No matter how much kale you eat or how many spin classes you got in this week, if your gut is out of whack, it doesn’t matter, says expert Brenda Watson.
The certified nutritional consultant and author of the new book titled The Skinny Gut Diet, calls it “The Gut Factor”—and she says the state of bacteria calling your belly home could be keeping you from being in a better mood, having a good immune system, and even getting into your skinny jeans. (Gee, thanks.)
“A healthy gut is the foundation for total body health. When your digestion is not functioning optimally, it not only affects the digestive system, but it can also reach many different systems of the body, including the nervous and cardiovascular systems,” says Watson.
Here are five must-know facts about your gut’s starring role in your health (and stress, and cravings):
1. People with a healthy gut have fewer cravings (yes, really!). “While you might think your sugar and carbohydrate cravings are due to a lack of willpower, it is more likely that your microbes are actually exerting their willpower—over you,” Watson says. “Certain bacteria and other microbes feed on sugars, using them as a fuel source to reproduce and thrive. Researchers say that our bacteria may be capable of manipulating our behavior and our appetite in order to obtain more of the sugars they thrive on.”
2. An imbalanced gut might be what’s keeping you in the bathroom stall. “Constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and diarrhea can involve an imbalance of gut bacteria. Gut bacteria help to control bowel motility, or the rate at which food moves through the digestive tract. When gut motility is too slow, constipation results. When it is too fast, diarrhea is experienced. When the gut bacteria are out of balance, these conditions may arise,” explains Watson.
3. Taking probiotics for better digestion and gut health can help with your stress level, too. Turns out that probiotics, good-bacteria–filled supplements that a lot of people pop to aid with digestive issues, have something major in common with meditation. They’re good at fighting the effects of stress. “Stress not only depletes your beneficial bacteria, but it also triggers inflammation and a disturbance of the intestinal lining, which increases the amount of toxins in circulation,” Watson says. “To reverse these effects of stress, probiotics help prevent the destruction of the intestinal lining and help decrease the bacteria toxins in circulation.”
4. Bad gut bacteria can cause you to store extra fat. No, it’s not because you’re not doing enough cardio. “Bad gut bacteria thrive on diets high in sugar, processed carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats. In response to this food, they create toxins that damage the intestinal lining, trigger inflammation, and lead to an increased storage of fat,” explains Watson. “By replenishing your gut with good bacteria, which help to lower inflammation and crowd out bad bacteria, you won’t have to worry about your gut bacteria storing extra fat for you.”
5. Eighty percent of the body’s immune system is in the gut. “When you think of immune health, you probably envision being stuffed up with a cold or run down with the flu. Digestion is likely the last thing that comes to mind…but nothing could be further from the truth,” Watson writes.
Your gut microbes educate your immune system, she explains. “If microbes are made up of the right kind of bacteria, your bacteria will school your immune system so that it makes peace with the food you eat, the occasional pathogens you harbor, and the toxins you ingest.”