Love Your Guts
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Let’s talk about the secret life of your microbiome. We talk about bacteria a lot, but the biome is made up of bacteria as well as archaea, viruses, fungi and unicellular eukaryotes. Although these are also found in the stomach and small intestine, the majority of them are living in the large intestines where the conditions are much more favourable for most of them. With trillions of micro-organisms living inside of us (estimated to outnumber human cells in the body 10:1), we might be a lot less human than we like to believe. Think about that next time you look in the mirror!
It is also estimated they can weigh up to 2 kg in an average adult. That’s a lot of micro-organisms and a good reason to start taking them seriously. There have been numerous studies showing the link between our gut health and our general health.
Let’s take a look at what these little critters do for us:
Although we are born with an innate immune system, the microbes in our gut produce antimicrobial substances to fight the overgrowth of harmful bacteria and destroy dangerous pathogens. This second immune system is called “acquired” or “adapted” immune system. Babies acquire their “starter kit” of microbiota at birth, ideally by picking up their mother’s gut-flora on their journey through the birthing canal, further reinforcing it through breastfeeding. Growing up, we add to the biodiversity with every exposure to new microbes. So yes, eat dirt and let the dog lick your face…
The microbiota also relates to autoimmune conditions and allergies. These are more likely to develop if exposure to microbes is disrupted early in life
Gut microbes absorb energy from the food we eat, but they also help us to break down complex molecules in food so we can absorb the nutrients we need. Without gut bacteria we couldn’t even digest plant cellulose. It is believed that gut bacteria communicate with our brain, influencing our food cravings and how full we feel. If you are constantly craving sugary junk-food, there is a good chance you have not been breeding and nurturing the right bacteria in your gut. You have been cultivating little sugar monsters and they thrive on that stuff. They also don’t care that it’s not good for you, they are self-centred little nasties…
Gut bacteria activity releases small molecules that trigger the response of nerves in the gastrointestinal tract. They are also in communication with the brain via the Vagus nerve (referred to as the gut – brain axis) and have been shown to influence our mood as well as psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety and autistic spectrum disorder.
Perhaps you can think back to occasions where you felt really low and sad after eating junk-food, or happy and energetic after eating fresh produce. You don’t need an expert to see that there is a connection between what we eat and how we feel.
The gut micro-biome has been shown to be linked to a wide variety of diseases. Some experts believe that all disease originates in the gut. In other words, healthy gut, healthy you. Now, personally, I’m not going to get too hung up on whether it is in fact all disease or just certain ones. If I can avoid even one of them, why wouldn’t I? We’re talking Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, some psychological disorders, type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, obesity and many other problems. Then there are all the gut related issues like Celiac Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, right through to Bowel Cancer.
Feed Your Gut
There is so much more to the Gut Microbiome, but as you can see, it does play a central role in our well-being. For so long, we humans had no knowledge of this secret world that exists right in the centre of our own bodies. We used to view ourselves as just the one living being and had no consideration for our millions of little guests in our intestines. In fact, we were convinced that all germs are bad and need to be killed. It’s a miracle that our bacteria are still able to survive with all the anti-bacterial measures we take, along with the food we “nuke” in the microwave, which leaves very little recognizable nutrition, if any. Think of all the anti-biotics that are prescribed every time someone has a sore throat or a sniffle. Anti-biotic is made up from the Greek words anti = against and bios = life. These drugs are literally called “against life.” They kill all life (hopefully just the bacteria, not yours), and they don’t differentiate between good and bad bacteria. So, whilst it might be effective in killing the nasty bacteria that make you sick, it also kills the good bacteria – the very thing you need for your immune system to function properly and protect you from the next infection. It takes time and care to rebuild the population of the good guys, so you are more susceptible to getting another infection which is likely to be treated with anti-biotics again. You can see how this is a downwards spiral. I am not suggesting to never take antibiotics. They save lives and there is a place for them. But often they could be avoided. There are safer, effective alternatives to treat some infections.
Prebiotics & Probiotics
Chances are you may have come across those terms at some point.
Probiotics are live cultures. You can buy them in a bottle in capsules or drinks and they will contain certain strands of beneficial bacteria, like lactobacillus Bifidus, etc
They are also often contained in yoghurt (coconut yoghurt for vegans) or fermented foods like sauerkraut or miso. These are aimed at increasing your population of gut bacteria. Whilst this is a good thing to do, the problem is that there are only a few strains of bacteria in those supplements out of thousands living in your gut. If you have taken antibiotics, probiotics are a good way to restore some balance in your gut. Whatever your choice, ensure the label clearly states the product contains live cultures and compare the numbers it contains.
So now that you have stocked up on your microbiota, what should you feed them?
That’s right, prebiotics. Those little critters thrive on the fibre in our foods, mainly indigestible fibre. What does that mean? It’s fibre we, as humans, cannot digest. But they can. And they turn it into energy. A lot of people know that fibre is good for our gut, but now you know it does more than just clean our insides. And if you still need to be convinced that fibre is good for you, here is another cool fact: fibre contributes to you feeling full sooner and longer, but as it is indigestible, the caloric value of fibre does not contribute to weight gain. It also lowers the glycaemic index of food which lowers the insulin response – something diabetics know all about.
Where would we find fibre? In whole, unprocessed plants. Think fruits (berries, nectarine, green bananas, watermelon…), vegetables (onion, leek, garlic, cabbage, snow peas, peas, sweetcorn…) and legumes (kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas…)
Here is a happy coincidence – by feeding your microbes the best diet, you are also feeding yourself the best diet. Now you have at least two good reasons to eat well.