All health begins in the gut
The health of your gut is the cornerstone of your health, wellbeing and immunity. More and more research is beginning to uncover the important role the gut plays in our wellbeing, weight management and disease prevention, and how the foods we consume influence our gut microbiota and our overall health.
What is gut microbiota?
The large intestine is home to a reservoir of bacteria that play an essential role in healthy digestion, protecting the body from infection and regulating metabolism. These bacteria are referred to as the gut microbiota (also known as gut flora or intestinal microbiome) and can weigh up to two kilos. There are roughly 100 trillion of these cells in your gut which are affected by your genetics, environmental and lifestyle factors, disease, medications and diet. Each of us has a unique microbiota just like our finger print. One third of our gut microbiota is common to most people, while the other two thirds are unique and specific to each of us.
Why is the gut microbiotica important?
While each of us may have a unique microbiota, they all fulfill the same functions which directly impact our health. Recent studies have suggested that the gut microbiota plays an important role in controlling our risk of developing chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, type two diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and even depression, inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis and obesity.
The gut microbiota is essential to your health as;
- It helps produce some vitamins including B and K, and essential amino acids
- It helps the body digest certain food that the stomach and small intestine cannot digest
- It converts food into simple nutrients and delivers them to the body via the bloodstream
- It acts as a gastrointestinal (GI) barrier and defends against harmful foreign substances
- It plays an important role in the immune system as it contains 70% of the body’s immune system
- It ensures proper digestive functioning
How do the foods we eat affect our gut microbiota?
More and more research is beginning to show how our diet plays a significant role in shaping the microbiome and therefore either increasing or decreasing our risk of disease. In fact experiments now show that a change in our diet can cause huge shifts in our gut microbiota within 24 hours! Maintaining a healthy gut and choosing foods that support the growth of good bacteria and reduce the likelihood of increasing bad bacteria is essential for overall wellbeing and vitality.
So what exactly should we be eating and doing for optimal gut health?
1. Prebiotic rich foods
Prebiotics are carbohydrates that pass through the body undigested until they reach the colon. In the colon these prebiotics are fermented where they fuel the good bacteria in our gut. In essence, prebiotics are food for probiotics as they are important fuel sources for the healthy bacteria in our gut, helping them increase in numbers.
Inulin is a common prebiotic and it’s naturally found in garlic, asparagus, onions, soybeans, leeks and artichokes. However, prebiotics are also now added to many foods including breakfast cereals, bread, table spreads, drinks and yoghurt in the form of inulin which has been extracted from Jerusalem artichokes or chicory root. Other sources of prebiotic dietary fibres include fruit (banana and apples), konjac root (which low calorie “shirataki” or “slendier” noodles are made out of), beta-glucan found in oats, psylium husk and wholegrain cereals such as barley, rye and wheat bran. All of these options are great ways of boosting your prebiotic fibre intake and will support strong gut health.
2. Probiotic rich foods
Probiotics are live ‘friendly’ bacteria or microorganisms that help maintain a healthy gut by reducing the number of harmful bacteria and also produce specific fatty acids that feed the cells lining the gut keeping them healthy and boost our immune function. Probiotics are also important for a healthy immune system, for optimal absorption of nutrients and for the production of vitamin K. There are many different strains that can be found in fermented foods. The most common types of probiotics are Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli spp. Yoghurts, yakult, kefir (russian inspired fermented dairy drink), kimchi (korean inspired fermented vegetables and spices), tempeh, sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) and miso are all foods that are rich in probiotics. There are lots of new products on the market that have added probiotic strains such as kombucha and coconut yoghurts.
Many antioxidants are polyphenols, a large group of chemical compounds found in plants. Some sources of polyphenols such as those found in green and black tea can inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, whilst others can stimulate the growth of beneficial microbiota. Other potential health benefits include anti-cancer, anti-oxidant, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory properties.
Common foods with rich polyphenol content include fruits especially dark berries, vegetables, seeds such as flaxseed, nuts (e.g. chestnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, almonds, walnuts), olives and extra-virgin olive oil, vegetables, tea, cocoa products, wine, spices (e.g. cloves, curry powder, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, circumin), dried herbs (e.g. peppermints, oregnao, thyme, basil, parsley), green tea, black tea.
4. Limit processed foods
Processed, deep fried, low fibre and high sugar foods should be limited as they increase levels of harmful bacteria in the gut and reduce the variety of bacterial species in the gut causing an imbalance within a few days. High fat, high sugar and high meat diets have been linked to poor gut health. It is also important to take it easy on the alcohol as it can cause an imbalance in the gut microbiota.
Aim to base your diet on minimally processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes (e.g. beans, lentils, chickpeas), nuts, seeds and whole grains such as rolled oats, quinoa, brown rice, bulgur, kamut, barley, corn, amanranth, teff, and buckwheat.
Moderate your intake of animal protein especially red meat and processed meats such as sausages and deli meat (ham, bacon, salami). Eating more than 700 grams (raw weight) of red meat a week increases your risk of bowel cancer, and for every 50 grams of processed meat eaten per day your risk of bowel cancer goes up 1.18 times. Alternate red meat with chicken, fish, free range eggs, tofu, legumes and lean pork or turkey. Aim to include two to three fish meals per week and some meat free meals such as a vegetarian curry, tofu stir-fry or roast vegetable salad.
5. Stress less and sleep a little more
Simply put- humans are not designed for chronic stress. Studies have shown that stress can lead to changes in the composition, diversity and number of gut microbiota. Furthermore, links have been made between the microbiota and depression, anxiety and stress. In fact, a recent study found that the addition of a “good” strain of the bacteria lactobacillus (which is also found in yoghurt) to the gut of normal mice reduced their anxiety levels.
The fight or flight response that is brought on by stress results in decreased blood flow to the digestive system and fewer digestive enzymes being secreted. Stress can also increase inflammation in the body, including the gastrointestinal system, as well as changes in bowel habits such as constipation and diarrhoea.
Taking care of your emotional well-being and investing in your self-care is vital to your health and vitality. Take time to relax and keep your stress levels in check. This might involve disconnecting from your electronics and social media for an hour each day, doing some exercise, meditation or deep breathing to calm your mind.
Take home message
Investing in the health of your gut microbiota, is an investment in your long-term health and vitality. By increasing your intake of plant-based foods, reducing your intake of refined and processed foods and investing in your self-care you will be promoting the growth of good bacteria that will make up your gut microbiota.