It seems obvious that a well-functioning gastrointestinal tract or gut is essential for health, as it transports the food we ingest, and is responsible for breaking food down into absorbable nutrients and shuttling the waste out.
Symptoms like chronic bloating, excessive gas, constipation, loose stools, indigestion, and nausea are common signs that things aren’t working as well as they should. The microbiota, which is the collection of microorganisms that lives in and on us, as well as their metabolites (what they produce), can impact us in ways that goes beyond gastrointestinal symptoms.
A disrupted microbiome has been linked to a range of symptoms and conditions, including acne, eczema, low mood, fatigue, sugar cravings, and even chronic inflammatory diseases with type 2 diabetes being just one example. It is worth noting some of the factors which may negatively impact the microbiome. These include a restrictive diet, excessive alcohol intake, antibiotics, other non-antibiotic medications for example acid-lowering medications, stress, and a disrupted circadian rhythm, commonly known as the body clock. Interestingly, drastic dietary shifts such as changing from a ‘normal diet’ to a ketogenic or vegan diet can change the microbiota in only a few days. That is not to suggest that either of these diets are good or bad, but rather to illustrate that what we eat has a profound impact on our microbes.
The microbiome has become a hot topic in recent years and has resulted in a huge increase in an array of fermented products available to purchase including foods and drinks like kombucha, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and a growing supplement market promoting probiotics and prebiotics. If only it were as simple as everyday downing your kefir or Yacult and popping an acidophilus supplement purchased from your high street health shop!
Our gut microbiome is unique to us and what works for one, may not work for another. Microbiome stool tests may sound like the perfect solution, as some of these tests claim to be able to tell you which probiotics you should take and what kind of a diet you should follow. Unfortunately, some of these claims are not based on solid science and not all tests utilise the most up to date techniques. These tests may provide useful insight into the health of your gut, but they need to be correctly interpreted.
While an individual approach is best, here are some ideas for improving your gut health:
- Try to eat a nutrient-dense, colourful diet, with minimal highly processed foods
- Where possible try to avoid foods with artificial sweeteners including sugar-free drinks and some protein bars, and emulsifiers, often found in plant milks.
- If tolerated, try to have prebiotic food with every meal. Prebiotics are basically a kind of fibre which we can’t digest, and therefore they are food for the gut bacteria who are able to digest these fibres. Examples include, artichokes (globe and Jerusalem), leeks, onions, garlic, asparagus, nuts, chickpeas, blackberries, and apples.
- You may benefit from taking a probiotic, but very importantly the goal is to take a probiotic which contains a strain that has been proven to be safe and effective, and where possible match the strain to your symptom or condition.
- If fermented foods suit your palate, make them a part of your daily diet. While these foods have been shown in clinical trials to benefit some of us, they are not always right for everyone.
- Prioritise polyphenols, which is a natural plant chemical present in spices, dark chocolate, and extra virgin olive oil, as they can increase certain strains of beneficial bacteria.