That wise old fellow Hippocrates once wrote that “all disease begins in the gut” and, more and more, modern-day health experts are starting to sit up and take note.
Over the last few years, science has started playing catch-up, with studies slowly starting to reveal how closely linked our overall health is to our gut. It’s probably not all that surprising, given that the majority (think three-quarters) of our immune system is tucked away in our intestines, but far too many people overlook their gut when it comes to their health.
Leading a healthy lifestyle isn’t just about exercise and eating right. It’s about nourishing your inner bacteria.
Why Is Gut Health Important?
For many of us, we hear the word bacteria, and the alarm bells will automatically sound. All too often, we believe bacteria – all bacteria – is harmful and will wreak havoc with our bodies.
As you can probably tell from the way this blog is going, the opposite is actually true, and we all need bacteria (at least certain types of it!) to thrive. In fact, our bodies are home to up to 500 different types of bacteria, and we house as many as 100 trillion micro-organisms (so many that they’re responsible for around 3 lb of our overall body weight).
Yet while we may be a safe-house to rogue, harmful bacteria, our bodies will also play host to lots of friendly bacteria, who help to keep these in check. The friendly bacteria will do all sorts of other nifty little things, including helping us to digest food, help us to absorb vitamins and minerals, and boost our immune system. A healthy, happy balance between the two types of bacteria (when we get poorly, it’s usually that the bad kind of bacteria has taken over) is our happy medium.
You see, a healthy gut can help to prevent infection, keep our digestive and gastro-intestinal health happy, regulate our metabolism, and keep that immune system nice and strong.
It’s also thought that poor gut health can go hand-in-hand with obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and autoimmune conditions. And there’s even growing evidence that it can play a role in depression and anxiety, as well as autism (probiotics have been used by some scientists to help autistic children).
When you put it like that, can you really afford to ignore the inner workings of your gut…?
What Can Affect My Gut Health?
- Using antibiotics – while taking antibiotics can obviously be a god-send (and, ultimately, saves millions of lives each year), they can affect the diversity of your gut and wipe out much of the “good” bacteria. As a result, harmful bacteria can sometimes get a stronger foothold in our bodies.
- Eating too many refined and processed foods, particularly sugars, which can cause the “bad” bacteria to take over the gut, as well as yeast. Our diet can affect our gut flora in just 24 hours.
- Eating too little fermentable fibres.
- Over-stressing the body (think a lack of sleep or working too hard), or over-doing it, which can cause leaky gut (where “bad” bacteria can seep through into other areas of your body).
- Chronic infections and illnesses.
What Can I Do to Improve My Gut Health?
Well, first things first – it’s not always as simple as “one size fits all” when it comes to our guts! The Human Microbiome Project (which has discovered that there are around 10,000 microbes lurking in the human body) has told us that there’s no “perfect” set of gut microbes. Even among healthy adults, every set is different.
However, if you want a happy tum, then a few of these will help you along the way:
- Enjoy a plant-based diet: Many experts think that the key to a healthy gut is to have a diverse microflora living within us. In this science-based article, experts linked diverse microbes “to a diet that is high in fat and sugar compared with one that is low in fat and plant-based.”
- Take a probiotic supplement: You’ll have probably heard of the two most famous (is that the right word?! Probably not…) types of “good” bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. You know, the ones found in those supermarket yoghurt drinks (DON’T go there.). By eating lots of live cultures, or probiotics, you can keep that gut healthy and diverse. To do this, take a good-quality probiotic supplement (I highly recommend Optibac) and try adding lots of yoghurt or kefir to your diet.
- Eat your prebiotics: Yep, there are prebiotics too! Prebiotics effectively feed the bacteria in our gut, helping them to thrive. In other words, probiotics eat prebiotics! Some of the top prebiotic foods include (raw) garlic, leeks, onion, asparagus, banana and wheat flour.
- Avoid processed foods: Foods that are high in sugar, starch or even too many grains can all affect our gut flora – and this is even worse if they come in processed forms. Wherever you can, try to cut down on these foods (or, better yet, ditch them!) and opt for natural, nourishing produce instead.
The lovely nutritional therapist over at Optibac (experts on gut health!), Kerry Beeson, says we might also want to add a pinch of turmeric to our diets (check out my recipe for an Immune-Boosting Turmeric Latte here): “Inflammation is a natural part of the immune response, but inappropriate inflammatory responses can wreak havoc in all areas the body. These are often linked to compromised gut health, and so reducing inflammatory foods such as sugar and refined carbohydrates can be a useful part of a healing diet, but also increasing the consumption of healing anti-inflammatory foods is key.
“Turmeric is one of my favourites, as it has such a broad range of health and digestive benefits. Not only is it a powerful anti-oxidant, but as it inhibits the action of pro-inflammatory enzymes, it helps to stop inflammation in its tracks. It’s also strongly liver-supportive, and encourages the production of bile which helps us to digest fats more easily and effectively.”
- Enjoy fermented foods: Delicious fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut and kefir are wonderful, natural sources of probiotics and can help your body to build up its forces of good bacteria. You can also try sipping on kombucha. Just a word of warning – ease yourself in with fermented foods (and probiotics, too!) as too much too soon can cause tummy upset.
- Bee Easy: I’m a huge fan of bee propolis, which works its magic on all sorts of weird and wonderful conditions. One study has also shown that bee propolis (once known as Russian Penicillin, FYI) can even help to heal a leaky gut which, as we know, can lead to all kinds of problems.Bee propolis seems to help because it contains the compounds Quercetin and Kaempferol, which give a healthy boost to the intestinal barrier. If you want to give this a go, then check out the amazing guys at Unbeelievable Health for some wonderful propolis-based supplements.
If you were interested in this post, then I recommend that you delve into a book called 10% Human, all about our gut and how it connects with a healthy body. It was recommended to me by my beautiful friend Vian (also one of the most knowledgable people I know!) and it’s brilliant – it will change your life.