Health & Wellbeing

What you don’t know about your gut

As a leading expert reveals, it does so much more than just digest food. In fact, a healthy gut could be the key to wellness
Getty Images

It has more nerves than your spinal cord does

Hard to imagine, right? But it’s true—even the healthiest guts are seriously intricate body systems. “It’s actually thought of as the second brain,” says Professor Nicholas Talley, neurogastroenterologist and Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Newcastle.

“Picture an enormously long tube with a very complex nervous system. This controls multiple organs so that when we eat or drink things, they’re comfortably pushed through our system, absorbed where needed and gotten rid of where they’re not.”

If things aren’t carefully coordinated and running smoothly (pun totally intended), that’s what can lead to issues. Hello, belly bloat.

There are 1.5kg of bugs in your body

Probably more! We’re talking about good, bad and indifferent types of bacteria that live everywhere (mind-blowingly, you have 10 times as many as you do human cells) with a huge amount in the gut.

“These prime our immune system so we can fight off infections, they digest food, and aid in the function of whichever part of the body they inhabit,” adds Talley.

“But there are also bugs that can predispose us to problems or diseases.”

Your gut could actually be driving your brain

So, here’s what scientists (and tricky-tummy sufferers) know: gut symptoms and worries often go hand in hand. But, which drives which? “The feeling for a very long time has been that if you’re stressed, anxious or depressed, your gut function will change and that may be why you get irritable bowel,” says Talley.

“But we’ve found there’s a very substantial group with irritable bowel who actually have no anxiety before that, but develop it later down the track.”

His team is now investigating substances (called cytokines) released into the blood thanks to gut inflammation, and whether these in fact affect the brain to cause psychological symptoms. What this aboutturn in thinking could mean?

“It gives us opportunities to look at ways we can change the gut and hopefully improve these other problems,” Talley says. Fascinating!

It makes a huge amount of serotonin

You may know it as a mood-stabiliser but serotonin also plays a major role in gut function.

“It can make it more or less efficient depending on the interaction with various receptors,” reveals Talley. Serotonin is one of the key chemicals that changes when someone has a syndrome such as IBS, giving scientists like Talley other paths to explore.

“We’re starting to understand the major link between bugs, inflammation and the release of these chemicals.”

It’s yet another intriguing piece of the incredible gut-function puzzle.

Targeted treatments are the next big thing Not only are gut pros working to refine probiotics, they’re also looking at how to target therapies so they have the desired impact AKA make you feel better.

“We’ve just discovered a bug in the colon we think causes IBS,” adds Talley.

“That’ll be treatable with a specific antibiotic, but we want to target it at the bad bug, not just give it willy-nilly and hope for the best.”

As we said, exciting stuff!

Related stories