by Dr. Elissa Naim
As many countries urge populations to stay at home, many of us are paying more attention to our diets and how the food we eat can support our health.
What about revitalising everything from your weight to mental wellbeing? It is possible through maintaining a healthy gut!
Have you ever heard about probiotics, prebiotics, fermented foods? Let’s discover the central role that gut bacteria play in our overall health and what changes to your diet could genuinely boost your gut health.
The human body harbors >100 trillion organisms; these are mostly bacteria, but also include archaea, viruses, parasites, and fungi, which together make up the microbiota, gut microbiom or gut flora.
The interest in microbiota goes beyond its relation with the digestive system. Studies have linked gut bacteria to changes in mood, mental health, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular health. Hence, gut health refers to the balance of microorganisms that live in the digestive tract, once imbalanced (dysbiosis), this may cause autoimmunity, inflammation, metabolic and GI-tract disorders, cancer, anxiety and depression.
Indeed, gut microbiota helps our body to produce nutrients and essential substances that our cells cannot. Hence, it works on degradation of nondigestible polysaccharides, synthesis of vitamins, strengthening and protecting the host from pathogens by maintaining healthy gut barrier integrity, and the development of innate and adaptive immunity. So feeding our microbes with a diverse diet and creating a comfortable environment for them seem to be vital.
Thus, you have to introduce foods with Probiotic (meaning they contain living bacteria) such as yoghurts and ayran. Prebiotics, just one letter different, are a source of food for probiotic bacteria to live off and multiply such as nondigestible carbohydrates: inulin or galactooligosaccharides. Prebiotic-rich foods are: asparagus, bananas, chicory, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, onions, whole grains. Studies are also pointing to possible benefits from Fermented foods which have been made traditionally such as kishk, shanklich, labneh, kefir, tempeh, kombucha and fermented vegetables: kimchi, miso, sauerkraut. They are a natural source of probiotics and act as"psychobiotics", having a positive mental health effect (lower level of cortisol, a stress marker) and resulting in a more diverse microbiome.
In addition, try to stay away from low carb diets and low fiber diets, specifically fad diets which call for less dietary diversity and therefore less quantity and quality of your microbiome. Conversely, diets high in Fiber (whole grain cereals, fruits, vegetables and legumes) shift nutrient uptake to the colon, which can drive lower fat in the body and boost your ‘metabolism’. Interestingly, microbiome composition can affect weight loss. Even when you and your friend eat the same amount, you might take up and use different amounts of calories from the same food, partly due to differences between your gut microbiomes.
However, eating a lot of sugar or artificial sweeteners (i.e. aspartame) may cause an imbalance of gut microbes increasing the number of some bacterial strains that are linked with metabolic disease. This means that artificial sweeteners may increase blood sugar despite not actually being a sugar, partially due to their effects on gut flora.
Try to avoid smoking and taking antibiotics unnecessarily that also damage the gut microbiota and immunity.
Worth noting that a variety of stressors can negatively affect gut health, including psychological stress, environmental stress, extreme heat, cold, noise, sleep deprivation and disruption of the circadian rhythm. Thus, try to get enough good-quality of sleep, to do meditation, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation and exercice regulary since studies have found that athletes had a larger variety of gut flora than nonathletes.
Remember, microbiome diversity is probably not achievable by swallowing a whole range of supplements. Eating a complex diet including all macronutrients, being active and sleeping well seem to be the long-lasting pill by promoting the abundance of healthier bacteria.