Gut health is a relatively new term that has seeped into our consciousness over the past decade. Paying attention to it can improve energy levels, mood, and even your sleep. But can we specifically choose foods that are great for our gut?
The food we eat and the lifestyle choices we make all impact the health of our gut. Here, we'll help you decipher your probiotics from your prebiotics and work out how to make the best gastrointestinal choices on the menu.
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What exactly is a healthy gut anyway?
Your gut is also home to trillions of bacteria, fungi, viruses, microbes, and protozoa. These microscopic organisms help us digest food and extract the nutrients we need to live healthy and happy lives. Combined, they're known as your gut flora or gut microbiome. Keeping them healthy, in the right place, and in balance with each other is crucial for maintaining good health.
Your gut microbiota also changes throughout your life. The diversity of bacteria increases in your first years of life and decreases with age. Because of this, a healthy gut for someone in their 20s will be different from that of someone in their late 50s.
Even so, a healthy gut has a good balance of different bacteria and microbes. As with any diverse community, there are beneficial and potentially harmful bacteria. In some cases, beneficial bacteria in one part of the gut can be detrimental in another. So a healthy gut has a good balance of the right microorganisms in the right place.
Your gut-brain connection
Your gut biome influences more than just your digestion and how well you absorb nutrients from food. Your gut health impacts nearly all other aspects of your health and well-being. For example, it helps to regulate hormones and immune function along with the other brain centres of the body. Neuroscientists consider the gut to be a second brain.
Along with the expected muscles and tissues, the gut also has sensory neurons, motor neurons, ganglia, and neurotransmitters. These enable it to take in information, process it and even store it for later use. The information from your gut is also shared with other brain centres, impacting your overall health.
Each brain centre has its specialist functions. For example, your brain is responsible for cognitive perception and finding meaning; it's the home of creativity. Your heart takes care of emotional processing and connection with others, and your gut-brain focuses on self-preservation and actualisation.
Your enteric brain is another term used to refer to your gut health. It works in concert with your cephalic (head) brain and your cardiac (heart) brain, communicating via the vagus nerve. Research shows that poor gut health can cause problems with motivation, focus, and mood, as well as stomach pains, bloating, flatulence, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other digestive complaints.
Is there a connection between gut health and mental health?
Our gut health has a direct impact on our mental health. If you've ever felt hangry, felt butterflies in anticipation of something, or had a gut-wrenching experience, you've experienced your gut's influence on your mental state. But it's a little more complex than that.
Your digestive tract is sensitive to your mental state. And your mental state can influence your gut health too. It's a two-way street. Your emotions can trigger responses in your gut (butterflies, knots, or flip-flops of excitement), and your gut can send messages to your brain that causes it to release or reduce certain hormones related to your mood.
Your gut also produces some of the hormones related to regulating mood and contributing to good mental health. For example, the gut produces dopamine, GABA, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine. And the intestine produces 95% of all of your serotonin.
Serotonin is made partly by the enterochromaffin (EC) cells in your large intestine and partly by the microbes that live alongside them. Without the right gut bacteria, you cannot produce as much serotonin.
Low serotonin levels can lead to low mood, lack of energy, and, in some cases, depression. Keeping your gut healthy improves energy, motivation, and feelings of self-worth. In addition, some studies have shown that taking probiotics can improve depression, not to mention ease symptoms of IBS.
What are the risks of neglecting gut health?
Neglecting the health of your digestive system is a recipe for uncomfortable living at best and a much shorter life at worst. This is because our gut houses 70% of our immune system. This part of our body also influences mood, energy, motivation, and even cognition. Taking care of it has many benefits, and ignoring it comes with many risks.
Gastric problems like constipation, heartburn, diarrhoea, and IBS are warnings of an unhealthy gut. Skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and acne can also indicate you need to take better care of your digestive tract. Neglecting your digestive system can result in some or all of these more severe conditions.
Unintended weight loss or obesity
The small intestine is responsible for nearly all of the nutrient absorption from your food. Without the right bacteria in this part of your system, it's difficult for your body to get what it needs. Stunted absorption can result in unexpected weight loss or even uncontrollable weight gain and obesity.
Your energy levels will undoubtedly drop if your body cannot get the fuel it needs. This and the impact it has on serotonin production can lead to chronic fatigue. Along with helping to regulate mood, serotonin helps to keep us alert throughout the day. Reduced serotonin levels further impact the lack of nutrients and leave us feeling worn out.
Food intolerances and allergies
A lack of diversity in our gut microbiome links to food allergies and intolerances. These may cause bloating, gas, abdominal cramping, pain, and nausea.
Type 2 diabetes
Our gut bacteria help us to break down sugars and fats. A recent study found that four bacteria, Lactobacillus johnsonii, Lactobacillus gasseri, Romboutsia ilealis, and Ruminococcus gnavus, played a pivotal role in developing type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately, with a typical Western diet high in sugars, fats, and salt, it's difficult for these bacteria to thrive and help manage blood sugar levels. This makes it more likely for people to develop this chronic condition.
The wrong balance of gut bacteria has strong links with heart disease, high blood pressure, and lower levels of good cholesterol. There are also correlations between heart attacks and strokes with poor gut health and the byproducts of too many harmful bacteria in the human gut.
Lack of diversity in gut microbiota has also been linked to the development of different types of cancers and even the effectiveness of cancer treatments.
5 steps to cultivating good gut health
A healthy gut has a diverse range of bacteria, microbes, and protozoa. Supporting and developing this diversity leads to many health benefits. There are several ways to do this; some are to do with our dietary choices, and others are more lifestyle choices. Combined, they create the right environment for a healthy and happy gut.
1. Support your gut bacteria
You've been developing a diverse range of gut bacteria since birth. Supporting the microbes already in your gut with the right foods is a great way to start cultivating better gut health. Many dieticians recommend eating 30 different plant-based foods each week for this reason.
Start by eating a wide range of fruits and vegetables, aiming to cover each colour of the rainbow with your food choices. Replacing red meats like beef, lamb, and pork with white meats like chicken and fish is another healthier choice. Fish and nuts comprise a large part of the fatty acids you need for a healthy diet.
Including whole grains, lentils, and legumes in your diet will also feed your good bacteria. These foods are known as prebiotics because we need these gut bacteria to break down complex carbohydrates. When our microbes feed on the prebiotics, we can extract the nutrients we need, so it's a win-win.
We spoke to Registered Nutritional Therapist Victoria Bell, who provided Health Times with additional insight about gut bacteria, saying: “Having symptoms such as bloating and diarrhoea after eating certain foods can often lead people to cut those foods out, suspecting an intolerance or many intolerances. This can lead to an increasingly restricted diet which sadly further prevents the chance of having a calm tummy with balanced gut bacteria.”
2. Add live bacteria to your diet
Prebiotics feed the gut bacteria you already have. Probiotics are live bacteria that your gut needs. Taking these as supplements or fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, kefir, and tempeh adds more diversity to our gut flora.
Different types of fermentation processes support different kinds of bacteria. Sauerkraut and kimchi, for instance, contain lactic acid bacteria. Tempeh has acidophilus, bacillus subtilis, and others, while miso soup has aspergillus, yeast, and lactic acid bacteria. Remember, diversity is one of the cornerstones of good gut health.
That said, balance is also crucial, so continue making healthy choices to keep the microbes you have happy.
3. Avoid processed foods
While whole grains and unprocessed foods support your good bacteria, processed foods undermine them and even support the bad bacteria you want to keep in check. Foods like salami, sausages, bacon, and creamy desserts are high in sugar, salt, additives, and unhealthy fats. Your harmful bacteria love these; the good guys, not so much.
Some highly processed cheeses are also bad for gut health, while other cheeses are good for it. As a general rule of thumb, aged, unheated cheeses tend to contain probiotics. They also taste great with many of the fermented foods mentioned above.
4. Get enough sleep
Along with eating well, getting enough sleep will support your digestive system. Poor gut health can adversely impact your sleep, and insufficient sleep can lead to poor gut health. Sleep quality is just as important, if not more so, than how much you get.
Getting a better night's sleep keeps your hormones in better balance, particularly your stress hormone, cortisol. Too much cortisol can degrade your intestine wall, leading to a condition known as a leaky gut. Eating too close to bedtime also impacts sleep and your digestive health. So keep snacks to no less than three hours before bed.
5. Exercise daily
Exercise is great for your gut for lots of reasons. Gentle exercise after eating helps digestion – gravity gets involved, but also, the movement helps the food move through your system. It's also great for stress levels – it keeps cortisol to healthy levels, and some research has shown it can increase the diversity of your gut microbiome.
You don't need a dietitian to determine the best way to improve your gut health. However, if you're experiencing symptoms that indicate your gut needs some attention, it can help to seek medical advice.
Otherwise, follow your gut instinct towards a varied diet of whole, natural foods. Cut down on sugars, salts, and fats and get enough exercise and sleep to improve the diversity of your gut microbes. Choosing a healthy lifestyle supports your physical well-being, your mental health, and your gut health, ultimately creating the right conditions for a long and happy life.