Within your gut live trillions of microorganisms working for you, keeping you healthy and protecting you from disease. You may be familiar with words like “good bacteria” and “probiotics”, or even some fermented foods such as kombucha and kefir. However, there is a lot more to a healthy gut than simply taking a probiotic or eating fermented foods occasionally. A healthy gut is a lifestyle.
What is the Gut Microbiome?
The gut microbiome are the trillions of microorganisms living in your intestinal tract, both good and bad. Your microbiome is something you may not think about until something goes wrong. And it’s not about getting rid of all of the bad guys, they need to be there to a degree, it’s about a healthy balance.
The majority of your gut microbiome is made up of communities of bacteria, however there is also viruses, archaea and fungi present. The human microbiome is dynamic and can change depending on many factors, such as the environment, diet, antibiotic use and disease response.
Your microbiome is involved in many critical functions for your health and wellbeing. Your gut bacteria play a key role in digesting your food, and also helping with absorbing and synthesising nutrients. Your microbiome not only helps with digestion, gut bacteria is also involved in body weight, immunity, mood, brain function and metabolism
Nutrition and Gut Health
A healthy gut microbiome starts with good nutrition. The good news is that it’s easy to change your gut bacteria by changing your diet, and changes can take a matter of days. It’s about learning to feed the good guys and avoiding feeding the bad guys.
Feeding Bad Bacteria
You need a diverse range of bacteria in your gut, and this includes bad bacteria. It is true that some species of bacteria in our bodies can cause disease, but this usually only happens when our microbiome is disrupted. This can happen in many ways such as stress, antibiotics or diet.
In healthy individuals, bad bacteria exist in low levels without causing harm as they are kept in check by the good guys. However, if they are allowed to flourish, they can begin to eliminate good bacteria and throw our microbiome out of balance. This is called dysbiosis. When this happens, inflammation can result. Chronic inflammation makes the body more susceptible to many conditions and can eventually lead to disease.
Diet is one of the ways we encourage bad bacteria to grow. A diet high in sugar, junk food and red meat, and low in plants foods support bad bacteria and starve good bacteria. Other factors such as exercise habits and chronic stress affects the balance of good and bad bacteria.
The Microbiome and Stress
The link between the brain and the gut is becoming clearer. Increased inflammation, disease flares and poor health is more likely to be seen during times of stress. The connection between exposure to stress and the levels and diversity of our gut bacteria is beginning to be shown in studies.
While stress can disrupt our gut bacteria, it also goes the other way. Our gut bacteria can cause stress. There are many studies now showing that the signal runs in both directions; the brain can inform the gut of stress and impact our microbiome, or the microbiome can inform the brain that something is wrong, resulting in stress or anxiety.
Nourishing Your Microbiome
Diet is the perfect way to begin you gut health journey, and gut health books are a great way to begin. However, it’s important to remember that diet isn’t the only aspect of gut health.
A healthy diet that feeds your good bacteria must include an abundance of their favourite food, prebiotic fibre. Taking probiotics is no good if you do not provide the food they need to survive.
The Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics
Probiotics are live bacteria naturally found in food and are a great way to repopulate your good bacteria. Probiotics are found in high levels in many fermented foods such as kombucha, yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso and many more. However, after you consume probiotics you must nurture them so they can survive, multiple and benefit your gut health.
Prebiotics are the food that feeds healthy gut bacteria and are essential if you want probiotics to survive. Unfortunately, if you have a diet the lacks plant foods, you will not be providing the necessary food for good bacteria to live and multiply. This means that no matter how many probiotics you consume, they will only survive for a limited amount of time.
Prebiotics are a type of fibre that passes undigested through the gut. When they arrive at the large intestine, they feed the healthy bacteria living there promoting their growth. Prebiotics are found in many plant-based foods, and a diet that includes a wide range of plant food will support gut health.
Some Foods that are high in prebiotic fibre include:
Fermented foods are getting a lot of positive attention for the benefits they provide to gut health. Fermentation isn’t new, and has been a method used for hundreds of years as a way to preserve food. However, fermentation doesn’t only preserve food, it also boosts the food’s nutritional value by making many nutrients more available for absorption as well as providing a good dose of probiotics.
It’s important to be aware that not all fermented foods are created equal. Foods that are fermented using natural processes contain live cultures. However, often jars of pickles that you’ll find in the supermarket have been pickled using vinegar and not naturally fermented, as a result they do not contain any live bacteria. One way to ensure that you get a real fermented product is to make your own at home, and the process is a lot simpler than you may realise.