Article written by Melanie Bertaud
The Gut – Your Internal Wellbeing Ecosystem
Your gut is one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet. The microflora found in your intestines is composed of bacteria, fungi, archaea, and even viruses. These microbes go far beyond simply digesting food. In fact, they have an effect on your entire health—your metabolism, your weight, your ability to fight infections, and even your mood! This article will explore the importance of gut health, review the best gut healing probiotic foods, and give you some tips for keeping your tummy happy.
Human or Bacteria?
It might surprise you to know that we’re more bacteria than we are human. Bacteria in and on the body outnumber our cells 10:1. But that’s not all. Viruses in the gut outnumber bacteria 10:1. We each have around 1 quadrillion (that’s 1, 000,000,000,000,000!) viruses living in our intestines! I know, your initial reaction might be to worry or think YUK! But wait, because these microorganisms are actually at the core of optimum health. They’re our first line of defense against external pathogens.
The Human Microbiome
Where do these microbes come from? Well, it all starts when we’re born. As we pass through the birth canal, we get coated (or seeded, if you like) with microbes from our mother. These, combined with bacteria from breastmilk and the germs we come into contact with in our early childhood, make up our personal, unique medley of microbes—a little bit like a fingerprint.
We’re covered head to toe in a variety of different beneficial bacteria and fungi. The type of microbe depends on where they live on the body—wet places like your nose, mouth and armpits; dry places like your forearms and back; oily places like your scalp. Like in the natural environment, different microbes have adapted to the various habitats of your body.
The Gut Microbiome
The most important microbial habitat is your gut. This is where there is the most microbe diversity. It’s a bit like the control center for your health. Everything microbes are doing in your body—like fighting off infections, waking up the immune system, signaling to cells—happens in your gut. Essential processes like metabolism control, energy production and fat storage are controlled by the gut microbiome. You could liken it to a beehive—working together as a clever unit to carry out a wide range of essential functions.
But over the last few decades, something has gone terribly wrong. Some scientists believe the reason so many diseases—like Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD), ulcerative colitis and colon cancer—are on the rise, is because we have lost key microbes. It turns out we have a far less diverse microbiome than people in earlier generations, or people living in less developed countries. One of the reasons for this might be the increase in cesarean sections, and not enough breastfeeding. The high doses of antibiotics given to children these days and our obsession with cleanliness may well also be why allergies and problems like asthma are at an all-time high.
Clearly, good gut health is essential to our health, and it’s essential that we care for this delicate ecosystem.
The Role of Good Bacteria
Far from being something you should want to get rid of, bacteria have a clear role to play in your health, both physical and mental. Gut microbes are instrumental in your body’s proper functioning. They play a key role in:
• Supporting and maintaining the immune system
• Digesting carbohydrates—good bacteria absorb starches, sugars and fibers and convert them into energy and nutrients.
• Producing vitamins—friendly bacteria assist in the production of B vitamins (essential for energy and mental health), as well as vitamin K (vital for strong bones).
• Controlling the growth of disease-causing bacteria—friendly microbes compete with bad bacteria in your gut for space and food. The more good bacteria, the less space and food there is for the development of pathogens.
• Absorbing vital nutrients
• Normalizing weight
• Eliminating toxins
• Balancing and boosting your mood
Gut Health and Your Immune System
Your gut is far more than just a mechanism for digesting food. In fact, 80% of your immune system is located there. The variety of microorganisms in your gut interact with your body and can either prevent or promote the development of many chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and even diabetes.
The good bacteria in your gut play a crucial role in keeping your immune system strong. Scientists have found that these microbes can even produce their own antibodies against harmful pathogens—it’s a bit like having your own internal antibiotic factory.
Friendly bacteria also “train” the immune system to distinguish pathogens from non-harmful antigens and to respond properly, thus preventing the immune system over-reacting to benign substances and reducing the likelihood of allergies and food intolerances.
A strong immune system is your best defense against all types of diseases, so it’s essential to keep your gut microbiome healthy and happy. Later in this article I’ll share some of the best gut healing foods to include in your diet.
Gut Health and Your Weight
Your gut microbiome has a role to play in weight management too. Multiple studies have shown that overweight and obese people have a different mix of gut bacteria to slimmer people. One of the many functions played by your gut microflora is extracting calories from food. It turns out obese people have a higher percentage of a type of bacteria known as firmicutes, and a lower percentage of another bacteria called bacteroidates. Firmicutes are very efficient at extracting calories from sugars and depositing these as fat, while bacteroidates produce valuable nutrients and energy. In an animal study, mice that were injected with firmicutes gained twice as much fat. And in a human study, scientists found that overweight people who lost weight increased their bacteroidates, whilst decreasing their firmicutes.
The importance of a healthy gut microbiome from a young age was highlighted in a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Scientists found that higher rates of beneficial bifidobacteria in infants aged 6-12 months were directly linked with healthy weight. Infants with lower amounts of this bacteria were more likely to become overweight.
But that’s not all. Research suggests that some bad bacteria causes inflammation, which in turn contributes to obesity and difficulty losing weight. The helpful bacteria in your gut therefore has a huge role to play in weight management. If you want to lose weight and reduce belly fat, rebalancing your gut microbiome is key.
Gut Health and Your Mood
You’ve no doubt experienced a gut feeling about something or someone. And you’ve probably had butterflies in your tummy at some point or other. When you feel something instinctively, you usually feel it in your gut. That’s because your gut is quite literally your second brain.
While modern psychiatry likes to place the blame firmly on chemical imbalances in the brain, an increasing number of studies show that behavioral problems like anxiety and depression are actually linked to imbalances in your gut flora. Research published in the Journal Neurogastroenterology & Motility found that bacteria in the gut influence behavior by causing changes in the expression of certain genes, specifically those involved in learning, memory and motor control.
Did you know that serotonin, your body’s very own “happy chemical”, as well as other chemicals involved in mood, like dopamine and norepinephrine, are actually found in your intestines? In fact, the highest concentration of serotonin is in your gut, not your brain—so there’s a definite link between gut health and depression.
The brain-gut connection is well established. There’s no shortage of evidence demonstrating that gut microflora plays a significant role in mental health. In a way, you have two brains: one in your head, and one in your intestines. And this fits, when you consider that both your brain and your intestines are made of the same tissue, known as the neural crest. During fetal development, one part of this tissue becomes your central nervous system (in other words, your brain), and the other turns into your enteric nervous system (or, your gut). These two are connected by the vagus nerve, which runs from your brain to your abdomen.
It’s no wonder therefore, that we feel so many emotions in our gut, like the nausea we experience when we’re afraid, or the cramps that accompany a stressful situation.
Remember the earlier point about over-sanitization and its detrimental effect on our diverse gut microflora? One study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry observes that psychiatric conditions like major depressive disorder may be linked to a lack of natural microorganisms. The study suggests that one reason depression in children and teenagers is on the increase is the lack of exposure to bacteria. This makes sense when we consider that a child who isn’t exposed to bacteria will not develop a strong immune system. And a weak immune system is less likely to protect the body from inflammation, which causes not only physical conditions like obesity, heart disease and diabetes, but also mental conditions like anxiety and depression.
So if you’re feeling anxious or depressed, it’s worth looking at trying a gut health diet before going down the prescription pills route. Keep reading for tips on keeping your second brain happy.
Gut Health – Signs to Look Out For
As you’ve seen, keeping your gut microflora in tip top shape is vital for keeping your mind and body healthy. Your body will tell you if something’s amiss—have you experienced any of these symptoms?
• Gas and bloating
• Abdominal pain
• Frequent infections
• Food allergies or intolerances
• Cravings for sugar or refined carbs
• Inflammation of the gut, resulting in IBDs (like Chron’s disease and ulcerative colitis) or Irritable Bowel Syndrome
If you have, it’s time to take matters into your own hands and start giving your gut microflora some much needed love.
Why is Your Gut Health Compromised?
As we’ve seen, your gut is habitat to many diverse species of microbes. And, like any delicate ecosystem, its balance can be disrupted by many factors. In our fast paced modern society, our bodies have to deal with an onslaught of toxins that put this ecosystem at risk, in turn affecting its performance and endangering your health. Let’s take a look at some of the main culprits:
• Antibiotics: While sometimes necessary, antibiotics strip both the good and bad bacteria from your gut, leaving it vulnerable to pathogens.
• Processed foods: high in fructose, sucrose, artificial sweeteners, refined carbohydrates, chemical additives and genetically modified grains, processed foods are nutritionally “dead” and feed the bad bacteria in your gut.
• Conventional meat & dairy: the antibiotics given to cattle and poultry end up on your plate and in your body, upsetting the delicate balance of your gut microflora.
• Non-organic food: the increasingly powerful and toxic mix of insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers used to grow our food has documented damaging effects on the good bacteria in our intestines.
So, how do you restore balance and health to this essential part of your body? It’s all about making the right food choices.
Keeping your Gut Healthy
Now you know how important gut health is for every aspect of your wellbeing, let me show you how you can keep this wonderful ecosystem in good shape. Aside from avoiding gut-flora-destroying foods, there is much you can do to rebalance your gut and repopulate it with beneficial bacteria. And remember, a healthy gut microbiome means:
• Better nutrient absorption
• Easier weight management
• Happier mood
• Stronger immune system
Things like processed foods, pollution, agricultural chemicals and fluoridated water all reduce your good gut flora. It’s therefore a good idea to “re-seed’ your good bacteria regularly by taking a good quality probiotic, or eating fermented foods.
The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”
Not all probiotics are the same. In a study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers looked at several strains of probiotic bacteria and found the ones that were most effective in reducing inflammatory markers are lactobacillus rhamnosus and propionibacterium freud enreichii ssp. shermanii. That said, because every person’s microbiome is unique, different probiotics will work for different people.
Other things to consider when choosing a probiotic supplement are:
• Long shelf life
• Do not need refrigeration
• Survive stomach acid (so the probiotics can reach the small intestine)
Even better than taking a probiotic supplement is supplementing your diet with fermented and cultured foods, which are naturally rich in beneficial bacteria. The following foods are not only great for your health, they also make a tasty addition to your diet.
• Sauerkraut—fermented cabbage. Add a spoonful to your salad for an extra zing of flavor.
• Tempeh—fermented soybeans. This makes a for a great meat replacement as it’s packed full of veggie protein. It has a pleasant nutty taste and is fantastic added to stir-fries with a dash of soy sauce.
• Miso—a paste made of fermented rice or soybeans. Its satisfying umami flavor works well for an oriental salad dressing.
• Kefir—fermented milk. A bit like yogurt, kefir is perfect in the morning with your breakfast smoothie.
• Kombucha—fermented tea. Slightly sparkly and tangy, this makes a refreshing gut-healing mid-morning drink.
One thing to note however, is that some commercial fermented foods are pasteurized, which removes the beneficial bacteria! Read the label and go for raw versions, or learn to make your own.
The Healthy Gut Diet
Everyone is following one diet or other these days. Vegetarian, vegan, raw-food, paleo—each boasts health benefits and drawbacks, depending on your personal preference and physical make-up. Whatever lifestyle you subscribe to, keeping your belly happy is as easy as following some simple rules. Take a look at the list below for some of the best foods for gut health.
• Fruits and veggies: packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber, a hearty dose of fresh fruits and vegetables every day will keep you topped up with vital nutrients. Eat a rainbow to make sure you include all the inflammation-busting antioxidants in nature’s pantry.
• Healthy fiber: while some grains have a bad reputation when it comes to health and should be avoided—like wheat—gluten-free wholegrains like amaranth, millet and buckwheat provide your body with healthy fiber that will keep your digestive system running like clockwork. What’s more, high-fiber foods keep you satisfied for longer, so you won’t feel the need to reach for that mid-afternoon sugary snack.
• Prebiotics: Not to be confused with probiotics, prebiotics are foods that nourish the good bacteria in your gut. Some of the best prebiotic foods are asparagus, onions, garlic, bananas, legumes, leeks and artichokes.
• Spices: carminative spices help to prevent and relieve gas, and assist in the digestive process. Spice up your meals with anise seed, cardamom, caraway, cumin, nutmeg and cinnamon.
Love your Tummy
So there you have it. Your gut is more than just a digestion organ. It’s a delicate and diverse ecosystem that protects your body from disease, balances your mood, and helps keep you in optimum health. Give it some TLC by avoiding certain foods, and supplementing your diet with gut-friendly prebiotics. Your gut microbiome is an essential part of your physical and emotional wellbeing—it’s time to show it some love.
“All disease begin in the gut” ~ Hippocrates (460 – c. 370BC)