Throughout our childhoods, many of us were told that we would become what we ate. At the time, this simple statement was designed to encourage us to eat healthier foods, such as carrots to help us see in the dark and spinach to make us stronger, but now, thanks to the surge in gut health discussions, we now know that there’s a whole lot of truth in it.
What is gut health?
When we refer to gut health, we are referring to the health of the entire gastrointestinal tract, from the moment food enters our mouths, to when it is digested in our stomachs, and finally to the moment when the waste product exits our bodies. This gastrointestinal tract is filled with trillions of bacteria whose job it is to not only break down our food but also to help our bodies maintain homeostasis and a state of overall well being. Lifestyle factors, medications, and illnesses can all damage our gut bacteria population, leading to an imbalance in the microbiome which consequently impacts our digestion, homeostasis, and wellbeing.
Why is our gut health something we need to take care of?
Our gastrointestinal tract is not only responsible for digesting our food and delivering vital nutrients to our bodies but is also responsible for a number of other important aspects of our health that have nothing to do with digestion, including our immunity, stress response, and susceptibility to chronic illnesses such as cancer and diabetes. Research into the microbiome and how it affects the entire body is still relatively new, but studies have already found strong links between a healthy microbiome and better overall health. In general, healthy people have a microbiome made up of a diverse range of organisms, whereas the microbiome of unhealthy people has far less diversity. At present, it’s not definitively clear whether it is this lack of diversity that has caused a person to become ill or unhealthy, or whether their illness or unhealthy lifestyle is responsible for the lack of diversity in their microbiome, but regardless of whether the chicken or the egg came first, the connection still exists.
What can gut health influence?
The trillions of bacteria and other organisms that live inside our gut can affect many aspects of our overall health. Here are some of the things that gut-health has been linked to:
Some bacteria within the gut have been linked to an increase of inflammation, whereas others have been linked to decreasing it – the balance within the microbiome ensures that inflammation remains neutral within the body, but if the microbiome were to become damaged, the inflammation-causing bacteria could rise, shifting the balance and leading to inflammatory diseases.
During birth, babies receive their first inoculation of gut bacteria from their mothers, which helps to protect them against illness and disease while their own immune cells strengthen. The bacteria in their guts is essential for the development of strong and educated immune cells, and without it, studies have found that the immune system fails to fully develop. Throughout our lives, we are constantly exposed to new things, and so it is essential to maintain a good gut flora to ensure that our immune cells can adapt and learn to attack new potential threats.
Virtually every type of cancer, not just those such as stomach cancer or colorectal cancer, has been linked to gut health in some way or another. Although in most cases, the microbiome is not directly responsible for the formation of these cancers, it’s health impacts so many areas of the body and their response to inflammation and disease, that an unhealthy microbiome could leave an opening for cancer to form.
The gut and the brain may seem worlds apart, but there is significant evidence to suggest that they are well and truly connected. The gut-brain connection works because gut bacteria affect the hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary axis in a very similar way to psychological stress, meaning that certain species of bacteria can prompt a stress response causing a person to feel anxious or stressed, whereas other species of bacteria can reduce this response making a person feel calmer and more at ease.
When scientists looked at the gut microbiome of lean and obese subjects, they found that their gut microbiomes differed tremendously. The microbiome and the bacteria within it have a significant impact on the amount of energy that a person can extract from food, their lipid metabolism rate, and their endocrine function, meaning that a susceptibility to gain weight may not be influenced by lifestyle factors alone. As research into the connection between obesity and the microbiome has progressed, scientists have begun to look into whether a fecal transfer could help an obese subject to lose weight and the results have been promising.
How to look after a healthy gut
It’s clear that our guts are responsible for a lot more than just turning our food into energy, which is why the gut health movement has gained such significant traction in the last few years. The good news is that there are a number of things that we can do at home to improve our own gut health – here are five things that will help you to look after a healthy gut.
1. Taking prebiotics and probiotics
Prebiotics are essentially food designed to fuel the growth of the good bacteria within the gut, and probiotics are live good bacteria that can help to repopulate a depleted microbiome. Probiotics and probiotics are now readily available from online retailers such as Blue Sky Vitamin and are a great way to boost your microbiome after antibiotics.
2. Vary your diet
For a varied and diverse gut flora, it is essential to eat a variety of foods, especially plant-based foods, lean proteins, and fiber. If you don’t vary your diet and feed the bacteria within your gut, then certain strains of bacteria could die out leaving you with decreased gut diversity.
3. Chew your food slowly
Chewing is the first stage of digestion, breaking down large molecules of food and mixing them with saliva to facilitate digestion further down the gastrointestinal tract. If you don’t properly chew your food, then it is harder for your gut bacteria to break it down and fewer nutrients will be absorbed. Try to aim for 32 chews when chewing your food, this will also slow you down and will allow you to enjoy your food more.
4. Prioritize sleep
A lot goes on within your body when you sleep, and so a lack of sleep can lead to serious health implications including a reduction in your gut health. Try to aim for between 7 and 8 hours of sleep a night, and throw in the odd nap during the daytime for good measure.
5. Eat fermented foods
Fermented foods are foods that have already been partially digested and altered by microbes, making them easier to digest and also introducing healthy strains of bacteria into the gut. Foods such as plain yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir contain an abundance of disease-fighting bacteria and can help to replenish and balance an unhealthy microbiome.
Giving your gut the credit it deserves
The bacteria in our guts are the unsung heroes of our overall health and wellbeing, working day in and day out to keep our digestive system balanced. So, the next time you hear the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ think about eating something for your gut, your whole body will thank you for it and you will be healthier for it.