Gut Health vs Digestive Health: What’s the Difference?

Fact Checked by Dr. Jonathan Jacobs, MD, PhD
A woman holding one hand over her stomach
Ramping up your dietary fiber the right way can help create a much happier gut, better digestion and more.
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In this article all about gut health and digestive health:

1. Digestive Health vs Gut Health: A Primer

2. An Overview of Digestive Health: The Full Picture 

3. How Digestive Health Is Impacted by Gut Health

4. How Gut Health is WAY Broader than Just “Good Digestion”

It may seem logical to think that gut health and digestive health are one and the same. But while they are interrelated, gut health isn’t limited to “digestive health.” Here’s why the two aren’t interchangeable, and why the impact of gut health is SIGNIFICANTLY broader than just how well you digest food. 

Digestive Health vs Gut Health: A Primer 

Good digestion has always been a mainstay of good health and pretty much all of us have experienced some type of digestive issues in our lives.  Meanwhile, the topic of gut health is increasing in popularity with more and more people talking about how it’s something we all need to pursue.

But what does “gut health” actually mean? Is it different from or the same as “digestive health”?

It’s a bit of a confusing concept, for sure.

In general, gut health usually refers to the state of the intestinal lining, and more recently, to the bacteria within the gut. 

However, we want to make it easier to understand because the difference between the two is important for your health. We want to empower you with the knowledge about how gut health is way bigger than how well you digest food. 

So we’ve put together this helpful guide explaining the similarities and differences between the two.

Ready? Let’s dive in!

An Overview of Digestive Health: The Full Picture 

If you’ll travel back to anatomy class for a moment, let’s review how digestion works.

First, you eat food. Your teeth tear up and mash the food, then your saliva starts to break it down. That’s the first critical step in digestion, and why you’ve probably heard that it’s important to always thoroughly chew your food.

Then the food travels down from your throat through your esophagus to the stomach, where it’s met with acid and enzymes and is broken down even further.

From there, the nutrients from the food travel to the small intestine, where they are broken down further by digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas and bile acids released from the gallbladder. The resulting digested nutrients can then be absorbed in the small intestine. Undigested food passes to the colon for further digestion primarily by bacteria, and ultimately the waste is expelled from the body.

Ideally, you should have as much as 1-2 bowel movements per day, but as little as 3 bowel movements per week is still considered within the normal range. Ideally, they should be well-formed, not watery, and shouldn’t include bits of undigested food. They should happen without pain, urgency, or much gas.

And that’s the digestive process in a nutshell.

Now, this process can be compromised if any number of digestive symptoms or disorders are present. 

When your digestive system is functioning properly, you shouldn’t experience symptoms like the following:

  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • excessive gas
  • excessive bloating
  • general discomfort

Unfortunately many of these issues are very common. In fact, some studies show more than 50% of Americans are regularly troubled by one or more digestive symptoms. (1)  And an overwhelming 60 million people in the U.S. suffer from more serious digestive diseases

For example, the following are examples of debilitating digestive diseases and disorders:

  • Celiac disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Diverticulitis
  • Irritable bowel disease (IBD)
  • Gallstones
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)
  • Food sensitivities or allergies

A man holding his stomach with red accents

Furthermore, your digestive health is highly dependent upon what foods you eat. Diets rich in fiber help to keep everything flowing nicely along the digestive tract, which is ultimately the goal of good digestion. (2)

Fiber has several different functions in the body. While all types of fiber play a role in proper digestion, some fiber like prebiotic resistant starch also help improve the health of your gut microbiome — it’s the food for the beneficial bacteria that live inside your digestive tract. (3)

Other functions of fiber include slowing nutrient digestion, increasing satiety, and promoting movement in the large intestine. (18)

In fact, if you’re even noticing digestive function, that’s really the first sign that something might be off. Proper digestion is something that happens (generally) without you really noticing it.

Interrelated, But Not the Same

Your digestive system is the home of your gut microbiome. 

The gut microbiome is a complex, symbiotic community of trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that live mainly in your large intestine, also known as the colon (although we simply like to call it your ‘gut’). They’re responsible for a whole host of critical bodily functions, from regulating your immune system to influencing your mood.

a drawing of the gut with a person's hands

The gut microbiome also has an enormous impact on your digestive health. It’s intimately involved in the process of digestion (since it resides in your large intestine, the last stop on the digestion train). (4

Since the gut microbiome is located within the digestive tract and has a significant impact on digestive health, it’s understandable why so many of us equate “gut health” with “digestive health.” Especially since we all deal with various digestive issues.

How Digestive Health Is Impacted by Gut Health

The trillions of bacteria in our gut are responsible for digesting any food particles that arrive in the large intestine undigested by the small intestine. (5) Gut microbiota are also equipped with specific enzymes to help break down some nutrients that can’t be digested by the human body, such as resistant starch. Some of the metabolic byproducts of this process, such as short-chain fatty acids from bacteria digestion — or fermentation — can be beneficial to overall health.

Through this digestive process, these beneficial bacteria also help regulate bowel movements and produce antibiotics to fight off bad bacteria. (6, 7)  They also strengthen the walls of your gut, which protect the rest of the body from potential pathogens and support healthy digestion. 

Specific food ingredients like prebiotic resistant starch, a type of fiber that bypasses digestion in the stomach, show up in the colon ready to be consumed by the beneficial gut bacteria that live there. (3)

So the good bacteria in your gut feast on this fiber, and it helps them grow strong. 💪

And as they thrive, they produce additional vitamins and short chain fatty acids that are beneficial to us in many ways.(8) They also send out signals to other parts of the body. (9) 

However, when the gut microbiome isn’t functioning at its best, digestion can be significantly compromised. 

You can’t have healthy digestion without a healthy gut.

You see, the gut microbiome is comprised of many species of bacteria, most of which are helpful to our digestion and to our general health. But there can also be some less desirable bacteria hanging around in there ready to cause you harm. 

When the “good” species of bacteria are flourishing, they eradicate the “bad” ones that can wreak havoc on your digestion. (10)  But when they’re not super strong, the bad guys can take over. This can result in issues that really disrupt your digestive system like small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). Other disorders like leaky gut, Crohn’s, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis, and celiac disease can result, too. (6, 10, 11)

When this happens, those bad bacteria in the gut can use your nutrients to feed themselves. This makes them stronger, and makes your health suffer further. It’s one of the many reasons we want to focus on keeping our gut microbiome populated and balanced with the most beneficial bacteria, and continue to promote their growth with prebiotic fiber. (3)

An image of gut bacteria

Some foods and supplements with probiotic cultures, which are intended to be “helpful” in improving digestive health, are actually ineffective and helpless in actually making much of a difference. This is because digestive enzymes and acids in our digestive process break down most probiotic food and supplements before they can even reach the large intestine. That means these probiotic bacteria get eaten up during the digestive tract before reaching the gut. It’s important to do your research and keep an eye out for probiotic solutions that actually can make it to the gut where they can actually make a difference in your digestive health and overall gut health.

How Gut Health is WAY Broader than Just “Good Digestion”

An illustration of the gut connecting to the cardiovascular system

Ultimately, gut health encompasses digestive health. But a healthy gut has much broader effects on your health than just simply “good digestion”. Keeping your digestive process operating smoothly is just the initial, localized effect of a healthy gut. The full impact of a strong gut microbiome extends FAR beyond digestion. 

Based on recent advancements in science, technology, and research, we now know that the gut also affects almost every single facet of health.  

And this is the main reason why gut health is significantly broader than just digestive health.

When we possess good gut health, we:

  • Experience good digestion
  • Absorb nutrients effectively
  • Have a wide range of flourishing gut microbiota
  • Feel an overall sense of well-being

Beyond that, a healthy gut microbiome also produces:

  • A healthy immune system (12)
  • Lowered levels of inflammation (13)
  • Improved Heart health (14)
  • Steady blood sugar levels (15)
  • Weight control (16)

So — as you can see, the health of your gut determines the health of just about every other part of your body. Its strength is critical to preventing disease and promoting health & happiness. 

It’s why we’re obsessed with fostering the best bacteria and creating healthy gut microbiomes, and why we want you to be, too! It’s also why it’s important to understand that maintaining a healthy gut can have such a broad impact on your overall health, beyond simply healthy digestion. 

References

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