The holiday season is an exciting, busy and stressful time for many of us, and indulging in all of the many foods and drinks that we don’t normally have throughout the year can be one of the best parts. However, this can have unpleasant results for our digestive system. The extra sugar, lack of fibre and added stress can take a toll on our entire body, but particularly the digestive system.
Bacteria and other microbes vastly outnumber the number of human cells in our bodies. We need them, and we cannot function without them. These microbes support our immune system, help us to absorb nutrients and help to reduce the risk of many chronic health conditions such as:
- Heart disease
- Anxiety and depression
Many autoimmune diseases have also been linked to poor gut health. Recent studies have shown that the interactions between your microbiome and immune cells can initiate autoreactivity, inflammation and tissues damage in susceptible people. As well as this, research, has shown evidence that a gut barrier breach that allows good bacteria to pass through into non-gut organs can trigger numerous autoimmune pathways. This can be prevented through diet.
These new studies are showing what many people have suspected for a long time; that gut health affects your entire wellbeing. And it doesn’t take as much time as you may think to alter your gut health, for better or worse.
Changing Your Gut Microbiome
There are around 100 trillion bacteria and other microbes living in your digestive system. That number may seem overwhelming to have any effect on; however, your microbiome can change in diversity very quickly when you change your diet.
We have known for some time that different diets create very different microbiomes. Just look at different cultures. However, due to previous studies being on mice, the relationship between the food we eat and our gut bacteria hasn’t been clear. But recent research using humans is beginning to show how fast we can change our gut bacteria.
It can take as little as 3 to 4 days to alter your microbiome when you have a major change in your diet. This could be a good change or a bad change. Within days there can be a change in variation and abundance of different kinds of bacteria as well as the type of genes they express. Our microbiome is extremely responsive to diet.
Understanding this information can be very beneficial to us, especially around this time of the year when most of us rapidly change from a healthy diet to a not-so-healthy diet for a few weeks. The extra load of sugary foods, red meat, alcohol, refined carbohydrates and lack of fibre all contribute to throwing our guts off balance. Along with this, the extra stress associated with the holidays also puts pressure on our microbiome. However, now we understand that it is easy to turn this around with a few diet changes; after enjoying the holidays of course.
How to Improve Your Gut Health After Holiday Indulgence
Now that you understand that you can have a profound effect on your gut bacteria in a fairly short amount of time, what measures should you take to do this? Here are the top 3 things you can do to recover after the holidays.
Eat a diet high in plant foods– Resistant starch is the preferred food for healthy gut bacteria; they love it. In other words, prebiotic fibre. This type of fibre is abundant in many plant-based foods such as:
- Sweet potatoes
- Firm bananas
- Some seeds
- Wholegrain cereals
All starchy foods contain resistant starch; however, how much depends on how it’s prepared and if it’s been cooked. In general, processing and heating starchy foods reduces the amount of resistant starch. So, you need to make sure you eat a wide variety of fibre-rich foods.
It’s also good to note that many people have problems with resistant starch, causing bloating and other symptoms. This may be due to an unhealthy microbiome, so introducing these foods slowly is always a good idea if they are not already a common part of your diet.
Avoid processed and sugary foods– Do a quick Google search about sugar and gut bacteria and you will find many claims that it feeds bad bacteria, allowing it to grow. This may seem logical but these claims are a little misleading.
The conflict comes from how simple sugars are digested. Simple sugars are broken down and absorbed in the small intestine, and partly in the month by enzymes. They are then immediately absorbed into the bloodstream. Almost none of this will even make it to then end of the digestive tract where the majority of our gut bacteria live. Our gut bacteria want fibre; resistant starch, which is not digested in the small intestine and makes its way to the end to be broken down by our gut bacteria.
The problem with diets high in simple sugars and processed foods (besides the obvious health issues), is that it takes up room in the diet which should be left for fibre-rich foods such as wholegrains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds. People who eat a lot of processed foods, usually do not eat many healthy foods and starve their gut bacteria. Currently, there are no studies that prove that simple sugars have any direct effect on our gut bacteria, however, the indirect effects are obvious. We need to feed the good guys good food.
Include fermented foods– Finally, one of the most beneficial things you can do after indulging during the holidays is to repopulate your good bacteria by consuming fermented foods and drinks. There are a wide variety of fermented foods to choose from, which are all very easy to make yourself, such as:
These recipes provide a great way to help you recover from holiday indulgence by providing the good bacteria you may need. Although these foods are an excellent source of probiotics, you must still provide fuel (prebiotics) to keep them alive. This is why it’s important to eat a wide range of fibre-rich foods, especially after the holiday season to get your gut health back on track.