18 October 2021
You may have heard of the term ‘microbiome’ which is the name given to the ecosystem of bacteria, yeast, funghi and viruses which live in our digestive systems. Our gut contains between 30 trillion and 400 trillion microorganisms – this huge mass can be seen as an organ in itself.
These bugs have evolved over millions of years and live off the food we consume. They have a huge number of important functions not just for our digestive system but also for our immune system, weight regulation, our mental health and cardiovascular system.
Thanks to growing scientific interest in gut health we now have a clear picture of just how important our microbiome is, although there is still so much more to uncover in terms of exactly how our microbiome works and interacts with us and the food we eat.
There are many factors which can disrupt our microbiome
- The use of antibiotics
- Low levels of stomach acid
- Gastro-intestinal infections
- Poor immune function
- Stress & medications
- Poor diet
Disturbances in our gut bacteria can contribute to many health issues
- Bloating, constipation, diarrhoea & indigestion
- IBS & inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Food intolerances
- Susceptibility to food poisoning and infections
- Weight problems
- Mental health issues
Tips to boost your gut function
Your gut microbiome is constantly adapting and changing depending on your diet, lifestyle and environment, and is as unique to you as your fingerprint. In the same way you would nurture a garden, feeding the soil and removing weeds, the same must be done with your microbiome by eating the right foods to support it and removing anything which shouldn’t be there such as bacterial overgrowth.
So what can we do to support our microbiome and help reduce common gut issues and potentially reduce our risk of mental health, immune and cardiovascular issues?
Eat the Rainbow
Eating a wide range of coloured fruits and vegetables may be beneficial for our gut bacteria as well as providing important nutrients. Vegetables and fruit contain plant based fibre which feeds our good bacteria. One of the best ways to increase the variety of seasonal fruit and vegetables in your diet is through a weekly organic box scheme. Below is a list to help increase the variety in your diet:
- Greens – chard, spinach, watercress, kale, apples, celery, avocado
- Yellows/orange – carrots, squash, peppers, sweet potato, oranges, melon, mangoes, pineapple
- Reds – tomatoes, red onions, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, pomegranates
- Blue/purple – aubergines, beetroot, red cabbage, figs, blueberries, blackberries
- White – garlic, onions, leeks, turnip, pears, coconut
A prebiotic is a type of plant fibre which your body cannot digest but which acts a bit like ‘fertiliser’ by encouraging the growth of good gut bacteria. If you are not used to eating these foods, introduce them gradually as they can cause initial bloating
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Seaweed (e.g dulse)
Eat fermented foods (everyday if you can) – foods such as kefir, yoghurt, sauerkraut, miso and kimchi have been fermented and therefore contain high levels of beneficial bacteria. Fermented foods have been consumed for thousands of years in many cultures – we have been a little slow to catch on in the UK but they are now widely available.
Sauerkraut and kimchi are available in large supermarkets although ensure the products you buy are fresh, or alternatively have a go at making your own there is a wealth of recipes online.
Identify and address sources of stress. The brain and digestive system are in constant communication with one another – these communication links are called the gut-brain axis. This means there is a direct link between stress and gut issues which helps to explain the intuitive ‘gut feeling’ we often have or nervous butterflies before an exam or a big event.
Scientific studies have shown that certain probiotics (friendly gut bacteria) can reduce stress and anxiety (Chong et al., 2019). If stress is an issue, consider a meditation/mindfulness app, massage, exercise, acupuncture, or counselling – find what works for you.
Avoid sugar, refined carbohydrates, artificial sweeteners and processed foods as these can deplete your beneficial bacteria levels and encourage levels of unwanted bacteria.
If you get a sugar craving, snack on fruit, nuts and seeds or eat a small piece of good quality dark chocolate.
- Biscuits & cakes
- Breakfast cereals
- Artificial sweeteners
- Processed foods
A stool test can be incredibly useful in finding out what exactly is going on inside the gut, for example it can reveal levels and types of both good and bad bacteria, parasites, yeast and inflammation. This can help build a picture of what might be the root cause of many common gut issues.
References and Bibliography
Bailey, C. (2016) The Gut Health Diet Plan. London: Nourish Books
Chatterjee, R. (2018) The 4 Pillar Plan. London: Penguin
Chong, H., Yusoff, N., Hor, Y., Lew, L-C., Jaar, M., Choi, S-B., Yusoff, M., Wahid, N., Abdullah, M., Zakaria, N., Ong, K-L., Park, Y-H., Liong, M-T (2019). Lactobacillus plantarum DR7 alleviates stress and anxiety in adults: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Beneficial Microbes 2019 Apr 19;10(4):355-373. doi: 10.3920/BM2018.0135
Enders, G. (2015) Gut. London: Scribe Publications
Mosely, M. (2017) The Clever Gut Diet. New York: Atria Books
This article is for information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
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