‘All disease beings in the gut,’ said the Ancient Greek philosopher, Hippocrates.
Some 2000 years later, these words of wisdom are still proven time and time again to be undoubtedly true. Taking care of gut health should be a priority and will help to support the overall health of the body in a variety of ways.
In fact the impact of gut health has been linked to a variety of health concerns, ranging from digestive problems, autoimmune conditions and metabolic diseases such as obesity.
Researchers have also discovered that a nervous system in your gut, known as the “second brain”, communicates with your brain. This is known as the gut-brain connection. The gut-brain connection explains the gut’s link to anxiety and depression, and neurological conditions like schizophrenia and dementia.
So in other words, the overall wellness of both your body and your brain depends directly on how healthy your gut is.
It’s all about bacteria…
So, knowing what we know, what are the different factors that impact how your gut performs? Well, there are a lot of them. About 100 trillion in fact; that’s how many bacteria, both good and bad, are currently living inside your digestive system. Paired with other tiny organisms like viruses and fungi, they make what’s known as the microbiome.
Each person’s microbiome is unique to them. Your microbiome is decided by your mother’s microbiome – the environment that you’re exposed to at birth – and your diet, environment and lifestyle.
Bacteria make homes in areas all around your body, but those residing in your gut have the biggest influence on your health.
Some bacteria are ‘good’ and help to fight inflammation, while others are ‘bad’ and promote inflammation. When the gut is working at its best, the good and bad bacteria should keep each other in check. But when this becomes imbalanced, ’bad’ bacteria takes charge—and can produce metabolites (a substance needed for metabolism) that spread to the lining of the gut and the bloodstream, moving the inflammation to various parts of the body.
Certain bacteria types can have a severe impact on health. Some bacteria have been linked to a lower immune function; others to increased risk of allergies; and others to chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Importantly, your gut is responsible for how your body extracts and absorbs nutrients from your diet, so a poorly functioning microbiome could leave you lacking in important nutrients.
This is where food comes in
When it comes to maintaining a healthy and balanced gut microbiome, the food and drinks you consume are very important. You are what you eat, so your gut microbiome is dictated by what you put in your mouth.
The happy news is, even a lifetime of poor eating choices can be rectified — at least as far as your microbes are concerned. In fact, your body can create a new microbiome in only one day — simply by changing your diet.
What to eat for a healthy gut
Prebiotics are fibres and natural sugars that support the good bacteria in the gut and encourage the development of a diverse community of microbes. These foods are complex carbohydrates, such as vegetables and whole grains including onions, garlic, asparagus, banana and jerusalem artichoke.
Probiotics are foods, containing beneficial live bacteria. Probiotic foods contain “good bacteria” that populate your gut and fight off bad bacterial strains. Good sources include live yoghurt and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and miso.
Most people do not consume enough fibre. Fibre feeds good bacteria, so it’s important to eat fibre-rich foods multiple times per day.
Microbes extract the fibre’s energy, nutrients, and vitamins, which can increase immunity, reduce inflammation, and protect against weight gain.
Choose Whole Grains
Whole grains, such as quinoa and oats, have dietary fibre that cannot be broken down by your intestines. That means they reach your colon intact, where they become food for the microbes and can help boost their populations. Good sources include whole grain rice, brown bread, rye bread, buckwheat and quinoa.
Spice Things Up
Adding antibacterial spices like garlic, ginger, cumin and turmeric to your dishes, can help stem the rise of ‘bad’ bacteria in your gut.
Have Some Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate (ideally over 70%) is full of fibre and molecules called polyphenols, which microbes can use for fuel. Foods abundant in polyphenols are anti-inflammatory, and can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Some further sources of polyphenols include red grapes, artichoke, green tea and cherries.
An Apple a Day…..
A recent study has found that green apples boost good gut bacteria. While you will also benefit from eating them uncooked, interesting research has shown stewed apples to be of benefit for your microbiome, and can be healing to the gut too.
And what you should avoid
A diet, containing processed foods such as refined carbohydrates, reduces bacterial diversity and induces gut inflammation. Avoid white bread, white rice, ready-made meals and low-quality cooking oils.
Antibiotics and over-the-counter medications such as the contraceptive pill and NSAIDs negatively shift the gut microbiome. Try to avoid whenever it is possible and safe to do so.
Studies highlight that a historical stressful event could still be affecting your gut even years later. Stress inhibits the immune function because your body diverts energy from fighting infections and focuses on the immediate stressor. To help combat this, increase your exercise of choice as it’s a natural stress reliever that can help reduce inflammation and increase immunity.
Lack of Sleep
Lack of sleep and even short-term sleep deprivation can damage the microbiome. To avoid this make sure to wind down gradually and achieve the right amount of sleep needed for your body.
Take control of your gut health
Sub-optimal gut health is linked to a large number of diseases in one way or another because the gut is the home of our immune system and tends to be where inflammation begins. By making improvements to your diet, eating a wide range of anti-inflammatory and polyphenol foods and prebiotics/probiotics, lowering stress, and sleeping better, you can support a healthy gut microbiome and improve your all-round health.
Written by Bev Walton, BSc Nutritional Science
I achieved a First-Class Honours degree in BSc Nutritional Science, Nutrition Sciences from the University of Reading and now have over 35 years experience in all types of cuisine, dietary plans, recipe development, health and nutrition. I have been writing for over 10 years for magazines and websites as well as ghostwriting for ebooks, Kindle and fully published books. I’m also a proud member of the Guild of Food writers.