With up to 80 % of our immune system located in the gut, its role in health extends much deeper than the assimilation, digestion and absorption of food, and it is now becoming more widely accepted that most human illnesses will (in one way or another) stem back to an unhealthy gut (1).
The gut is the main host of our microbiome – an estimated 100 trillion microorganisms reside in our bodies within a dynamic ‘ecosystem’. Largely made up by bacteria, these microbes (outnumbering our own body cells tenfold!) are also involved in vitamin syntheses, inflammation, detoxification, gene expression, hormone balance, and producing brain chemicals (1). Developed in infancy, our microbiome is influenced by multiple factors, including delivery mode, first foods, stress, trauma, environment and medications. For example, a mother’s breast milk contains probiotic strains* - such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium – that help the infant to develop its immunity (2,3).
Science is also making connections between the gut-brain-inflammation axis and the immune-modulating effects by specific probiotics. A recent meta-analysis of 20 different clinical trials concluded that those who took probiotics daily, reduced systemic inflammation in their bodies. These findings are thought to be attributed to the beneficial bacteria reducing harmful bacteria and fungi, thus minimising the inflammatory immune response (3). Links are also established between the microbiome and neurological disorders, as bacteria play a significant role in the production of both serotonin (our ‘happy hormone’) and GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric acid) that helps to counter the effect of stress and anxiety. Imbalanced gut bacteria can therefore present with a cascade of symptoms, not only confined to the digestive tract, but could include anxiety, depression, infertility, obesity, skin problems, hypothyroidism, diabetes, and other systemic symptoms (4,5,6).
As we are discovering more and more about the complex role of the gut (and its inhabitants), how can we actually influence it to our advantage?
7 Tips to Keep Your Gut (and Your Microbes) Happy
1. Eat Mindfully – We are what we digest, not what we eat. Avoid distractions such as watching TV or eating ‘on the go’. Avoid eating when you are stressed, which activates your sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) and shuts down digestion, and don’t forget to chew your food thoroughly as this is the first stage of digestion.
2. Eat Real Foods – Ditch any foods that require labels (particularly with more than 5 ingredients on the label) and maximise nutrient intake by eating wholefoods – vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, good quality protein and healthy fats.
3. Count Colours, Not Calories - Add a variety of coloured vegetables and fruits to your meals (the deeper the colour is, the greater health benefits it brings), rich in phytonutrients and antioxidants which possess anti-inflammatory and immune-supportive properties (1).
4. Remove Toxins – Avoid processed foods, genetically modified produce and intensively farmed animals or agriculture loaded with chemical fertilisers, which will irritate the gut lining, contribute to food allergies and inflammation, and destroy beneficial bacteria (1).
5. Detox from Sugar – If you are ‘craving’ sugar, it may be induced by an overgrowth of certain bacteria or yeast in the gut. The best way to discourage such growth is by reducing or eliminating any simple sugars (such as bread, pasta, cakes, white potato and sugary drinks) from your diet, thereby starving them from their main source of fuel.
6. Feed Your Gut - Keep your microbiome healthy by eating plenty of fibre (minimum of 25 g/day) which will keep your digestive system running smoothly and remove toxins and waste products along the way. Some of these fibres - found in onions, garlic, leeks and chicory - will act as prebiotics, i.e. food for bacteria, and stimulate the growth of beneficial strains.
7. Eat the ‘Good Guys’ – Almost all traditional cultures have included fermented foods in their diet, such as fermented dairy or vegetables - a process where anaerobic bacteria commonly break down carbohydrates to lactic acid, creating a probiotic end product with increased shelf-life, enzymes and nutrients (particularly B-vitamins) (7). Consuming fermented foods daily, e.g. kefir, yoghurt, kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi, is a great way to ensure you are keeping a healthy microbial balance in the gut.
* Probiotic strains are live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host (3)
What's your experience with gut health? Please share your experiences in the comments below!
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