New research shows your intestinal flora affects everything from your weight to your happiness. In this blog it is revealed how with a five-step plan you can improve your gut health – and your wellbeing !
Thanks to TV yogurt adverts (commercials) and the many rows of mini probiotic drinks in chiller cabinets, most of us are aware there’s a host of bacteria – many good, some not so good – living in our guts.
And with a flurry of diet and lifestyle plans designed to improve health and control weight through revamping your gut bacteria, it’s clear this is an area of science that’s really catching the popular interest.
But although we’ve known about gut bacteria for several decades, science is only just starting to grasp the full ramifications for your health – both body and mind.
“We’re just beginning to unravel the effects of our gut flora – or micro biome (the genes of the microbial cells) – on health, and it’s very exciting,” says Dr. Robynne Chutkan, gastroenterologist and author of The Microbiome Solution. “Everything from our weight to our cravings and even our mood and immune system could be affected by what’s going on with the bacterial zoo inside us.”
What your bacteria do
Such is the potential importance of the tens of trillions of bacteria that reside in your gut – mostly in the bowel – that scientists now think of the gut biome, which is unique in all of us, as an organ, albeit an ever-evolving one, in its own right.
In exchange for food and a place of live, the bacteria in your bowel digest some of the food components (such as fibre) that your body can’t break down itself, and produce useful nutrients such as B vitamins and vitamin K. But research now shows that the role of the gut bacteria goes much further than this, and that there is constant 2-way communication (via chemical and hormonal messengers) between the bacteria that colonise the cells of your body.
“When this gut/host communication is working well, your micro biome helps you distinguish between real infection and colonisation with harmless bacteria, tells your immune system when to rally the troops and even turns your genes on and off, activating those you need and dismantling those you don’t,” explains Dr. Chutkan.
Since your body is their host and they rely on it for their survival, microbes have more than a vested interest in your wellbeing. But if less benign bacteria start to predominate in your gut , it can leave you sick and, quite literally, sad.
“Dysbiosis – when bad bacteria have the upper hand – has been linked with low mood and anxiety,” explains nutritional therapist Jeanette Hyde, author of The Gut Makeover. “It’s now known that the brain picks up on dysfunction of the gut, possibly through the vagus nerve, which connects the two.”
Bacteria in your gut also secretes some of the same substances used by your nerve cells to communicate and regulate mood, such as dopamine and serotonin, so it’s quite likely that your gut bacteria can influence your mind state through these chemicals, too.
Your gut micro biome is also an important part of your immune system, working as a physical barrier that can crowd our the more dangerous bugs and pathogens such as E. coli and the hospital bug C. difficile, while also working more actively by sending messages to your immune cells.
“Having a healthy gut flora can support the immune system and may help stop you catching every cough and cold going,” says Hyde.
And, at the more serious end of the scale, a healthy and diverse gut flora may even reduce the likelihood of falling prey to cancer or heart disease by minimising the number of inflammatory chemicals your body makes.
Sometimes when your bacteria work against you – for example, by predisposing you to obesity – you can at least partly blame your genes. For example – a study conducted by researchers at Cornell University in USA and King’s College London found that a certain strain of bacteria – Christensenellaceae minuta – is more common in people with a low body weight, and that its presence is highly influenced by your genetic make-up.
Although you can’t change the genes you were born with, you can change your diet and lifestyle to help promote a wider diversity of bacteria, which is the key to a healthy micro biome, according to Professor Tim Spector, author of The Diet Myth and leader of the UK’s largest open-source science project, British gut.
Unfortunately, the diversity of microbes in our bodies is, on average, 30% lower than 50 years ago.
“The average 20-year-old today, will have already had 18 courses of antibiotics – which decimate good bugs – and will have abnormal microbes increasing risk of obesity,” says Professor Spector. Hyde adds, “One course of antibiotics can leave the micro biome weaker for up to 4 years. If you have a low bacteria count overall and especially if certain friendly species are not dominating, you may extract more calories from your diet and may also feel hungrier or have cravings for sugary, high-fat junk foods.”
While poor diversity of bacteria may be caused by antibiotics, it’s as likely to be due to poor diet – particularly lack of plant fibre, which good bacteria need to thrive.
Your five-step plan
So how can you promote more diversity, boost levels of good bugs and reap the health, weight and wellbeing benefits ? Here, distilled from the latest research, is your practical five-step guide.
Eating lots of vegetables is a key recommendation from all the new healthy gut plans. In The Gut Makeover, Hyde recommends having at least 7 handfuls of produce a day (5 veg, 2 fruit, 20-30 different varieties per week), while Chutkan suggests implementing a 3:2:1 regiment for mealtimes – one portion of veg at breakfast, 2 at lunch and 3 at dinner.
The reason ? A helpful way to think about the relationship between eating plants and gut bacteria is that the plant fibre that can’t be broken own and absorbed by your body ends up feeding your gut bacteria instead, explains Chutkan. ‘That means less food for you (think easier weight loss) and more for your microbes.’
SELECT GUT-FRIENDLY CARBOHYDRATES
In essence, that’s any of the wholegrain or unprocessed, types (the fibre advantage again). But to really turbo charge your good bugs, it’s important to include carbohydrates with prebiotics in them (prebiotics include insulin, fructo- and galacto-oligosaccharides and in horticulture terms are like giving your gut bacteria a big dose of organic fertiliser).
Foods highest in prebiotics carbohydrates are onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus and Jerusalem artichokes, but you can also find them in bananas (the greener the better) and chicory coffee replacement. Another food with prebiotic properties is the ‘resistant starch’ which forms in significant amounts when starchy carbohydrates are chilled after cooking.
Harnessing the benefits of resistant starch for your bacteria means plumping for chilled potato salad over baked potato, and cooking your pasta and rice ahead, and then reheating (thoroughly) for dinner the next day.
INCLUDE FERMENTED FOODS
Different experts have their different takes on which fermented foods to consume, by they all agree that by eating them you can introduce important probiotic (friendly) cultures into your system that help keep the micro biome alive and kicking.
The most familiar fermented food is natural probiotic (or ‘bio’) yogurt, while at the more delightful end of the scale, a smelly Roquefort, good strong Cheddar or chunk of Parmesan will also give your good bugs a boost.
For a more hardcore (and potent) option, try whizzing kefir into a smoothie, a helping of freshly made sauerkraut or kimchi. Dr. Chutkan gives a detailed account of how to ferment your own vegetables, kimchi-style, in her book.
Giving your gut some down time looks likely to benefit your biome, with a study from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California showing that when mice were only allowed an eight-hr window in which to eat, they absorbed fewer calories from their food.
The 8 hr access groups also had more diversity of bacterial species in their guts than the ad lib groups. Previous research has shown that a period of fasting or calorie restriction beneficially alters gut bacteria, perhaps by avoiding a constant stream of sugar into the bloodstream, which raises insulin levels and might give less healthy bugs the upper hand. If an 8 hr daytime window seems a bit undoable, Hyde recommends giving your gut at least a 12 hr overnight break – practical terms, not eating until eight in the morning if you finished dinner at 8 the night before.
Professor Tim Spector goes further, suggesting that skipping breakfast may actually be a healthy strategy for some people (he’s also a fan of the 5:2 regimen). Whatever approach you take, it seems at the very least, it’s important to eat substantial meals that reduce the need to snack in between.
DIAL DOWN THE SUGAR
The health of your micro biome is yet another good reason to cut down on the sweet stuff.
“Simple carbohydrates found in soft drinks, baked goods and other processed grains cause undesirable shifts in microbial composition, and can lead to the proliferation of yeasts, says Dr. Chutkan.
Unfortunately, sweetness such as saccharin and aspartame may not be your micro biome’s friend either – although the significance of the findings to humans have been disputed, a study published in the journal Nature in 2014 identified gut bacteria changes and associated glucose intolerance in mice who were given high levels of sweeteners. For your gut, as well as your general health, when it comes to drinks, it seems water is best.
SUPPLEMENT YOUR GOOD BUGS
The experts seem largely in agreement that probiotic pills or drinks are a good idea to replace depleted bacteria when you’ve been on antibiotics, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), traveller’s diarrhoea and bacterial vaginosis might be helped by a probiotic. There’s overwhelming agreement that it’s better to nourish your existing gut bacteria with the right diet, though.
If you want to give your bacteria a general helping hand – perhaps you’re finding it hard to fit in as much veg and fibre as you should – a prebiotic supplement is the best bet. While probiotics tend to be transient and only work while you are taking time, prebiotics boost the good bacteria that already colonise your gut on a more permanent basis.
When your gut micro biome is sick, its barrier properties can be compromised and your gut may become ‘leaky’ (symptoms include allergies, inflammation and acne). To help heal it, Dr. Chutkan suggests trying supplements of zinc and the amino acid glutamine – both available in health food stores.
PS: I’d love to know what you thought of the tips, a good tip to look at would be especially select gut-friendly carbohydrates, hit me up in the comment section or alternatively drop me a message. I answer every email, just ask.
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