Gut health and the importance of our microbiome – a topic many of us don't know much about.
Trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi live inside us and maintaining a good, balanced, relationship with them is to our advantage. Together, they form the gut microbiome - a rich ecosystem that forms a variety of functions in our bodies.
Gut bacteria breaks down food the body cannot digest thus, producing important nutrients, regulating the immune system, and protecting against harmful germs.
What affects our microbiome?
Gut microbiome begins to develop in very early life, and is influenced by genetics, delivery method (C-section or not), age, stress, illness, environment, medication use, and diet.
Diet too is emerging as one of the major factors on the health of our guts. And, while we cannot control all these factors, we can manipulate the balance of our microbes by paying attention to what we eat.
What happens when we eat processed foods?
Lower fibre means less fuel for the gut bacteria. This, essentially, starves them until they die off. This results in less diversity and very hungry bacteria. In fact, some can even start to feed on the mucous lining of our gut!
What to eat for a healthy gut?
Dietary fibre from foods like fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grains are the best fuel for gut bacteria. When bacteria digest fibre they produce short chain fatty acids. These fatty acids nourish the gut barrier, improve immune function, and can help prevent inflammation which reduces the risk of colon cancer. The more fibre you ingest, the more fibre-digesting bacteria colonise your gut.
Foods such as fruit, vegetables, coffee (excluding instant coffee), dark chocolate, and red wine were correlated with increased with bacterial diversity. Now, to get a bit technical, these foods contain polyphenols which are naturally occurring anti-oxidant compounds; On the other hand, foods such as whole milk and sugar-laden sodas have been shown to decrease bacterial diversity, in the gut.
One of the best ways to encourage, and introduce, a diversity in the gut is by introducing probiotics into your diet and through supplementation. This can be taken in capsule form, liquid or through fermented foods which contain Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria.
Fermented foods include Kimchi, Sauerkraut, Tempeh, Kombucha and Kefir. These add diversity and vitality to our diets. Yoghurt also contains friendly gut bacteria, however not all are made equal – avoid those that contain sugar, colourants, and flavours.
How food is prepared also matters. Minimally processed, fresh, foods that are lightly steamed, sautéed, or raw, are best.
More research is needed before we can fully understand how any of these foods interact with our microbiome. We see positive correlations, but the inside of our gut is a difficult place to make direct observations.
While we’re only beginning to explore the vast wilderness inside our guts, we already have had a glimpse of how crucial our microbiomes are for overall health. And, while there is no blue print evidence of which bacteria a robust gut needs, what we do know is that it is important for a healthy gut microbiome to have a variety of bacterial species.
The great news is we have the power to fire up the bacteria in our bellies and can trust our gut's to keep us going strong.