Year after year, gut health remains a top category in the food and nutritional supplement industries – but how is gut health currently defined? A healthy gut is commonly marked by efficient digestion, minimal stomach discomfort, stool regularity, reduced gas and bloating, and other feelings of well-being. The aspects in this definition of gut health are certainly key desires for most consumers. Some of the causes of gut discomfort often come from the food we eat. Processed foods are a part of most people’s diets, however, our stomachs and intestines are not designed for these synthetic, modified foods. In order to break down the variety of foods we eat every day, our gut needs to be able to properly digest these foods and effectively absorb their nutrients. While gut health certainly means a healthy, functioning gut designed to break down food into the individual nutrients we need, the equation of gut health goes well beyond the gut itself.
Billions of Bacteria
Our gut contains billions, if not trillions, of bacteria. In the process of digestion, it’s not just bile acids and gut enzymes at work – our gut bacteria break down food as well. These bacteria, some beneficial and some harmful, play additional roles that affect human health. Pathogenic bacteria, such as H. pylori and E. coli, can be present in the gut and contribute to disease, potentially causing serious health conditions. Of the beneficial bacteria, new research is finding that certain species of bacteria can produce large quantities of desirable metabolites, also described as postbiotics. These desirable metabolites are created as byproducts of bacteria feeding on prebiotic substrate (fibers, starches, etc.). The most well-known metabolites, which are now being researched at a fervent pace, are short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).
From the Gut to the Body
So, what are the larger functions of metabolites like SCFAs, and why are they such an important part of research right now? The short answer is that SCFAs not only improve gut health, but also work as signaling molecules that affect the health of other organs and systems in the body, therefore impacting overall health and wellness. At the top of current research is one of the key short-chain fatty acids: butyrate, or butyric acid. Butyrate provides 90% of the energy that colonocytes (the cells that line the gut) need to function, and can improve leaky gut syndrome by strengthening the mucosal layer of the gut. Additionally, butyrate plays a role in immune support and healthy inflammation regulation through its signaling abilities. To learn more about the whole-body benefits of butyrate, read more here.
What’s more interesting is that over 80% of the cells in our body have butyrate receptors. This means that when butyrate is attached to these receptors, it can upregulate or downregulate biochemical mechanisms in the body. This is the basis for the gut-brain axis and, as an extension, for the gut-organ effects where almost every organ in the body is affected by metabolites like butyrate.
As developments in science and health reveal the importance of metabolites like butyrate, a new equation for gut health is formed:With this equation, we can look at gut health through a much broader lens – a whole-body lens. Put another way:Now, gut health takes on a whole new meaning beyond just stomach comfort.
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