Listen to my Gut Health 101 Podcast episode
Have you ever wondered why gut health is so important? If you have then you aren’t alone. Many people contact our companies Nourishme Organics and Allele Microbiome asking these same questions. Coming from a scientific background, I know the in’s and out’s of gut health and why it's important. BUT it doesn’t help if I can’t explain it to the rest of the population. My whole essence of today is to really deconstruct and break down gut health.
Gut health has been all over the media lately. But why is Gut Health and the Microbiome important? Let’s look at some numbers. In Australia alone, approximately 10 Million people have digestive issues. That is almost half of the population. That number is staggering, this means that 1 in 2 people have some form of digestive issue. It could be:
-Abdominal discomfort, etc
Eating is such a fundamental part of being human. It is scary to think that people become afraid of eating because of the side effects it could have. They might eat something that doesn’t agree with them and end up in major discomfort or running to the toilet. I will be breaking down the symptoms of an unhealthy gut, what you should be eating, probiotics and fermented foods, and the consequences of antibiotics on your gut health.
Symptoms of an Unhealthy Gut Microbiome
How do you tell that you have an unhealthy microbiome? The first symptom would be the uneasiness that you are feeling in your gut area. It’s a really sensitive area so you may feel bloated and you'll know when you just aren't feeling up to par. You could also be very constipated. Instead of going to the toilet once or twice a day you may end up only going once a week! That’s a clear sign that something is fundamentally wrong.
Those are the extremes but there are also simple things like eating something and not feeling 100%. If you feel very lethargic after you eat, something is not agreeing with you. You should not be drained of energy every time you eat. People often use this as a baseline and they think this is normal. If you really start to fix up your gut and digestive issues you'll experience a level of well being that you’ve never experienced before. That will shift your baseline closer to what you should be feeling at an optimal level.
Energy levels are a BIG issue when it comes to digestive health. When you think about the digestive process, you are extracting energy from food but you are also expending a lot of energy as well. Approximately 60% of your total energy is expended extracting nutrients from your food in the digestive process. If the digestive process is not efficient you are going to be feeling pretty tired.
If you eat and then you want to go to sleep right after, THIS IS NOT NORMAL! So many of us have gone day in and day out thinking this is how it’s supposed to be, but it is not. Think about a holiday with a big feast. Imagine that feeling of how tired you are afterwards. You almost (or usually) need a nap to digest all of that food. You are feeling a huge energy drain because your body is using all of its energy to break down the food into something that the body can utilize. This should not be how you feel every time you eat, if you do then you need to change up your eating habits.
What Should You Eat for a Healthy Gut Microbiome?
Let's say you go to the store and you eat something that seems to be healthy and still feel like crap afterwards, what is going on? The gut is not getting the right balance of nutrients and the right combinations of macronutrients. These macronutrients are:
What you will find is if you have a very concentrated carbohydrate like bread, and you combine that with a very concentrated protein like meat, the digestive process is somewhat impaired. To digest the food your body has to create the right level of enzymes to digest starch and carbs. You actually need to combine foods a certain way to optimise your gut bacteria.
Many people are trying out Paleo and Ketogenic diets. Many times you will hear them say “wow I feel like I have so much more energy.” This is because their meals will normally be a piece of meat and some salad. (And ideally, you should put some fermented vegetables on the side to boost your gut health!) If you’re eating a lot of processed foods it’s very impairing on the digestive process as well. You are not digesting your food as efficiently as you would if you were eating cleaner. There are so many other reactions going on between your body and the additives. Your food combination and processed foods are the main culprits for your lack of energy or that ”run-down feeling.”
It’s becoming very clear that certain additives can damage the bacteria in your gut. The result of this situation is dysbiosis. In simple terms, this means the wrong balance of bacteria in the gut. You have some good bacteria, bad bacteria, and if there's too much bad and not enough good that's dysbiosis. But there aren't clear cut good and bad bacteria. We just know that some bacteria in certain conditions can create diseases and illnesses. Certain types of bacteria are naturally there but if the gut is in an imbalance the could be a risk of some bacteria becoming pathogenic (having the ability to cause disease.) Make sure that you are eating the right balance of food and avoid processed foods at all costs. Start by cleaning up your diet and go from there.
Diversity is the key to a Healthy Gut Microbiome.
Think of your gut as a rainforest. Now picture all of the animals as bacteria in your gut. Here are their roles:
Helps you digest food
Helps you extract nutrients
Is a part of your immune system
Produces vitamins and minerals
Detoxifies the body
Impacts your mood by aiding in the production of neurotransmitters
They all do slightly different things. What we want to do is have as many different types of these animals as possible. Scientists agree that the diversity of these different “animals” in the gut is the most important thing for holistic health. All you need to know is that you need diversity! We need much more plant foods than we are typically used to in our modern society…. This means 30-40 different types of plant foods every week because each of them has different types of fibres. Each one of these fibres will feed different bacteria.
The diversity of vegetables will result in diverse gut bacterial types. Sometimes you may feel like eating this much diversity is a difficult task. The diversity of your fruits and vegetables does not have to be extravagant. For starters, you have a certain type of lettuce and instead of having that same type of lettuce all the time, you mix up the variety. All of these fibre structures are slightly different. At the end of the day, they will all end up in the gut. Once in the gut, your body will realise it can't digest certain types of fibres so they will end up in the colon. And that will provide a food source for different types of gut bacteria that are in your small intestine.
Fibre is the key to increasing diversity!
Did you know that the colour of your fruits and vegetables actually matter? The colouring in the vegetables and fruit are polyphenols. They are generally known for their antioxidant properties. The polyphenols cannot be digested by you. They are digested by your gut bacteria. This is another form of food for them. So next time you are in the grocery store make sure you remember that you need a variety of colours of fruits and vegetables too.
Lack of Fibre Diversity Example:
A few months ago a friend of mine decided to meal prep and he found a meal that he liked and would eat it over and over again. A few weeks later, he had his gut bacteria tested and even though he was eating really healthy, his diversity score was low. His girlfriend had also gotten tested and she eats a variety of food. Her gut test performed way better than his even though he eats healthier. If you have a very limited and strict diet like this then you won’t get that diversity that you need.
You are almost starving some types of bacteria when you don't have this diversity. And then you are overfeeding the other types of bacteria. So if you have the same food all of the time, the ones that like it will continue to eat it and it will be detrimental to the other ones that are missing out.
If you are only eating chicken and rice then only the bacteria that likes chicken and rice will be fed.
Try to break that monotonous cycle of eating the same things over and over. Be adventurous with the types of fruits and vegetables that you are eating. I will give you a challenge for this week. Go to the market and try something that you’ve never tried before. If you do this at least once a week that diversity will pick up before you know it.
How do Fermented Foods and Probiotics help with Gut Bacteria?
There are two major types of peacekeeping bacteria that we have in our gut:
Two very good sources of Lactobacilli are fermented vegetables and Kefir. Many people also drink Kombucha for their probiotics. Kombucha has one type of probiotic and it’s not very well researched yet. (But we think there could be a type called Saccharomyces Boulardii which is a type of yeast.) Besides potential probiotics, kombucha has a lot of beneficial organic acids like acetic acid. This is the same acid that you find in cider vinegar. It also has gluconic acid which also has benefits to the body such as binding to and getting rid of toxins.
The definition of a probiotic by the world health organisation is a live organism that can elicit a beneficial effect on the body. It doesn’t have to colonise but in the process of consumption as it passes through the gut it’s eliciting a benefit. It could be competing with the detrimental types of bacteria. It's just adding more animals into that rainforest! Every time you eat these fermented vegetables or kefir you are bringing those beneficial bacteria into your body. They may not stay in your gut but if you are constantly feeding your gut with these bacteria it will help to balance it.
The other half of this is that these types of bacteria can produce what scientists call “metabolites” or “post biotics”. A simple example of this is that these probiotics are producing other types of chemicals that are also going to elicit a beneficial effect on the body. So we have the organisms themselves and then the by-products that these organisms produce.
An example is butyrate. This is a byproduct of bacterial fermentation in the gut. The microorganisms are taking fibres and turning them into short-chain fatty acids. This acid is butyrate and it is a food/ energy source for bacteria AND for the actual gut cells. Butyrate may be present in certain types of dairy products like butter. Most of it is produced by the bacteria in the gut itself. The bacteria is going to take all of the beautiful vegetables and diversity that you are consuming and convert it to butyrate in the gut.
By eating all types of diverse plant foods, you are giving the gut bacteria a chance to feed other beneficial bacteria.
The bacteria in your gut is a little factory. They take the fibres, usually called prebiotics, and then converted into beneficial substances such as
They are all short-chained fatty acids and are all good for the body. Probiotics and fermented foods are a great addition to gut health. It introduces different bacteria and if you eat them daily, then it will promote the growth of good bacteria.
What happens to our Gut Health when we take Antibiotics?
Antibiotics are a nuclear bomb to the gut. Studies have shown that a course of antibiotics can destroy gut bacteria and wipe out most of it. You may NEVER get back some of these types of bacteria. Don’t get me wrong, antibiotics have allowed us as a civilisation to prosper and conquer a lot of diseases. The problem is using antibiotics in situations where it’s not really going to be beneficial. Say you have a cold, this is a viral infection and an antibiotic is not going to help you but it still may be prescribed. We have gotten so used to popping pills to feel better but we are doing a lot of collateral damage to the gut.
The even BIGGER issue with antibiotic use is ingesting it through our food supply. It's VERY prevalent in meat and fish where there are low levels of antibiotics added for commercial reasons. But the effect on us is the damage done to our gut microbiome. Make sure that you are buying antibiotic-free meat and fish to prevent this from happening.
If you are constantly bombing your gut with antibiotics and not consuming a diversity of food you are not going to be feeling well at all. What happens with excessive antibiotic use is that you will kill off a lot of your gut flora but the ones that come back are typically not the good ones. They are the very robust ones that could withstand this bombing. They are almost like cockroaches after a nuclear war. Avoid these antibiotics whenever possible for optimal gut health.
The Results of Nuclear Bombing in the Gut
What are the results of this so-called “nuclear bombing.” Your gut bacteria balance is going to be off. You may experience IBS because that balance of bacteria is not at an optimal level. You have a lot more of the negative type of bacteria. The solution to this is that you have to bring it back to a balance. The science is very young when it comes to the right “balance” and I don’t think there is a one size fits all. Everyone's a little bit different depending on their life circumstances such as:
-Going through Chemotherapy
-Constant use of antibiotics
-The way you were born... natural vs cesarean
These things are going to impact your gut. We have to work around them, then use prebiotics, probiotics, fermented foods, and having the right diet and lifestyle choices to bring balance back.
Some things impact the gut that you would not think about. One example is Stress. Stress management is EXTREMELY important for gut health. I first came across this during my second year in University. We were looking at the impact of the types of bacteria in meat vs how stressed the animal was before being slaughtered. This was the first time I was ever introduced to the concept that stress could affect organs, muscles, and virtually the WHOLE body. What we found was that when animals were stressed they had a very high level of salmonella and the meat had more defects. Extrapolating this to humans, stress is also related to the wrong types of bacteria in the gut. Stress management is very important. Start with meditation, it will really help positively impact the gut microbiome.
Ways to Stay Safe from Antibiotics in your Food.
Focus on the low hanging fruit, meaning eat clean! It can be a confusing concept but just start to move away from processed foods in the supermarket. Stick to the outer aisles and avoid the centre aisles. Learn how to cook for yourself then you know exactly what you are eating. This is a nice easy starting point. You will notice very quickly that you are starting to feel better. Minimise condiments, take out, restaurants, anything where you have not seen how the food is prepared.
If you start to eat clean, this will facilitate the healing of the gut lining. Because you are taking out foods that are inflammatory and cause gut damage. You are then getting out of the body’s way and just allowing that natural process. Another thing you can do to help facilitate the healing of the gut lining is FODMAP’s. This was developed at Melbourne University and is a highly effective way of taking out certain foods that are irritating to the gut. The GAPS diet and Clever Guts will help as well. Which is all about the first step of eating clean.
The body has an amazing amount of healing knowledge in itself. It wants to feel good but sometimes we just have to get out of the way. There are also good supplements to help your gut move this along such as:
You need to avoid processed food. Processed foods are defined as a food that has been taken from its natural source and then has been chemically or physically altered to a product that can have a greater shelf life. Shelf life is the biggest problem with processed foods. These will contain chemicals and antibiotics to give it shelf life.
Along with processed foods, you need to find the type of food that affects you negatively. You will usually know this. Every time you eat a certain food you don't feel right. You could feel sick, bloated, or nauseous. Start by making a food journal and write in how you feel after you eat and see if there is a trend.
Eat clean, stay away from processed foods, Stay away from pesticides, herbicides (eg. glyphosate) avoid unnecessary antibiotics, try supplements. Stick to this for a few months and you will notice the difference. This is the starting process to heal that gut lining. Remember that this health gain is about small wins. You may typically go through various stages but I hope that this post has given you the “low hanging fruit” An easy place to start and have you realize that your gut health affects your whole body. Start by making simple changes and then you can start taking it up a notch! Share this with a friend that could use some gut health knowledge!
Author: Kriben Govender
Food Scientist and Founder of Nourishme Organics
Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kribengovender/