You can’t talk about a healthy gut without mentioning the all-important mucus layer!
Science tells us that a diverse microbiome = a healthy gut. Beneficial bacteria are super helpful but they need to be kept in their place. You don’t want them trespassing in places they shouldn’t.
Beneficial bacteria in the gut do amazing things, such as producing enzymes, vitamins and anti-inflammatories, but, if they were to escape into the bloodstream they could cause problems.
In order to keep these microbes inside the digestive tract, the gut wall acts as a barrier. The trouble is, for it to be permeable to healthy substances, the lining needs to be very thin. So, the body created an extra layer of defence – a blockade made of mucus!
Now, normally you wouldn’t think of mucus as a good thing but along the GI tract, mucus is marvellous! Let’s explore what it is and why it needs to be there –
There are two layers within this mucus barrier. The inner layer, closest to the gut wall, functions in such a way that bacteria are unable to get through and come into contact with the lining of the gut. The outer layer is where beneficial bacteria live. Some of these bacteria also feed on the mucus for sustenance. 1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3758667/
So why is the mucus layer so important?
This mucus layer is crucial for a healthy microbiome but also overall health. Let’s look at why –
The lining of the gut is only one cell thick so it requires a robust line of defence. The inner layer of mucus along the gut wall provides a physical barrier, preventing bacteria and other unwanted substances from reaching the gut lining and potentially, the bloodstream.
If the mucus layer is damaged or loses thickness then this can cause problems. In these circumstances, certain pathogenic microbes including parasites, bacteria, and viruses are able to get through and damage the lining of the gut, causing inflammation and disease.2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3758667/ Examples of this are inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis) and metabolic syndrome.3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6375348/ 4https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2017.01256/full
2. Facilitates movement through the gut
The smooth, gel-like consistency of the mucus layer lubricates the gut’s inner surface, which makes it easier for waste to move through the digestive system without sticking. It keeps stools from drying out and helps to reduce blockages along the colon.
3. Immune defence
To protect the gut against harmful pathogens, the mucus layer contains immune cells to fight them off. Specialised immune cells release antibodies to neutralise pathogenic bacteria, toxins and other unwanted substances. Other immune cells act like watchmen looking out for threats and sending signals to the immune system. So, if the mucus layer is depleted, your immune system may not respond as it should.
How do gut bacteria affect the mucus layer?
A healthy microbiome helps the mucus layer! Certain bacteria help the mucus to function better, importantly making the inner layer less penetrable to bacteria. Beneficial bacteria such as Akkermansia, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have been shown to stimulate the production of mucus and increase the thickness of the mucus layer. 5https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6375348/
So, how do you create healthy gut mucus?
- First and foremost, you need a daily dose of synbiotics – the powerful combination of probiotics and prebiotics! Re-populating the gut with beneficial bacteria is key to a healthy microbiome, including the protective mucus layer.
- Eat fermented foods each day: kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and probiotic yoghurt. Kefir contains numerous strains of Lactobacillus which help maintain the mucus layer and also inhibit the growth of bad bacteria.
- Reduce intake of sugar and processed foods – these can damage the gut lining and encourage the growth of pathogenic bacteria.
- Eat a diverse range of fibre-rich plant foods (pulses, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices). Prebiotic fibres provide the fuel for beneficial bacteria to thrive.
- Include as many different colours as possible: plant nutrients such as polyphenols also help to encourage the growth of good bacteria.
- Take collagen which has been shown to support a healthy gut lining.
- Look after your teeth and general oral hygiene – your mouth can be a source of harmful bacteria.
- Keep hydrated – drink at least 1.5 litres of fluids each day.
- Manage stress: Chronic stress can lead to inflammation in the gut and reduce the production of mucus. Try stress-reducing activities like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing.
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