It is modest and does not push itself to the fore. First and foremost, it works for the "common good": our intestines. It can do much more than just digest. If it doesn't perform at its best, we're not well. What makes the intestine so important for us?
Diseases and Prevention
Some intestinal diseases are acute, others chronic. Acute ones are noticeable through nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain or diarrhea; they are triggered by viruses, bacteria or food intolerances. In most cases, they are inconsequential and subside after one to two weeks. Chronic illnesses affect health for the rest of the patient's life. As part of the cancer screening program, you can take advantage of regular colorectal cancer screening examinations from the age of 50. If a member of your family has colorectal cancer, you should start your screening ten years before the age at which the disease was diagnosed. For example, with an immunological fecal occult blood test (iFOBT) or with the highly effective colonoscopy: With the help of a video endoscope, tumors are detected at almost 100 percent and benign growths (adenomas), which can later develop into tumors, are removed immediately during the examination. If colorectal cancer is detected at an early stage, the chances of cure are good to very good.
The intestine is the largest digestive organ in the human body and at the same time one of its most important organs; medical research even describes it as the most important control center in the body next to the brain. With its length of between five and a half and almost eight meters, it helps to decide whether we are healthy or not. Its job is to absorb vital nutrients from the food we eat into our cells. The muscular tube transports around 30,000 tons of food and 50,000 liters of fluid through the body in an average human lifetime. With its countless villi and protrusions, the intestine has a surface area of around 300 square meters, making it larger than a tennis court. The delicate nerve network with several hundred million nerve cells wraps around the muscles of the intestinal wall from the esophagus to the anus.
The sensors of the "intestinal immune system" sense every second which bacteria are currently multiplying inside the intestine, which substances they are excreting and which chemical processes are taking place in the food pulp. The intestinal thought center makes decisions at lightning speed, flexibly and autonomously; it adjusts the blood flow, keeps neighboring organs informed, determines which substances are allowed into the body and which are removed. Around 100 trillion bacterial cells are at work here. In just one gram of intestinal content, there are more living organisms than there are people on earth! The largest part of this intestinal flora, also called the microbiome, is made up of precisely these bacteria, but also viruses and fungi. This complex ecosystem influences our digestion and thus our well-being. There is a reciprocal relationship between these small co-inhabitants and our body.
Through lifestyle and diet, we can have a positive effect on our intestinal flora and thus sustainably strengthen our immune system, about 80 percent of which is located in the intestine.
Intelligent intestinal bacteria
Dr. Hans-Ulrich Jahn, chief physician in the Clinic for Gastroenterology, Diabetology and Geriatrics at Vivantes Klinikum Kaulsdorf, explains what exactly happens in the digestive process: "The intestinal bacteria take over an important part of digestion for humans. They break down indigestible food components, such as dietary fiber, by breaking them down into components that our bodies can absorb. In addition, it is believed that they are able to produce butyric acid and also other short-chain fatty acids, thus contributing to the nutrition of the intestinal mucosa. As a result, the immune function of the intestinal flora is strengthened, and similar to a placeholder, exogenous bacteria are displaced and fought off." In this way, the body can be protected, for example, against chronic inflammations such as rheumatism or also against intestinal inflammations, the immune system is strengthened and the risk of obesity is reduced.
Good or bad food metabolizer?
The composition of the microbiome is different for everyone, it is as individual as a fingerprint. An illustrative example: The difference between obese and slim people is primarily determined by representatives of the two strains Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes. In normal-weight people, the Bacteroidetes strains dominate, whereas in obese people, the Firmicutes strains dominate. Such a shift in the major strains directly affects energy metabolism. For example, the microbiome of obese people produces significantly more enzymes that can break down indigestible carbohydrates such as cellulose. This means that these people get much more energy from their food than people in whom bacteria of the Bacteroidetes strain dominate - the attribute "poor or good food metabolizer" thus takes on a biologically comprehensible meaning.
Doing good to the gut
What can we do to ensure that our intestines work well and keep us healthy? Dr. Hans-Ulrich Jahn: "A healthy intestinal flora can be promoted by a balanced diet: with plenty of unsaturated fatty acids, lots of vegetables, seeds, fruits, cereals, legumes and nuts - combined with moderate consumption of fish, chicken. Dairy products, red meat, highly processed meat and sweets should be consumed only in small quantities. In addition, probiotic foods do good, such as yogurt, kefir, certain cheeses or pickled vegetables, as well as prebiotic foods such as bananas, chicory, onions, garlic or asparagus. In addition, exercise regularly and avoid chronic stress."