In our previous blog post ‘Food and Mood’, we discussed how what we eat can impact our mental states. Below we are going to take a deeper dive into exactly what the gut microbiome is and why we need to nourish it! What is the gut microbiota and the gut microbiome? The microbiome is the collective term given to the trillions of good and bad microbes inhabiting our gut, and their genetic material. We are actually made up of more microbial cells than we are human cells! The microbiota - sometimes referred to as the gut flora- are the microbes (e.g. bacteria, viruses and fungi) in a particular environment such as the gut. The gut microbiome for instance has its own microbiota, comprised of microbes specific to that environment. Just like the skin microbiome has its own microbiota. Every individual has a highly unique microbiome, even identical twins are different! What does the human gut microbiota do? The gut microbiota has a vast array of functions including aiding immunity and preventing you from getting infections, cholesterol and hormone balance, control of blood sugar, central nervous system functioning, production of vitamins, but also digestion and absorption of nutrients. You are not just what you eat; you are what you absorb! On account of the gut microbiotas’ implications on so many aspects of human health, it’s easy to see how trouble might occur when these gut microbes can get out of balance, something known as gut dysbiosis. An overabundance of certain types of bacteria can contribute to this – good or bad! What determines which microbes you have? This powerhouse can be influenced by a whole host of external factors, including our diet, stress levels, antibiotics, exercise and many more factors. This can be taken as a good thing though, as we can positively influence factors that we have control over, such as our diet. When it comes to food, a whole-foods diet approach is best. This can be defined as a high intake and wide variety of a plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole-grains, nuts and seeds; a moderate intake of quality proteins such as seafood, lean meats and dairy; and a low intake of highly processed foods. This way of eating will include foods with probiotic and prebiotic ingredients which are key to keeping those good gut bugs happy, but also lots of fibre. Fibre is the indigestible part of plant foods that keep you regular, balance blood sugars and can lower your cholesterol. Some fibres are also prebiotics. Probiotics are the good gut bugs living inside your gut, and consumed in adequate amounts, may have a beneficial effect on your health.Prebiotics are the food that feeds your good gut bugs – without them, probiotics wouldn’t survive. The major prebiotic-rich foods that feed good gut bugs are fructans, galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) and candidate prebiotic - resistant starch. It is important to mention postbiotics too – they are essentially by-products of probiotic fermentation e.g. metabolites, short-chain fatty acids and functional proteins that are naturally released by the microbiota, which in turn help regulate the composition of the microbiome. More research is showing that postbiotics may be responsible for many of our gut’s health benefits.
Pre, pro and postbiotics should of course consumed as part of a balanced diet to support gut health and overall health.
How else can I can increase my good gut bugs?
You may have heard the saying “eat the rainbow”? Well, there is much accuracy in it. Eating a varied diet with the foods suggested above play a huge role in creating and maintaining a healthy immune supporting gut microbiota (remember one of its key functions!). Try to aim to eat at least 30 different plant foods per week; this includes: fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, legumes and seeds. Variety really is key to helping your gut microbes thrive. We all tend to reach for the same fruit and veg in the supermarket as we know what to do with them, but there are ways you can add variety to your diet: try a new plant based food each week; make the freezer your friend (great for frozen veg and berries to top up your variety score); buy or make up a nut and seed mix to add to salads, soups and veggies; opt for a mixed bag of salad instead of one variety, and add herbs and spices to your meals! If you don’t know what to do with something, extra virgin olive oil, (high in polyphenols which your gut bacteria love) salt and the oven are your friend for lots of roasted vegetables.
It hard to overemphasize the impact poor gut health can have on all areas of health, from immunity to digestive and mental health. As Hippocrates once said, “All disease begins in the gut”. A good steppingstone to optimising your gut health is to reach for complex carbohydrates like whole grains - which are high in fibre, a range of lean protein sources, healthy fats and two portions of oily fish a week and most importantly, a colourful range of fruit and vegetables. Lastly, remember to keep hydrated as fluid helps to keep your gut moving regularly!
By Abigail Attenborough (ANutr)