This results in your immune system recognizing these large molecules as foreign matter and trying to attack them.
This is bad news for your health (the inflammation from the immune attack can lead to all kinds of health problems, including autoimmune diseases!) as well as your digestion.
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A Healthy Gut Means Healthy Levels of Good Bacteria
It may be hard to believe but your gut actually contains somewhere between 3 and 4 pounds of bacteria! Researchers call these bacteria your “microbiome“.
Within your microbiome, there are both good bacteria and bad bacteria. While good gut bacteria promote healthy gut functions, bad gut bacteria obstruct these functions.
Having adequate good bacteria has been shown to improve digestion and nutrient absorption. Healthy gut bacteria produce digestive enzymes that aid in the breakdown of complex carbohydrates and proteins. As a result, having adequate good gut bacteria increases the amount of nutrients you can absorb from your food.
What determines the health of your gut microbiota?
As far as scientists can tell, the biggest determinant of the gut microbiome is your diet. Studies clearly show that individuals who maintain a varied diet (consisting of a vast array of foods) have increased numbers of good bacteria within their microbiome!
This has led to the suggestion that individuals who eat the same foods routinely, whether it be through force of circumstance (socioeconomic status, cultural requirements, etc.) or by choice, limit their intake of different types of good bacteria, resulting in poorer nutrient absorption.
Additionally, eating plenty of dietary fiber may also play an important role in maintaining balanced levels of good gut bacteria. Fiber provides food for your good gut bacteria, allowing them to grow and thrive! What’s more, the “waste” products your gut bacteria make when they feed on fiber — a group of molecules called “short chain fatty acids” — help improve the health, pH, function, and nutrient absorption of your gut!
Gut Distress and Nutrient Absorption
Some individuals don’t tolerate foods consumed by the vast majority of the population. For these people, these foods can cause an inflammatory response in the gut. This inflammation, in turn, can then lead to a reduced capacity to absorb nutrients because it limits the effective function of the gut wall. Common leaky gut foods that can harm digestion and nutrient absorption include:
- processed foods
- fried food
- dairy products
Take Home Message
The gut is a unique organ that plays an intricate role in maintaining the health of your body. It acts as your primary means to receive essential nutrients. So, any gut dysfunction can result in an inhibited ability to absorb the calories, vitamins, and minerals you need. Gut dysfunction can be triggered by an unhealthy microbiome, a leaky gut, or gut inflammation.
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