If you love reading about nutrition and health, we’re guessing you already know about the importance of maintaining a healthy gut. It’s well understood that that the balance of good and bad bacteria in our digestive tract can influence more than just our toileting habits. In fact, our immune system, our risk of chronic diseases, our body weight and even our mood can be linked back to the health of our gut. The million dollar question is – how can we improve the health of our gut, and in doing so, improve our physical and mental wellbeing
We’ve listed five healthy habits that you can follow:
Probiotics are live ‘good’ bacteria that can positively influence gut health. Fermented foods, such as yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, miso and pickled vegetables (i.e. kimchi and sauerkraut) naturally contain probiotics. During the fermentation process, natural sugars in food are converted to lactic acid, facilitating the growth of multiple varieties of good bacteria, including lactobacilli. People who have high levels of lactobacilli usually have fewer Enterobacteriaceae, a bacteria associated with inflammation and a number of chronic diseases (1, 2) Consuming fermented foods has additional benefits – some are particularly nutrient-rich and high in prebiotic fibres (see below). If you dislike fermented foods, but still want to reap the rewards, try a probiotic supplement. Most supplements contain Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium probiotic species, which are commonly linked with health benefits.
Plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and wholegrains, are rich sources of prebiotic fibre. Prebiotic fibres act as food sources for good bacteria within the gut. And, the more we feed our good gut bacteria – they more they will grow, and the healthier our gut will be! In addition, higher consumption of plant-based prebiotic foods has been linked to reduced growth of some disease-causing gut bacteria. It has also been linked to overall health improvement, including reduced cholesterol and stable blood sugar (3). Plant-based foods known to be particularly high in pre-biotic fibre include onion and garlic, apples, asparagus, peas, flaxseeds and oats. A word of caution, some foods rich in pre-biotics are also sources of dietary FODMAPs. If you have IBS, some of these foods may aggravate, rather than relieve, your digestive symptoms. We suggest you limit only the foods proven to upset you, rather than all food sources of FODMAPs. This way, you won’t need to miss out on all the prebiotic benefits.
Diets high in saturated fats, sugars and alcohol have been shown to increase the number of ‘bad’ gut bacteria in the gut (2). These bacteria produce ‘endotoxins’ that can damage the cells lining our intestines, as previously mentioned. This process is sometimes referred to as ‘leaky gut syndrome’. The good news is, by making simple swaps, you can reap a ‘double benefit’ of taking out something harmful, and adding something beneficial! For example, swap your afternoon chocolate bar for an apple and a handful of nuts, or your Sunday beers for kombucha.
Have you heard of the ‘gut-brain axis’? Simply put – there is a strong connection between our brain and our gut, so any changes occurring in the brain can influence gut function (and vice versa). Studies have shown that exposure to stress can lead to unfavorable changes in our gut bacteria. Specifically - the bacterial communities in the intestine became less diverse, and had greater numbers of potentially harmful bacteria, such as Clostridium (3, 4). In today’s fast-paced world, it’s normal to feel stressed from time to time. However, if you feel your levels of stress are above average or unmanageable, perhaps it’s time to seek some support.
This is an obvious one - avoid ‘bad’ bacterial growth in your gut by making sure you follow basic food hygiene principles. Wash your hands after going to the bathroom and before eating, wash your fruits and vegetables to remove dirt, cook your chicken all the way through, and store your foods correctly. By avoiding bacterial infection, you can also avoid using antibiotics – which also wipe out the good bacteria you’ve worked so hard to nurture.