Everyone’s talking about gut health, so our nutritional columnist tells us the easiest ways to support our system
We hear a lot about the gut these days, and here are four things you can do to support gut health: The first, and most important, step is to support the microbiome, the collective name for beneficial bacteria. They play a multitude of roles and are linked to irritable bowel syndrome, abdominal bloating, blood glucose issues (including insulin sensitivity and type 2 diabetes), depression, weight gain, cognitive function and even atherosclerosis (a condition in which arteries become harder and less flexible). In addition, the bacteria help synthesise some nutrients and aid digestion, whilst providing a buffer against unwanted bacteria.
You can do this through food or supplements. Firstly, eat probiotics, a term for a group of foods that either naturally contain beneficial bacteria, or in some cases, have them added. Probiotic foods typically have a slight tang or fizz to them and include sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, kombucha and miso, as well as yoghurt. You may choose to take probiotics in supplement form too, often they offer bacteria in numbers that eating probiotic foods cannot match.
Secondly, there are prebiotics which provide a type of indigestible fibre that the bacteria use to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which the cells that line the intestines then use as fuel. Prebiotic foods contain a type of indigestible fibre found in Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, banana, onions, garlic and leeks but also in lesser amounts in most produce, beans, nuts and seeds. It’s a good idea not to overdo probiotics as excess can encourage gas and bloating which can be uncomfortable.
The last part of the diet to think about are elements that discourage the all-important beneficial bacteria from thriving, starting with alcohol. It is often assumed that alcohol has an entirely negative effect on the level of probiotics in the gut, but some research suggests that moderate drinkers actually have a wider variety of beneficial bacteria than non-drinkers. That said, excessive alcohol consumption certainly seems to reduce the concentration of several strains of Lactobacillus in the gut and so my advice is to stick to the recommended maximum of fourteen units per week.
Then there is sugar, as it is now widely believed that a diet that is high in refined sugars encourages the growth of harmful bacteria at the expense of good bacteria. This may well be true, but it is difficult to establish a definitive link between high- sugar intake and poor gut health. This is because people who eat a lot of refined sugar also tend to eat a lot of saturated fat and little dietary fibre, so their diets may be harmful to the probiotics in their guts for a variety of reasons. However, logic suggests that limiting sugar in all its forms should help in overall gut health.
Ian is one of the UK’s top nutritional therapists (ianmarber.com). Manfood by Ian Marber (£13.99, Little Brown) is available from Amazon.
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