Why is everyone talking about gut health? Our ‘second brain’ appears to be taking the spotlight in health and wellness. Gut health refers to the function and balance of bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract. Trillions of bacteria, fungi and other microbes make up your gut microbiota, also known as your gut flora or microbiome. Your gut microbiota is larger than the average human brain and needs to be cared for just like any other body part. Studies have linked gut health to obesity, our immune system and even our mood.
Why Are We Hearing More About Gut Health Now?
In some cultures, the topic of gut health has historically been highly valued. It feels as though the Western world has only recently begun to consider the gut as essential to overall good health. Bischoff attributes this newfound relevance to two possibilities: More people are experiencing poor gut health, and marketing professionals see gut health as a lucrative business concept. Population urbanisation has resulted in a loss of microorganisms normally passed on from mother to child. Several factors may be to blame, including dietary habits, lifestyle, environment, or antibiotic use.
Why Is Gut Health So Important?
Everyone has a unique microbiome in their body. We share only 10-20% of our gut bacteria with anyone else. This can account for the way we react differently to food, differences in digestion, health, and taste. Broadly speaking, our microbiome affects four areas of our health: nutrition, behaviour, immunity, and disease.
Gut microbes are responsible for things the gut itself cannot do. Extracting nutrients from food, living off non-digestible substrates, producing healthy chemicals and short-chain fatty acids that can stop allergies, help our immune systems and even promote a happier mood.
The gut is incredibly complex, but studies have associated a decline in microbial diversity with a rise in diseases, such as asthma, food allergies, and autoimmune disorders. Poor gut health has also been linked to obesity, IBS, brain disease and even depression. There are many claims surrounding gut health. Considering the complexity of the digestive system, we must be wary of products and foods that claim to be the answer to all our problems.
The NHS describes probiotics as live yeasts and bacteria promoted as having various health benefits. Often described as ‘friendly’ or ‘good’ bacteria, they usually come in the form of supplements or added to yoghurts. As probiotics fall under the category of food and not medicine, they are less rigorously tested. It usually isn’t harmful for those in good health to take them but they may not always deliver on the promises that they make. You may increase levels of certain bacteria but not necessarily increase microbial diversity. Placebo or not, I feel a small personal benefit from taking probiotics but I do take a lot of time to research the strains of bacteria in the product. Unfortunately, not one supplement will beat a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet!
How Can I Promote a Healthy Gut?
As we all have a unique microbial fingerprint, there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for a healthy gut. However, there are a few general rules to adhere to. We typically see a diverse and abundant amount of microbiota in a healthy gut. An unhealthy individual would have less diversity and an imbalance of bacteria that are associated with disease. Simply put, the key to good gut health is having as diverse a number of microbes as possible, promoted through dietary diversity.
Does Our Gut Love Certain Foods?
Certain foods are believed to be particularly beneficial for our gut:
- Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso paste, kefir and unpasteurised cheese
- Foods that are high in polyphenols, like dark chocolate and berries
- Foods that are high in omega-3, like oily fish. As a vegetarian, this is a slightly trickier task. I’ve been considering chia and flax seeds, leafy greens and supplements for sources of omega-3 fats
Many of these foods have shown promising results in terms of promoting gut health. However, studies are often small, so larger clinical trials are needed to confirm results. We also need to consider the contextual factors of this evidence such as lifestyle, genetics and stress levels.
Full of Fibre
Microbes require around 30 grams of fibre a day, but most of us in the UK only eat half this recommendation. If you feel like you are not getting enough, build up to 30 grams a day slowly, as rapid change might upset your digestion. Make sure this is coming from a variety of sources in your diet instead of relying on one type of food. Easy swaps and additions to your diet can be:
- Swapping white bread and grains for wholemeal bread, brown rice and wholewheat pasta. These healthier options are often more flavoursome and less bland than white bread and pasta
- Weetabix, shredded wheat and porridge are great ways to get fibre in at the start of your day
- It can be as easy as chucking in beans, chickpeas or lentils to a dish that you’re already making
- Eating your 5 a day! And no, necking an entire bottle of Innocent smoothie does not count
Keep it Interesting!
There is no one miracle cure for gut health. Or one superfood. Our habits and behaviours are what contribute to a healthy gut over time. It may just boil down to the doctor’s general advice for good health:
- Again, eating a varied diet. Professor Kevin Whelan says we must break the cycle of constantly eating the same thing. ‘If you have fish regularly, make sure it isn’t always salmon. Make sure you have wholegrains regularly, but not just wholegrain bread’
- Eat the rainbow – consume a range of different plants, nuts and seeds each week
- Avoid processed food with high amounts of added salt and sugar
- Staying hydrated
- Exercising regularly
- Getting a good night’s sleep
- Remember that it is important to speak to a professional before making a drastic change to your diet
In severe cases, faecal transplants have been used to treat certain diseases and infections. Faeces from a healthy donor are transplanted to reintroduce beneficial bacteria into the recipient, and has shown signs of being highly effective!
There is still a lot to learn about the gut and how it is connected to our physical and mental health. The overwhelming amount of information on the internet does make it difficult to separate fact from fiction. The benefit, though, is that we are changing our perception of the gut as something we must care for, not just as an organ left to fend for itself.