A well-functioning and healthy gut allows nutrients and water to enter the 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 and 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 entire barrier of our digestive system that separates us from the outside world. This barrier consists of
- a thick mucus layer
- the physical endothelial wall of the intestine (the physical ‘skin’ of the digestive system)
- the microbiome
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Combined, these three layers form a dynamic structure whose primary role is to allow nutrients into the body.
Carbohydrates, protein, water-soluble vitamins, and minerals are all actively transported by gut cells across the mucosa and into the bloodstream. Fat, on the other hand, transports passively across the mucosa, moving through the 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 spaces between the cells of the digestive system become larger. As a result, we see a large increase in gut permeability (an issue termed ‘leaky gut’) and a subsequent reduction in the gut’s capacity to transfer nutrients across the mucosa and into the bloodstream. Through this process, there is a disruption in the digestive system’s ability to identify between essential nutrients and foreign substances.
Additionally, a leaky gut allows large, undigested, food molecules into the body. This results in the immune system recognizing these large molecules as foreign matter and destroying them.
This is bad news for your health (the inflammation from the immune attack harms your health!) as well as your digestion. You can’t use destroyed food for nutrients or energy!
Read Next: 7 Reasons Your Gut Health Is Important
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! But, it’s true! Researchers call these bacteria your microbiome.
Within your microbiome, ther are both good bacteria and bad bacteria. While good gut bacteria promote healthy gut functions, bad bacteria obstruct these functions.
Having adequate good bacteria has been shown to improve gut health, resulting in the enhanced absorption of nutrients. These good bacteria are known to produce enzymes that aid in the digestion 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 good bacteria, and see reduced nutrient absorption as a result.
Additionally, fiber may also play an important role in maintaining balanced levels of good gut bacteria. Fiber slows digestion in the small intestine, which leads to the fermentation of food in your large intestine.
This process of fermentation is a result of the gut bacteria feeding on nutrients within the large intestine, and it improves the pH balance of your gut. This is important because, in order to function efficiently, the gut bacteria require both optimal pH levels!
Gut Distress and Nutrient Absorption
Some individuals have a limited capacity to tolerate foods consumed by the vast majority of the population with a healthy gut. The consumption of these foods can cause an inflammatory response in the gut. This inflammation can lead to a reduced capacity to absorb nutrients because it limits the effective function of the gut wall.
This is due to the physical inflammation of the endothelial lining within the gut leading to a disruption in the cells ability to transfer nutrients from the digestive system and into the bloodstream.
Take Home Message
The gut is a unique organ that plays an intricate role in maintaining the health of the body through a number of different mechanisms. The gut acts as your primary means to receive essential nutrients, so any gut dysfunction can result in an inhibited ability to absorb these nutrients.
Failing to maintain a healthy gut can lead to large reductions in nutrient absorption through an inefficient microbiome, an increase in gut permeability, and increased gut inflammation.