One of the most important steps to improving your health is to improve your gut health!
Our gut (gastrointestinal tract) processes food from the time it enters our mouth, until our body absorbs nutrients & the unwanted matter is passed out. There are approximately 100 trillion symbiotic microorganisms in the human body (primarily in the gut), collectively referred to as ‘the microbiome.’ Each of us have a unique microbiome which is determined by our genes and influenced by our diet, lifestyle, level of physical activity and the environment we live in.
Whilst bacteria were traditionally thought to be harmful to health, researchers have now found that certain bacteria are beneficial and that it helps to have a diverse range of these ‘good bacteria’ in our gut. In a healthy gut the microbiota interact with the host and have a mutually benefiting relationship. The intestines provide the microbes with nourishment and an environment to grow, while the microbes contribute to maintaining homeostasis & modulate several physiological processes. The health of our gut is dependent on the balance of beneficial bacteria & pathogenic bacteria , and disruption of this balance (dysbiosis) can lead to a spectrum of chronic diseases.
Image from Dr.Jockers.com
Recent research has found an association between the gut microbiome and risk of developing chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), obesity, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory skin diseases such as psoriasis & atopic dermatitis and autoimmune arthritis. An altered gut microbiome can also impact the ‘gut–brain-axis’ and has been associated with conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, anxiety and autism.
Gut microbes play a vital role in digestion, and research has found that it may even influence ones risk of becoming obese. There also appears to be a specific imbalance in the gut microbiome of individuals with type 2 diabetes compared with non-diabetics. This specific imbalance in composition was found to be associated with an increased risk of insulin resistance.
Maintaining a healthy gut is likely to enhance our immune function, reduce GI symptoms (like bloating, abdominal pain etc.), improve absorption of nutrients and reduce the risk of metabolic disturbances. However an unhealthy gut can cause the formation of gaps in the intestinal lining due to which certain bacteria, partially digested food and toxins can pass through the barrier. This increased intestinal permeability (aka ‘leaky gut’) causes an inflammatory response that can effect the entire body. Factors associated with a leaky gut include a poor diet, chronic stress, lack of sleep, obesity & oxidative stress. .
Image from Probiotic learning lab
Factors that affect the gut microbiome:
Babies delivered vaginally appeared to develop a microbiome with a more diverse group of bacteria compared to those delivered by Caesarean section.
Infants that were formula fed had a decrease in the total number of bacterial species as compared to those that were breast-fed. The breast-fed group also had a reduced risk of age-related gastroenteritis.
Insufficient fibre in our diet may result in the loss of certain bacteria leading to a decreased production of their helpful metabolites.
Curious about what you can do to keep your gut happy?
Use antibiotics only if absolutely necessary: Antibiotics deplete bacterial diversity in the gut, which essentially means that it kills both the good & bad bacteria. A good example is antibiotic usage for the common cold/flu; most often it tends to be a viral infection & hence antibiotic usage doesn’t make you feel better and sometimes can make you feel worse. An important consequence of chronic antibiotic usage is the development of antibiotic resistance. As a result of which, when you actually need the antibiotics they don’t work because the bacteria are resistant to it.
Eat clean: Diets high in fat, refined carbohydrates (sugars) and processed foods can cause an imbalance in the gut microbiome and result in symptoms such as bloating, acidity, constipation, food intolerances etc. If you do struggle with digestive issues consider avoiding certain inflammatory foods like wheat, dairy, processed foods, alcohol & high sugar foods (Elimination diets should be done under the guidance of a nutritionist/dietitian). Focus on consuming fibre rich, whole foods that have been minimally processed.
Manage your stress: Recent research has found that the gut is particularly vulnerable to both acute & chronic stress. Stress can cause an increase in gut motility & fluid secretion (For example a reaction to stress can be a bout of diarrhoea or repeated urination). Another consequence of exposure to stress is dysregulation of the gut microbiome. Employing strategies to manage stress & ensuring adequate sleep is an extremely important part of improving gut health.
Include fermented foods on a regular basis: Fermented foods are an excellent source of probiotics and are a good way of incorporating naturally occurring beneficial bacteria in your diet. Good probiotic sources include: kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchi, tempeh and miso.
Include prebiotics & fibre in your diet: Prebiotics are a special type of soluble fibre that is used as a fuel predominantly by beneficial bacteria. The primary source of prebiotics is dietary fibre, however while all prebiotics are fibres not all fibres are prebiotics. Natural sources of prebiotics include: banana, raw & cooked onion, raw garlic, chicory root powder and Jerusalem artichokes. Fibre is also extremely important to maintain optimal gut health, digestion & metabolic health. Fibre is found in whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains. The current recommended dietary fibre intake for adults is 25–30g/day.
In order to maintain a healthy microbiome you need to consume a variety of fresh, whole foods primarily from plant sources like vegetables, fruits, legumes, pulses & whole grains.