In recent years, researchers have discovered that the gastrointestinal tract has more functions than just digesting food. They have linked the GI system to numerous health aspects that have been previously thought to be unrelated to digestion, including everything from emotional stress to chronic illnesses like cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
“We now know that the GI tract is full of trillions of bacteria that not only help us process food but that also help our bodies maintain homeostasis and overall well-being,” said gastroenterologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Dr. Tara Menon. The key to this phenomenon, experts suggest, is probably in the microbiome, or the composition of bacteria and microorganisms in the stomach and intestines.
Research on the microbiome still has a long way to go, and the makeup of everyone's microbiome is different. But experts say that there are general guidelines that people should follow. “In healthy people, there is a diverse array of organisms,” said Dr. Gail Hecht, chair of the American Gastroenterological Association Center for Gut Microbiome Research & Education. “In an unhealthy individual, there’s much less diversity, and there seems to be an increase of bacteria we associate with disease.”
Hecht emphasizes that scientists have only been able to establish a correlational relationship between bacteria and disease risk, not a causal one. “We’re still lacking specific proof of how this connection works, but we know it’s there.”