Our guts aren’t just glorified poop chutes, says Giulia Enders, the 25-year-old author of Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ (Greystone Books, $20). The gastrointestinal tract is an infinitely complex body part that affects everything from our susceptibility to disease to our emotional and psychological wellbeing—research suggests that people who suffer from gut disorders have an increased risk of anxiety and depression, though as of yet there’s no firm idea as to why. The gut’s pivotal yet oft-overlooked influence on overall health is what possessed the Frankfurt-based Enders, who just completed her PhD in microbiology, to write a book about it.
“Being a medical student and having access to really complex high science papers [on the gut as it relates to health], I thought, This is not right. Why isn’t anyone telling this to the public?”
The public is clearly interested: the book has become an international bestseller. We talked to Enders about the secret life of the gut, the benefits of taking a peek at No. 2 every once in a while, and how to care for your GI tract.
I knew pretty much nothing about the gut before reading your book and was amazed at how complex it is and all the ways it affects our health. What made you become so fascinated with this subject?
I think it was basically the same [sense of amazement]. I thought, Wow, it’s part of so many processes. It influences body weight and immune function and mood. I was so surprised! I think before that I just thought it was eating food and going to the toilet. But it’s so much more and it’s such an essential mediator in the body.
Why does the gut get so little attention?
I think it’s because we can’t see it, right? So all we have to do with it is going to the bathroom and that’s not all that impressive.
I had no idea our guts have so much to do with our immune systems. For one, nearly 80 percent of the immune system is actually housed within the gut. And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the presence of gut bacteria (good and bad) significantly influences the immune system and our susceptibility to infection…
When you think about all of those immune diseases that are on the rise like rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, this is a very interesting connection to make.
You talk a bit about digestion and feces in the book—including an illustrated guide to bowel movements!—and even make the recommendation that we’d all be better off if we squatted to go the bathroom…
This is especially true for people who are having a bad time [on the toilet]. They have to use pressure [to move their bowels] and that’s dangerous because there’s more of a risk of producing hemorrhoids, diverticulitis or varicose veins, even stroke. It would be nice to take off some pressure, and this you can do by putting a little chair in front of the toilet and placing your feet on top. That’s really our natural position, squatting, and we’ve seen studies that say it makes it easier because the muscles loosen, whereas this muscle [when seated on a toilet] would create a curve and make it harder.
If our guts play such an important role in our health, how should we care for them?
It really starts with understanding [the function of the gut] a bit better and not tolerating a tummy ache from time to time or having diarrhea from time to time. I think that’s not something a healthy person should have to tolerate. Having more scientific knowledge will help you outsmart your body. Also, look into the toilet once in a while. Turn around and check it out and see if there are changes and what kind of changes. [For instance, seeing small, separate hard lumps that are painful to pass indicate constipation. A smooth “sausage” of “toothpaste-like consistency” means your digestion is on track. You’re welcome.]
Another thing: once you know more about bacteria and what positive things they all can do, I think it becomes more attractive to eat the good ones enough so that they can do their work. You should definitely be eating prebiotic foods [such as asparagus, bananas, onions, garlic and cabbage], which nurture good bacteria. [Prebiotics are different from probiotics, which Ender says are a short-term solution to things like diarrhea—they can help populate your gut with good bacteria, but once you stop taking them the bacteria goes bye-bye too]. At the same time, only eat the prebiotic foods that you enjoy! Don’t swallow things you find horrible.