Gut health, we are hearing about it everywhere at the moment, but what does it mean? Our digestive system contains trillions of microorganisms (mainly bacteria.) This is called our microbiome, and the ‘health’ of this microbiome is critical to many areas of our own health.
Bacteria begin to populate our gut very early in life, even before we are born. There are many factors that influence how our gut microbiome develops and what types of bacteria will live and flourish, these include genetics and health of your parents, whether you are born naturally or by caesarean, if you were breast or bottle fed and your emotional environment pre and post birth.
Our microbiome performs many, many functions, including:
- Regulating our immune system. Your good gut bugs stop pathogenic (read: bad) bacteria from attaching to the inside of your gut, protecting you from infections.
- Regulating antibody production in the gut, these are immune molecules which decrease allergic reactions.
- Improving the health of T-cells (critical immune cells.) Your gut bugs help your immune cells recognise your own organs, so they don’t attack them (useful, to say the least.) When this fails it’s called an auto-immune condition.
- Keeping you regular, which is always a good time.
- Producing short chain fatty acids. These fatty acids nourish the intestinal cells and help to reduce the risk of bowel cancer as well as helping your body absorb minerals such as zinc, iron, magnesium, copper and calcium.
- Helping to maintain a healthy mood. 90% of our serotonin (happy brain chemical) is produced in the gut so if our gut is not functioning well, serotonin production drops and depression and anxiety can result.
- Weight maintenance. Having too many bad bugs can cause inflammation, putting stress on the liver and impairing fat burning and detoxification.
- Assisting with healthy digestion. The microbiome releases enzymes that help break down your food. This reduces the chances of food sitting in the gut for a long time and fermenting, causing bloating, gas and contributing to leaky gut.
- Directing the production of antibodies against invading pathogens.
So, you can see how important a healthy microbiome is for optimal health.
What can decrease gut microbiome health? Well, these things have been linked to poor gut health: emotional stress, physical stress, lots of sugar and processed foods, certain medications (particularly pain killers such as Panadol and Nurofen,) certain oral contraceptive pills, excess alcohol, antibiotics, not enough fresh fruit and vegetables, caesarean birth, non-breast feeding, parasitic infections, hand sanitizers and germ-killing cleaning products (!!!,) too many toxins in your diet, and last but not least smoking. That’s a lot and I’m sure we are all exposed to or doing at least a few things on that list.
Aside from the more common symptoms such as bloating, gas, heartburn, constipation or diarrhoea, there are less known symptoms that people are unaware can be related to gut dysbiosis (to many bad bugs) or leaky gut. These can include fatigue, brain fog, trouble concentrating, hormonal imbalances, depression, anxiety, skin conditions, allergies, thyroid conditions, auto-immune conditions, recurrent colds and flu, food sensitivities or intolerances and obesity. So pretty much everything…
Now for the good news:
How can we keep our microbiome healthy and happy? Reducing stress as much as possible is a good place to start. When we are under stress our digestive secretions and enzymes reduce, this inhibits proper digestion of our food, causing it to putrefy in our gut and this is when the bad bacteria move in. There are many ways to reduce stress, such as meditation, deep breathing, getting out into nature, exercise and working on your work/life balance.
Diet of course also has a major impact on the health of our gut. Too much sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed foods and alcohol can all cause an imbalance and too many bad bugs. Eat a diet with a wide range of fresh vegetables, some fruit, healthy proteins such as oily fish, chicken, meat, eggs and healthy fats such as nuts, avocados, olive and coconut oils. Grains can be inflammatory in some people who have leaky gut so if you find you feel worse after eating them, leave them out. If you are ok with grains then stick to things like quinoa, brown rice and sourdough breads. If you are vegan or vegetarian, ensure you are getting adequate protein (and you need a lot more than you think!) Of course, try not to eat on the run or while feeling stressed as this will impair digestion. Turns out pausing and being grateful before a meal can improve your health!
This brings us to fermented foods, adding these foods that are full of probiotics (and already half digested) into your diet can help to keep your microbiome healthy. Foods such as sauerkraut, Kim Chi, miso, tempeh, kefir, kombucha and sourdough breads all contain healthy bacteria that keep your gut happy. Adding unpasteurised apple cider vinegar in a little water before meals can also help the digestive process along. Probiotics can be useful for gut health, but new research is showing strain specific probiotics should be used for different conditions so for best results go speak to your naturopath about which could be best for you. Lastly, stay hydrated as this will aid digestion, keep you regular and keep you energised and focused. I can’t emphasise how important water is, the nectar of life will never let you down.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine famously said, “All health begins in the gut”. Modern research is now proving Hippocrates right and it has become clear that keeping your gut healthy and happy is the key to keeping you healthy and happy, literally.
Head Naturopath + Store Manager. (Adv.dip Nutritional Medicine, Adv.dip Naturopathy, Adv.dip Western Herbal Medicine)
Nikki is our in-house Nutritionist + Naturopath and is available for more in-depth consultations in store here at Pachamama Wellness. For more information please click here.