The importance of digestive health is a buzz right now – both in the media and the science community too. This global appreciation is a long time coming and I’m so glad it’s being embraced and pushed to the forefront of understanding human health and disease prevention.
Traditional medical systems have long acknowledged the importance of the gut. Nearly 2500 years ago, the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates stated ‘All disease starts in the gut’ – begs the question was he ahead of his time or is this an important wisdom overlooked…until now?
What’s the microbiome?
Everyone has a unique microbiome that houses nearly 100 trillion microorganisms (mainly bacteria). I have read that their genetic material outnumbers that of our human cells 10 to 1 – that means we are more bacteria, than we are human! Hundreds of species of bacteria reside in your gut. Some of them are friendly, while others are not (so we want a balance in favour of the friendly kind). Different kinds of bacteria have different roles within our bodies and they are critical to our health and wellbeing.
The bacteria that live in our digestive system play a key role in digesting the food we eat so that we can absorb and synthesise essential nutrients (like vitamins and minerals). Gut bugs are also involved in many other important processes in the body including regulating our metabolism, body weight, hormones, immune function, as well as influencing brain (central nervous system) function and even our mood.
Because it is so unique, like our finger prints, there is so much about our microbiome that we are yet to fully understand. However generally, a diverse gut flora is considered to be indicative of a healthy gut microbiome.
How does the microbiome develop?
Our microbiome is populated from birth (possibly even inutero) – as a baby travels down the vaginal canal it is exposed to its mothers microflora, when it is breastfed it further diversifies. It is thought that the health of both parents pre-conceptually also plays a pivotal role. Certainly throughout life, many factors shape the bacteria living in our gut – antibiotic use, illness, many medications (pharmaceutical and natural), stress, diet and lifestyle. Obviously there are things we can control and others (like our manner or birth) that are out of our control.
What is dysbiosis
Dysbiosis occurs when the gut microbiome becomes imbalanced or disrupted (so the gut flora contains too many harmful bacteria and not enough friendly bacteria to keep them in check). There are many reasons this may occur but some of the most accepted reasons include antibiotic exposure, smoking, too much alcohol, illness, stress, sleep deprivation, being sedentary or overweight and eating a poor quality diet (without much variety).
Diet, is the most important modifiable factor affecting the composition and health of bacteria living in our gut.
What you can do to support your microbiome
There are many ways to improve your gut microbiome, here I’ve outline a few practical guidelines…
Dietary variety is critical
Eating a diverse range of clean, whole foods leads to a diverse microbiome, which is essential for good gut health. The food you eat provides key nutrients that help bacteria thrive. A diet consisting of a wide variety of whole foods (preferably in season, locally grown, organic), such as fruits, vegetables, pasture raised and antibiotic-free protein and well prepared whole-grains/ nuts/ seeds/ legumes results in the gut having a more diverse flora. In fact, research has confirmed that changing-up your diet can alter your gut flora profile after just a few days.
Unfortunately, the Western diet is notoriously lacking variety. According to this review, 75% of the world’s food supply comes from only 12 plants and five animal species. Scary stuff! I always buy food that’s in season and whilst I have staples that I always buy (like carrots, broccoli, potatoes, mushrooms, sweet potato, onions, salad greens, zucchini, beans or peas, radish etc;) I try to rotate other vegetables so we are always eating something new. So I might buy kale one week, silverbeet or baby spinach or asian greens the following weeks. I also include other vegetables on rotation (fennel, asparagus, brussels, eggplant and veggies that have very short seasons like Romanesque cauliflower). Each week I also buy one or two veggies the kids aren’t too keen on because I never know, they may come around to them at some stage and if I don’t offer them, I won’t know.
Live a low-tox life
The toxins we are exposed to in our food chain and environment impact on our gut flora massively…and there are SO many. From the containers and packaging our food is stored in, to the awful chemicals found in cosmetics, sunscreens and personal care products we absorb via our skin each day. The cleaning products we use, the clothes we wear, mattresses we sleep on all potentially contain toxins that disrupt our gut microbiome and effect our health.
Before you throw your hands up and feel it’s all too hard to get you head around, let me assure you that there are plenty of small things you can do that all add up to less stress to your body and microbiome. This post is a great start for ‘5 Ways I’ve reduced my families toxin load‘.
I’d also strongly recommend taking a look at Alexx Stuarts ‘Go Low Tox’ e-course (the next round starts very soon). It’s a life changing ecourse without any overwhelm what so ever. It’s up to us, as individuals and as parents to to learn what’s what because our governing bodies DO NOT protect us. Once you have this knowledge, you’re set for life and can pass it onto your children too. Find out more HERE.
Avoid processed foods
Processed foods are not only sterile themselves, they do not ‘feed’ or support the health of your gut microbiome. Once more additives, preservatives, emulsifiers and GM ingredients damage gut flora. Studies that have compared the gut flora of cultures who eat no processed foods have found them to be 50% more diverse than those eating a Western diet.
Especially avoid artificial sweeteners. Some research has shown that artificial sweeteners like aspartame supports the growth of unhealthy bacteria in the gut microbiome and is implicated in the development of dysbiosis, obesity and metabolic disorders (pretty ironic as many people consuming artificial sweeteners are trying to loose weight).
Eat prebiotic foods
Prebiotic fibre found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains (especially legumes, peas, beans, nuts, bananas, asparagus, garlic and onion) passes through the body undigested and this feeds and stimulates the growth of healthy bacteria.
Eat fermented foods
Fermented foods such as yoghurt, coconut yoghurt, fermented vegetables (such as sauerkraut and kim chi), kombucha and kefir all contain healthy bacteria and can reduce the amount of disease-causing species in the gut.
Drink filtered water
The chlorine in water is designed to kill pathogens so to protect your microbiome, it’s best to invest in a filtration system that removes chlorine from your drinking water.
Eat foods rich in polyphenols
Polyphenols are antioxidant plant compounds found in red wine, green tea, cacao (dark chocolate), olives, extra virgin olive oil, dark coloured berries and some herbs and spices. They are broken down by the microbiome and stimulate healthy bacterial growth.
Manage stress and address any sleep issues.
Exercise is also critical for maintaining a healthy microbiome.
Consider a probiotic supplement – Probiotics are live bacteria that can help restore the gut to a healthy state after dysbiosis by ‘reseeding’ it with healthy microbes.
I have a collection of practical posts about digestive health and also food intolerance on this page.