One third of the world’s population has some form of gut or digestive symptom. World digestive health day marks the start of a 12 month long campaign focussing on raising awareness of particular digestive diseases or disorders.
Our gut is referred to as our second brain. Its total surface area is around the size of half a badminton court or a small studio apartment! The gut’s impact on our mental and physical health and our immune system is becoming more widely discussed. Interest is growing to discover ways in which we can work to prevent, or manage, our digestive health issues in order to reap the benefits that come with a healthy, happy gut!
Our gut is made up of thousands of strains of live bacteria, also known as our microbiome. Our microbiome is constantly busy. It works to protect our immune system, metabolize and absorb nutrients and provide our body with the energy it needs daily. Our microbiome also produces the majority of our feel good hormone; serotonin, meaning the health of our gut has a huge impact on our mood and overall mental wellbeing. Needless to say, maintaining a healthy microbiome is very important.
There are different types of bacteria in our gut which make up our unique microbiome and the quality of these bacteria can depend on our diet, lifestyle, stress levels as well as environmental factors. These different types of bacteria are sometimes referred to as ‘friendly’ and ‘unfriendly bacteria’. Ideally, we want to nourish the ‘friendly’ bacteria to create a healthy gut that is devoid of inflammation and adequately absorbing nutrients. The good news is, we can play a part in controlling the balance of ‘friendly’ and ‘unfriendly’ bacteria, and one of the main ways to do so is through our diet.
The ‘unfriendly’ bacteria in our gut feed on sugar, caffeine, alcohol and processed foods. The ‘friendly’, feast on fibre, colour and variety. By ‘eating the rainbow’, we are helping our friendly bacteria to multiply, as well as consuming a range of polyphenols. These polyphenols help to improve digestive issues, as well as travel through the body to lower inflammation.
Alongside eating colourfully, consuming a combination of probiotics and prebiotics as part of a wholefoods diet can help to achieve a good balance of bacteria in the microbiome, working to support digestive health.
Probiotics are live bacteria which can be found in many fermented foods. Sources include; kefir, tempeh, kimchi and yogurt. Prebiotics are sources of fibre that ferment in the gut, creating beneficial bioactive compounds needed to aid digestion. Sources include; artichokes, leeks, onions, garlic and asparagus. Working to add these foods into your diet can be a beneficial step when trying to improve the quality of your microbiome. But, it’s not just what you eat that is important; how you eat it is also key. Chewing your food slowly and taking time to eat meals rather than rushing or eating them on the go should also be prioritised!
Alongside diet, managing stress levels is also important. A little bit of stress is a good thing; it provides us with the adrenaline we need to complete certain tasks. However, when we have chronic stress in our day to day lives, our body goes into fight or flight mode for survival. With the stresses of our busy lives pushing us way beyond our limits, we are unable to cope with continuous high demands and our body becomes exhausted, lowering our immunity defences and making us more susceptible to illness.
A stressed mind leads to a stressed gut, and consistent high stress preoccupies our body making our digestive system become almost secondary and, at times, unable to function. The stress affects our microbiome and our gut is more likely to become inflamed. When we are stressed, we are more likely to make poor diet and lifestyle choices, seeking out comfort foods – usually high in sugar, fat and salt, craving caffeine and alcohol, too. This ongoing cycle leads to further disruption in the microbiome. Slowing down and finding ways to promote relaxation will help to manage these stress levels in the body, mind and in the gut. Yoga, meditation, being in nature and scheduling in ‘you time’ are all good examples of this.
Stress management, alongside considering dietary choices are steps in the right direction when working to control the balance of bacteria in your gut and improve digestion. Exercise, our local surroundings, and avoiding an unnecessary over use of antibiotics should also be considered.
Having a healthy gut microbiome benefits our immune system, aids digestion and has an impact on our mental health too! An imbalance of friendly and unfriendly microbes may contribute to weight gain and chronic inflammation, which can eventually lead to many diseases and health conditions. The quality of your gut microbiome can impact on the quality of your children’s and grandchildren’s too! Trust your gut, understand how it works and prioritise managing it rather than letting it manage you. As the “Father Of Medicine” Hippocrates once said – “all disease begins in the gut”.