A healthy gut for a healthy life

06 Mar 2019

Trillions of tiny microorganisms live on and inside us and could be the single most important factor in determining our health. As research into gut health improves, we are getting a glimpse of just how important the little creatures that make up our microbiome really are. Most of these organisms live in our gastrointestinal tract (the gut) and are the reason behind our interest in gut health. The combination of microbes, their genes, the environment they live in and the stuff they produce, is called the microbiome. We have known about these organisms for a long time, but it is only recently that we are discovering a link between them and our health. There is still a lot we don’t know, but our gut health has been linked to obesity, asthma and allergies, autoimmune disorders, depression, anxiety and stress. A healthy gut microbiome also helps with digestion and to train our immune system to know which are the good microbes and bad pathogens, to prevent disease and illness. 

Everyone’s microbiome is different and is constantly changing, depending on how you were born, what you eat, where you live, what you touch and how old you are. There are between 300-1000 different bacteria strains in your gut, and varying amounts of each. There isn’t a single ideal composition for optimal health, it seems to be as individual as your fingerprints. 

Besides needing somewhere to live, our gut organisms need to be fed. Simple carbohydrates like refined and sugary foods tend to be digested quickly and don’t reach the colon where our gut bacteria live. Fibre rich complex carbohydrates make it down to them where they can ferment and break down these indigestible fibres for us. In doing this, they release nutrients that we can’t make ourselves, like B vitamins.

The temptation to take a probiotic supplement is understandable. However, we still don’t know if they are effective. Even if they do survive the journey to the colon and repopulate the colony, it is unlikely that adding a single strain (or 11) is going to make a difference. Some small studies on taking probiotics after antibiotic use has shown that they could even delay the natural normal recovery of your body’s preferred colony. People with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) may also experience worsening of symptoms by adding in random strains of bacteria to the gut.

While we wait for the research to give us more information about supplements, the best way to improve your gut health is to look after the microbes you already have.

  • Eat a diet high in plant foods and fibre so they have plenty to eat to repopulate. Foods particularly high in prebiotic fibre include cooked and cooled potato, onion, leek, asparagus, wheat bran and bananas.
  • Don’t just stick to these foods though, as diversity in your daily 2 fruit and 5 vegetables has been found to be more important than how much you actually eat. Aim for more than 15-20 different types of plant food each week.
  • Suddenly eating foods that naturally contain probiotics like yoghurt, fermented vegetables and kombucha probably won’t make a difference to your gut health either. But these are healthy foods with their own benefits so it’s worth including them in your diet if you like them, particularly if they’re replacing unhealthy foods like processed snacks and sugary drinks.