To understand ‘gut health’, it’s important to realise that not all the bacteria living in our bodies are bad for us. In fact, many found in the intestinal tract are essential for digestion and contribute to our overall physical and mental health.
The microbiome—the ecosystem of bacteria living in the gut—develops early in life and can have a profound influence over conditions such as obesity, depression, diabetes and even cancer. Both diet and lifestyle can affect the microbiome, so it’s important to keep it balanced throughout your childhood and adult life.
‘Good’ bacteria in the gut, known as probiotics, generally amount to around 85 percent of the total and limit the spread of the 15 percent of ‘bad’ bacteria, or pathogens. Probiotics also contribute to the breakdown of food to extract nutrients. Probiotics stop reproducing when food is not available, so you should never have an over-supply.
Finding Gut Equilibrium
Food intolerances that are the result of difficulty digesting certain foods could be caused by poor quality of bacteria in the gut. This can lead to difficulty digesting the trigger foods and unpleasant symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and nausea.
This is different to food allergies, which are caused by the immune system reacting against certain foods, though there is some evidence that food allergies could also be related to gut health.
A healthy balance of bacteria in the gut is called equilibrium, and some researchers believe that a lack of equilibrium can contribute to conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, kidney disease and high cholesterol levels leading to heart disease.
It’s even speculated that poor gut equilibrium may affect brain chemistry, contributing to disorders such as autism, anxiety, depression and chronic pain. It’s also possible that the pituitary gland, which controls appetite, can be affected, leading to over-eating and obesity.
‘Probiotics’ can ease allergy symptoms and reduce lactose intolerance, though there are many different types, and they don’t work in the same way for everyone.
Probiotics are found in foods such as yogurt and cheese; fermented vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut; and pickled vegetables, like onions and gherkins. They can also be bought in live bacteria cultures like bifidobacteria and lactobacilli.
‘Prebiotic’ foods—those which promote growth of probiotic bacteria—include fruits such as bananas, vegetables including onions and asparagus and soybeans and whole wheat. Prebiotic food also encourages the uptake of calcium in the gut.
You can combine prebiotics and probiotics to create a symbiotic diet which prolongs probiotic lifespan. Try bananas and yogurt, or stir-fried asparagus and tempeh, which is made of fermented soya beans.
Top Your Gut Up With Probiotic Supplements
Probiotic supplements, many of which come in the form of a yogurt-based drink, contain live bacteria which are naturally found in the gut.
Water-based supplements, and those which do not use freeze-dried bacteria, are claimed to improve bacterial survivability through the digestion process.
Probiotic supplements are classed as foods rather than medicines, so their effectiveness for particular conditions can’t be guaranteed, but NHS advice is that they appear to be safe, and that if you want to try them and have a healthy immune system, they shouldn’t cause any side effects.
Fruit and Fibre
Key to achieving gut equilibrium is avoidance of overeating; good hydration; healthy activity, and inclusion of high-fibre foods in the diet. High-fibre foods include fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts and wholegrains. Vegetables from the sunflower family (artichokes, radicchio, lettuce, tarragon, chicory and salsify) and the lily family (leeks, chives, shallots, onions, garlic and asparagus) are particularly helpful to gut bacteria.
Highly processed foods should be avoided. They often contain ingredients such as preservatives designed to slow the processes of oxidation and bacterial growth, or emulsifiers which prevent oils and fats from separating. These can have a negative impact on gut bacteria, as well as affecting the mucous lining of the gut and interfering with the signal of ‘satiety’—or feeling full—leading to overeating.
It’s also wise to limit the use of antibiotics. While these can be life-saving and should be used when essential, unnecessary use will kill probiotic bacteria as well as pathogens, so their impact on gut health may linger long after the condition they were used to treat has gone.
Taken together, these tips for maintaining your gut health should yield long-term benefits for your whole system.