The Large Work of the Small Gut

 

When we talk about ‘gut health’, what exactly do we mean?  This term is frequently used to refer to several parts of our digestive system, each with specific functions.    

But let’s focus on just one part of the ‘gut’, in this case the small intestine.  Medical researchers mention some amazing facts about this organ, things we would all do well to remember.

First, consider the dimensions of the ‘small’ intestine, which isn’t at all small.   In fact, at about ten feet in length, and an inch or so in diameter, the inner walls, ridges and compartments of this winding tube comprise a surface area of some 200 sq. meters!  It is from this this expansive real estate that the largest shares of fuel and nutrients are absorbed into the human body.¹  

Moreover, it is estimated that up to 60% of our immune cells are found in the intestines, with the vast majority of these (again) concentrated in the small intestine.  There are many classes and kinds of immune cells, performing different roles in one of the body’s key lines of defense against disease-causing microbes, viruses, fungi and toxins.²

But it is even more complicated than that.  These immune cells coexist in the small intestine with colonies of bacteria and microorganisms in what is referred to as the gut ‘microbiome’ or ‘microbiota.’  Researchers tell us that these ‘commensal’ bacteria, which are estimated to number between 10 – 100 trillion, form a symbiotic and essential partnership with the local immune cells.  Without these friendly bacteria working side by side with digestive enzymes and immune cells, both the metabolic processes of the body, and our defense against inflammation and disease, would fail.  In fact, imbalances or deficiencies in the microbiota of the small intestine are increasingly linked to diseases throughout the body, and even to our psychological health.

 

¹https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-ap2/chapter/the-small-and-large-intestines/

²https://www.nature.com/articles/nri3738

³https://www.dovepress.com/the-ecological-community-of-commensal-symbiotic-and-pathogenic-gastroi-peer-reviewed-fulltext-article-CEG

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