Gut bacteria, gut health, microbiome, microbiota, probiotics, prebiotics, fibre. Chances are you’ve heard these words before, especially in recent years, but do you know what they mean, what they are and why we need them?
Gut health is a topic receiving loads of interest at present and for good reason. Put simply, health beings in the gut. A healthy gut not only means good digestion, but also impacts other areas of health including mental health, your immune system and chronic disease management.
There is so much to know on this huge topic so why not start at the beginning.
What is the Gut Microbiome?
Gut microbiome is the term used to describe all the trillions of microorganisms and their genetic material living in our gastrointestinal tract. This includes mostly bacteria (good and bad) as well as viruses, yeast and fungi.
Gut microbiota is the community of micro-organisms themselves. Microbiota diversity is the measure of how many different species of bacteria, fungi etc are in the community. The more diverse the gut microbiota, the better your gut health and overall health can be.
How does the gut microbiome develop?
From the moment you are born various bacteria and other microorganisms colonise your gut. Nutrition of the mother, parent’s genetics, breastfeed vs formula and even delivery method (vaginal or c-section) is shown to impact early gut microbiota. As you get older it is influenced by the foods you eat but also your environment and lifestyle including stress or illness. So the better your gut microbiome the better your health, right?
A ‘Healthy Gut’
When you hear gut health, you likely think good digestion of food, absorption of nutrition and healthy bowel function with minimal bloating, pain, gas, constipation or diarrhea? This is certainly an element of a healthy gut, but it is so much more than this. Your immune system starts in your digestive system or intestines. Food, drinks, bugs, illness and medication all passes through your gut. Your immune system must learn to tolerate all your gut bacteria – good and bad, and respond appropriately to any bugs or illness. Your immune system actually learns from your gut microbiota how to function properly.
At present it is understood a more diverse gut microbiome results in better health. This is because different microbes or bacteria play different roles in our health, same as your have various players in a sporting team.
So how do you achieve a healthy gut and gut microbiome?
You are what you eat is the perfect adage. Looking at your nutrition is the starting point when aiming to achieve healthy gut microbiome.
A diet high in fibre is a must. Higher fibre intake leads to better health of the cells in your digestive tract and a more diverse gut microbiome. Fibre is a type of carbohydrate found in plant foods including fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. It passes undigested through the small intestine and works its magic in the large intestine where it feeds the gut microbiome keeping it happy. There are two types of dietary fibre and both of them are important for gut health. Soluble fibre is found in fruits, vegetables, oats, barley and legumes, while insoluble fibre is found in wholegrains, nuts, seeds and the skin of fruit and vegetables.
Another thing that will help achieve a healthy gut microbiome (and at the same time benefit your fibre intake) is aiming for wide variety in your diet. This mostly plant food as these contain the fibre that feeds the gut. Aim for a variety of colour in your fruits and vegetables, include legumes, different wholegrains such as oats, quinoa, barley and brown rice and nuts and seeds. The more variety the better as different foods have different nutrients, phytochemicals and polyphenols (aka good stuff) to feed the gut.
Avoid processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, deep fried foods, deli meats and foods containing artificial sweeteners. These foods may increase inflammation in your digestive system and could decrease the good bacteria in your gut. For the same reasons watch your alcohol consumption and if you choose to drink do so in moderation.
Lastly aim for good hydration. Fluids (the non sugar sweetened kind) keeps your digestive system moving and functioning smoothly which in term keeps your gut microbiome happy.