Gut Microbiome

The gut microbiome is something that I am completely fascinated by – in fact, I became somewhat obsessed after learning about it a few years ago.

Essentially the gut microbiome refers to the microorganisms that live in the gut. Sounds great, I know! The first time I heard about it, I couldn’t quite get my head around it – I just couldn’t understand how I’ve lived my whole life with kilos worth of bacteria living in my gut and didn’t know about it!

In fact, we have billions of live bacteria living in our guts and it’s estimated that the gut contains around 35,000 different strains of bacteria. The majority of this bacteria are found in the large intestine but it can also be found on our skin, in our oesophagus, stomach and small intestine. This doesn’t just include the ‘good’ bacteria but also the ‘bad’.

Why do we need this bacteria?

Right from birth, this bacteria starts to populate our gut and body for a number of reasons. Our gut is an incredibly important part of our internal systems and the bacteria within it helps not only to break down and assimilate the foods we eat but it also helps our immune system by preventing unwanted proteins from entering our blood stream.

Think of your gut bacteria as a beautiful garden full of various types of plants and flowers. The more this garden is diverse and in bloom, the healthier we will be.

Although this all may sound a bit strange, your gut flora (those wonderful microorganisms living in your gut) is essential for healthy digestion and performs many vital functions such as manufacturing certain vitamins (including B & K) and creating short-chain fatty acids which feed the gut wall and help your metabolism (therefore, a healthy gut flora can even influence weight gain/loss).

The state of our gut health may also regulate our mood (through the production of serotonin) and having a healthy gut can therefore reduce the risk of depression, increase feelings of happiness and reduce anxiety. It can also reduce circulating cortisol (a stress hormone), support healthy aging, improve and even prevent symptoms of gastrointestinal issues such as IBS and even improve or prevent food intolerances and allergies. So, you can see how important having a healthy gut is in relation to our overall health and well-being.

Gut dysbiosis

Gut dysbiosis refers to a disruption in the gut bacterial profile when the ‘bad’ bacteria outnumbers the ‘good’.

Our gut lining can become compromised if it’s constantly being exposed to irritants through our diets or through the environment ie: toxins, pollutants, additives, preservatives, excess sugar, alcohol, antibiotics etc. When this happens on a constant basis, it can cause chronic low level inflammation within the gut, not only compromising the health of our guts but our overall health as well.

Things that can affect the balance between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria include:

  • C-section – babies born via C-section may not have as strong of a gut profile as those born vaginally
  • Diet during infancy – breastfeeding exposes more beneficial bacteria to infants however this is also dependant on the mother’s health
  • Diet – plant based (eating primarily plants, NOT necessarily veganism) diets are supportive to the gut
  • Antibiotics – kill the bad bacteria but also kill the good bacteria
  • Age – it takes up to 3 years for toddlers to colonise their gut microbiome and the diversity may also decrease after the age of 75
  • Genetics – some aspects of our microbiome diversity may be inherited
  • Stress – Even brief periods of stress may have a negative impact on our microbiome

Probiotics and prebiotics

Probiotics are live microorganisms that are often referred to as the ‘good’ bacteria and because of this many choose to take probiotic supplements to support gut health.

Probiotic supplements contain common strains of bacteria that colonise in our guts including Bifidobacterium and lactobacillus (however there are many different species within these strains). These can help to recolonise the gut if needed (for example after a course of antibiotics) and improve the balance between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’, however it’s always best to follow the advice of your doctor to make sure that your supplementing with the right strains for your body to improve your overall balance. It’s important to remember we are all unique and therefore we won’t all benefit from the same supplement.

Supplements aren’t a substitution for a healthy diet or healthy way of living, they are there to compliment the healthy lifestyle you’re already living!

Probiotics are also found in some common every day foods including tempeh, kefir, kimchi, yogurts, kombucha and even miso. So, you don’t need to break the bank buying supplements – simply pop to your local supermarket!

Prebiotics are particular fibre sources that ferment in the gut and that help to ‘feed’ the bacteria living in the gut.

Prebiotics are just as important for our gut health and to maintain a healthy balance. Think of prebiotics as the water and nourishment you’d need to maintain a garden so that it thrives. As well as needing them for your overall gut health, there are so many benefits of including prebiotics in your diet including a reduced risk of obesity and being overweight as they support satiety and may support a healthy BMI and they help to improve immune function! As with probiotics, there are many dietary sources of prebiotics including complex carbohydrates such as vegetables and wholegrains.

Tips for a healthy gut microbiome:

  • Eat probiotic foods – these include yogurt with active or live cultures, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kombucha, pickles (those that have been fermented), traditional buttermilk and natto
  • Eat a wide range of plant-based foods – these include vegetables, legumes, beans and fruit
  • Eat wholegrains – these can promote the growth of certain strains of bacteria
  • Eat more fibre – sources of fibre include fruits, vegetables, nuts and wholegrains. These help to feed the healthy bacteria in our gut. Fibre rich foods that are good for your gut bacteria include: Raspberries, green peas, broccoli, chickpeas, lentils, beans and wholegrains
  • Eat foods rich in polyphenols – these include: grape skins, cocoa & dark chocolate, blueberries, broccoli, onions, green tea and almonds
  • Avoid eating highly processed foods – these can compromise the balance between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria
  • Reduce refined sugar intake
  • Don’t eat too many artificial sweeteners
  • Drink more water to avoid bloating from increasing your fibre intake
  • Take a recommended or prescribed probiotic supplement to complement your gut profile – this makes sure that you’re balancing your own individual gut profile
  • If you’re pregnant or are choosing to breastfeed, breastfeed for at least 6 months as this has shown to improve the gut flora of your baby
  • Take antibiotics only when absolutely necessary – as well as killing the ‘bad’ bacteria, they also kill the ‘good’. Make sure you’re not taking them unnecessarily and if you do need them then eat lots of microbe boosting foods after or take a doctor recommended probiotic
  • Reduce stress – stress can have a negative impact on your gut flora and compromise your gut health so reducing stress as much as possible can have a positive impact on not just your overall health, but your gut health as well

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