Multiply your microbiome inside your gut for a healthy body, inside and out
A lot of the time, we take what our gut does for granted, but we need to give it some routine TLC, not just for the benefit of our digestive system, but our overall health too.
Microbial organisms live both on and inside our bodies, outnumbering our own cells three to one, and the good bacteria that lives in our gut is key in helping our immune system create a protective barrier against harmful bacteria and viruses, and provides a number of nutrients for our cells. Everyone’s microbiome is unique, and research shows that there are a number of factors that influence it, including diet, antibiotics, where you live and your genetic makeup. Some studies have also suggested that sex hormones and age also play a role in determining the intestinal microbial. Its role is to break down food and toxins, make vitamins and interact with our immune system. So, to find out how to cultivate it, we asked dietician Jo Travers (loveyourgut.com) for her top 10 tips.
Nutritious, wholesome fibre is an integral part of our diets, and we need to make sure we have plenty of it to keep our gut in tip-top condition. “Fibre is what the bacteria in our gut lives on, so we need to make sure we’re feeding it regularly,” says Jo. “By eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains, you can provide your body with a variety of different fibres. The recommendations for fruit and veg intake in the UK is at least five portions a day. A ratio of about two portions of fruit to three portions of veg is about right.”
These are micronutrients that come from plant-based foods, and they moderate the growth of friendly bacteria and inhibit the effect of harmful kind. “Polyphenols are important for lots of reasons,” says Jo. “They’re antioxidants, meaning they protect our DNA damage caused by free radicals, which can lead to heart disease and some cancers. They can reduce inflammation, play a role in brain function and memory and are found in all plant foods, especially red and purple fruits, such as red onions and tomatoes, as well as wholegrains, pulses and spices.”
While regular snacking may not be a one-way ticket to optimum gut health, it can be an opportunity to consume some more gut-friendly nutrients. “There is no strong evidence to show that snacking helps your microbiome, although having said that, a snack is a great opportunity to consume food that’s gut-friendly,” says Jo. “Eating low-fibre snacks, such as crisps or sweets, isn’t going to do a lot for your gut bacteria, but if you ever feel like it’s difficult to fit in your five-a-day, consider including fruit or veg in your snacks. Carrot sticks and hummus, or fruit and nuts make a great snack for your gut bacteria to thrive on.”
One of the best things you can eat regularly to encourage gut-friendly bacteria is fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kefir. “The lactic acid bacteria found in these types of food are thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect both in and outside of the gut,” says Jo. “Eating this type of food has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.”
Going veggie can be good for your gut, as Jo explains: “When you follow a vegetarian diet, you (hopefully) will eat more plant foods. Plant protein sources, such as beans, lentils and other pulses which are great sources of fibre, and polyphenols and fermented proteins like the Asian foods tempeh and natto, also contain beneficial bacteria,” says Jo. “However, it’s not a given that by following a plant-based diet, you’ll automatically reap the gut-friendly benefits. Just as it’s possible to have plenty of healthy foods as an omnivore, it’s perfectly possible to have an unhealthy vegetarian diet. Whatever your preference, try to ensure that you include plenty of plant proteins day to day.”
Spices such as ginger, cinnamon and turmeric can help your gut more than you might think. “Generally, spices are full of polyphenols which, as we know, can help encourage good bacteria, so from that perspective they can help,” says Jo. “However, some people find that spicy food can irritate their stomach and intestine. Try to eat as varied a diet as possible and if spices don’t agree with you, there are plenty of other ways to keep your gut healthy.”
If you’ve ever been on antibiotics then you’re probably already aware that they can upset your stomach, but rather than avoid them all together, it’s more beneficial to make sure that you repopulate your gut full of good bacteria after taking them. “Antibiotics are fairly non-specific, so they don’t tend to target the single bacteria that are making you ill, but kill all the bacteria in your body – including the beneficial ones,” says Jo. “Studies show that it can be difficult to repopulate the gut with a good balance of bacteria following antibiotic use, and this can sometimes lead to diarrhoea. If you do have to take them, make sure you take steps to get that good bacteria back by eating gut-friendly foods!”
One great way to fill your gut with good bacteria is to eat plenty of prebiotic fibre and probiotic products. “Prebiotics are fibres found in plant foods that the bacteria in our gut digests for us,” says Jo. You’ll find that prebiotic fibres occur naturally in food such as chicory, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions, shallots and spring onions, leeks and savoy cabbage. More commonly known about in regards to gut health are probiotics. Probiotics foods contain live, healthy bacteria that may help promote better gut health. For probiotics, try to include foods such as yoghurt, miso and other fermented foods into your diet.
It can be hard to get all the nutrients we need through food alone, which is why supplements can be really handy, not just for our overall health, but our gut too. “Vitamin D is made by our skin in the presence of sunlight,” says Jo. “And, with so many of us working inside and applying sunscreen before we head out, not to mention the cloudy nature of northern Europe, it’s notoriously difficult to get enough of without supplementation,” says Jo. “Vitamin D plays a role in regulating inflammation in the gut, and having a deficiency has been shown to adversely affect the gut microbiome, increasing it in your diet, particularly during winter, can be beneficial.”
The variety of bacteria inside our gut is influenced by how many different types of bacteria we come into contact with. One way to increase our exposure to other types is to get into nature. “Years ago, we were much more reliant on rural environments and animals which diversified the types of bacteria we came into contact with,” says Jo. Walking through your local woods, or even petting a dog can help, so it’s important to get outside regularly, even more so if you live in the city.”
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