Gut health has gained the attention of the public and researchers alike, as links between the gut microbiota and human health are established.
The gastrointestinal tract (or gut) was once thought to be simply a channel for food to enter and exit the body. Recently, however, there has been an increased focus on the role of gut health in overall physical and mental health. The health of the gut microbiome has been linked to diseases ranging from obesity and cardiovascular disease to depression and anxiety. And we know that people with good gut health are less likely to get sick and more able to fight harmful pathogens.
Gut health is paramount to overall wellbeing, but what exactly does gut health mean and what is the gut microbiome? The gut microbiome is an ecosystem of trillions of microorganisms (mainly bacteria) which live in the intestinal tract. These bacteria and the body’s immune cells are in constant communication, particularly when an immune response is required. 70 percent of the immune cells are located in the gut and the bacteria in the gut help these immune cells identify bad bacteria.
microbiota: all the microorganisms that live in the human body. Together they weight about 2kg (more than the weight of the brain). Most of these are found in the gut, some in the skin and genitals.
microbiome: all the genetic material within the microbiota.
microbial diversity: a measure of how many different species are present in the microbial community. Lower diversity is considered a marker of dysbiosis (microbial imbalance) in the gut. Higher diversity is linked to better gut health.
“If your gut is in tip-top shape, you’re more likely to ward off unwanted visitors.”
Good health gut correlated with:
- Improved immunity
- Reduced risk of some cancers
- Lower inflammation
- Improved bone health
- Weight management
- Improved energy levels
- Improved mental state
Poor gut health correlated with:
- Overweight and obesity
- Insulin resistance
- Leptin resistance (satiety hormone)
- High cholesterol
- Increased inflammation
- Diseases such as IBS, Crohn’s disease, colon cancer, metabolic syndrome, type I and type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease allergy, obesity, asthma, eczema and autism
- Mental conditions such as depression and anxiety
References: (Flint, Scott, Louis, & Duncan, 2012)(Graf et al., 2015) (Scott, Gratz, Sheridan, Flint, & Duncan, 2013)(Guarner, 2015)(Bressa et al., 2017).
Giving your gut a head start is easy with these five simple strategies.
Step 1: Boost the prebiotics
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria and are extremely important for overall health. Prebiotics are types of fibre and encourage the growth of probiotics in the gut (essentially the food for the probiotics). Prebiotics are found in fibrous foods, like fruits, vegetables nuts, seeds, legumes and grains.
“More fibre = increased gut microbiota diversity = better physical and mental health”
One way to improve your gut health right now is to pack some more fibre (prebiotics) into your diet. Here’s how…Consider a weekly organic fruit and veg box delivery. This way, you’ll have a bunch of seasonal fresh produce on hand ready to make delicious meals and won’t have to battle it out in the supermarket. Fruit and veggies are particularly good sources of vitamin C (an essential micronutrient which supports immune cell function) and fibre. And, eating organic produce lowers the chemical load on your body. Crank up your fruit and veg intake with these 10 ways to get your five or more serves of veg and two serves of fruit and prebiotic fibre per day:
- Apple and peanut butter as a snack
- Grate extra veggies into pasta sauce
- Wholegrain, wholemeal or mixed grain toast instead of white
- Stack your omelette with veggies such as spinach and mushrooms
- Brown rice or quinoa instead of white rice with curries
- Carrots and celery sticks with hummus
- Add berries and ½ frozen banana to your smoothie
- Grate broccoli stalks and add to stir fries or soup
- Stew apples or pears in a slow cooker with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Add to yoghurt or porridge for breakfast
- Roast beetroot, sweet potato, fennel and carrot to add to lunches and dinners
Step 2: Reduce stress
We know, we know – easier said than done! Chronic stress can wreak havoc on the gut. When the fight or flight system kicks in, digestive function is not prioritised. When we’re stressed, gut motility deceases, digestive enzyme secretion decreases, and constipation or diarrhoea can occur.
Everyone gets stressed at some point, life is stressful! It’s all about having the tools to manage stress. Try using a guided medication app, like Insight Timer or Calm to take 10 minutes out to de-stress.
Step 3: Go easy on alcohol and sugar
Often the reward after a hard day’s work, alcohol can easily sneak into a daily routine. If this is you, try having one more AFN (alcohol free night) this week. Or, replace an alcoholic drink with a soda and a splash of lime cordial or a kombucha. Even 100ml of juice mixed with soda water can do the trick. Alcohol can cause real havoc to the gut and depletes immune cells. The new 2020 draft Australian guidelines on alcohol recommend no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than four standard drinks on any one day.
It can be tempting in times of uncertainty and adversity to reach for sweet treats. Aussies consume 14 tsp of added sugar per day, more than double the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of 6 tsp per day. However, refined sugar can feed the bad bacteria in the gut, so go for some fruit like grapes, figs or dried apricots and macadamias to fulfil those 3pm sugar cravings over a chocolate bar or biscuit.
Step 4: Consider if you actually need a probiotic supplement
- Found in some fermented foods
- Added to foods
- In supplements
Probiotics have many roles including: synthesis of B vitamins and vitamin K, secretion of antimicrobial substances, modulation of the immune system, and prevention of pathogens invading the gastrointestinal tract. Typically, probiotics do not actually live in the gut; they pass through the gut and interact with immune cells and microbes in the gut along the way, conferring a benefit as they do. This is why probiotic supplements are only beneficial if taken consistently.
Probiotics are popular nutritional supplements and although only make up 3.6% of all supplements sold in Australia, the rate of growth is 15%, much higher than the total supplement category at 8.4%. Globally, the probiotic supplement industry is worth $51 billion AUD. The evidence on the efficacy of probiotics is mixed, it seems that for the healthy person, there may be little benefit; however for those with dysbiosis and a poor diet, there may be merit. There are many different strains of probiotics found in supplements. Commonly used strains are: Lactobacillus acidophilus, Saccharomyces boulardii, Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium bifidum. Each has a different function, so results are reliant on using the correct strain for the condition. Many people may be taking probiotics with no benefit.
Step 5: Avoid artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are some of the most common additives used in food production today. You’ll find them in chewing gum, most “no sugar” energy drinks and soft drinks, protein powders and diet foods. Look out for numbers E951 (aspartame) and E955 (sucralose). Once through to be benign, there is now increasing evidence indicating harmful effects on the body, and in particular, the gut.
Animal studies indicate artificial sweetener consumption (in particular, sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin) can negatively alter gut microbiota. Recently, a large study led by Brian Hoffman at the University of Wisconsin, indicated a link between artificial sweeteners and poor health outcomes. Artificial sweeteners seem to alter the gut microbiome in mice and humans and induce glucose intolerance (which results in higher than normal glucose levels).
“In our studies, both sugar and artificial sweeteners seem to exhibit negative effects linked to obesity and diabetes”.
If you want to know more about how to improve your gut microbiome and deepen your nutrition knowledge, check out our new Nutrition Coach course.
Bressa, C., Bailén-Andrino, M., Pérez-Santiago, J., González-Soltero, R., Pérez, M., Montalvo-Lominchar, M. G., … Larrosa, M. (2017). Differences in gut microbiota profile between women with active lifestyle and sedentary women. PloS One, 12(2), e0171352. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0171352
Carding, S., Verbeke, K., Vipond, D. T., Corfe, B. M., & Owen, L. J. (2015). Dysbiosis of the gut microbiota in disease. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease, 26, 26191. https://doi.org/10.3402/mehd.v26.26191
Flint, H. J., Scott, K. P., Louis, P., & Duncan, S. H. (2012). The role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health. Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 9(10), 577–589.
Gibson, G. R., Probert, H. M., Loo, J. Van, Rastall, R. A., & Roberfroid, M. B. (2004). Dietary modulation of the human colonic microbiota: updating the concept of prebiotics. Nutrition Research Reviews, 17(02), 259. https://doi.org/10.1079/NRR200479
Healthdirect. (2018). High fibre foods and diet. Retrieved from https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/high-fibre-foods-and-diet
Hoffmann, B., Ronan, G., & Haspula, D. (2018). The Influence of Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners on Vascular Health during the Onset and Progression of Diabetes. The FASEB Journal, 32(6), 2979–2991. https://doi.org/10.1096/fj.201700993R
Nettleton, J. E., Reimer, R. A., & Shearer, J. (2016). Reshaping the gut microbiota: Impact of low calorie sweeteners and the link to insulin resistance? Physiology & Behavior, 164(Pt B), 488–493. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.04.029
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