Gut health has become one of the most popular topics in the health industry over the last few years, so what does gut health actually mean, why do we need a healthy gut and how can we actually achieve that?
The gut microbiome comprises the billions of bacteria and fungi that colonise our digestive tract and this colony has evolved over thousands of years to create a mutually beneficial relationship between the host (us) and the bacteria. Only in the last few decades and in particular the last few years we are beginning to understand how much these bugs influence our health, mood and even our behaviour!
In terms of health benefits, our microbiome offers us, many benefits including protecting against pathogens, regulating immunity, and strengthening the gut lining. In recent years the research has extended to show the role of a healthy gut microbiome in reducing the risk of many chronic diseases. However there is a potential for these benefits to be disrupted through changes to the microbial composition, a term known as dysbiosis.
What can we do to improve our microbiome?
1. Eat more fibre rich and prebiotic foods
Fibre and in particular prebiotics feed our gut bacteria. Without adequate fibre in our diet we cannot provide the fuel for out gut bacteria to survive. When the bacteria break down fibre they produce metabolic compounds which have beneficial health effects throughout our body. The recommended fibre intake for adults is 30g per day. Aim to include fibre rich foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes and pulses and nuts and seeds at every meal and snack. Prebiotics are a specific type of fibre which are completely indigestible in the small intestine. These prebiotic fibres then directly stimulate the growth and activity of certain good bacteria in the gut. Prebiotic foods include legumes, onion, garlic, asparagus, cashews and oats.
2. Eat more polyphenol rich foods
Colourful fruits and vegetables and other foods rich in polyphenols help to boost the microbiome by producing beneficial metabolites and bioactive compounds in the gut. Polyphenols can also help support the growth of friendly bacteria and inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria which can lead to a diverse healthy microbiome. Good sources of polyphenols include blueberries and other dark berries, green tea, flaxseeds, plums, black beans, extra virgin olive oil, dark chocolate, red wine and herbs and spices like ginger, cinnamon, basil and parsley.
3. Eat a wide variety of plant based foods
In order to maintain a diverse range of bacteria in our gut we must supply the bugs with a diverse range of foods. Each different species of bacteria thrive on slightly different compounds so to avoid starving off any species it is important we provide our gut with fibre from a variety of plant based foods. Aim to include 30 different plants each week, or next time you are at the supermarket see if you can pick up a new fruit or vegetable you don’t typically have.
4. Manage or reduce stress
Stress, especially chronic stress negatively effects our gut microbiome and can lead to dysbiosis. In particular, many beneficial bacteria are less abundant during stressful periods or after bouts of stress. Stress can alter the gut-brain axis and change the composition of the microbiome as well as bring about IBS symptoms like diarrhoea, bloating and indigestion. Stress management strategies such as meditation and mindfulness can lead to improvements in our gut functioning and microbiome.
5. Make time for adequate, quality sleep
Sleep deprivation, even minor or short term (as little as even 2 nights), can lead to alterations in our microbiome with increases in the ratio of bad:good bacteria. Our gut bacteria, like all organisms have circadian rhythms, inadequate sleep can disrupt this rhythm in the microbiome and negatively influence the diversity and number of bacteria in the gut. Aiming for 7-9hours of good quality sleep per night is optimal, however there are individual variations in sleep requirements. To find out how much sleep you need test your sleep in a stress free week, by going to bed at the same time each night and allowing your body to wake up naturally in the morning (without an alarm). By the end of the week you should have an average number of hours sleep and be waking up at a similar time, without an alarm.
There you have: it 5 practical strategies to boost your microbiome – remember a happy gut microbiome = a happy mind and a healthy body.
1. Fernando Cardona, Cristina Andrés-Lacueva, Sara Tulipani, Francisco J. Tinahones, María Isabel Queipo-Ortuño, “Benefits of polyphenols on gut microbiota and implications in human health”. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 24.8 (2013) 1415-1422.
2. Thursby, Elizabeth, and Nathalie Juge. “Introduction to the Human Gut Microbiota.” Biochemical Journal 474.11 (2017): 1823–1836.
3. Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. (2011) Dec;62(6):591-9.
4. Benedict, Christian et al. “Gut Microbiota and Glucometabolic Alterations in Response to Recurrent Partial Sleep Deprivation in Normal-Weight Young Individuals.” Molecular Metabolism 5.12 (2016): 1175–1186. PMC. Web. 20 Aug. 2018.