A Healthy Gut = A Healthy You!

Healthy GutYou might think that your gut - from stomach, through small intestine, to large intestine - is simply there just to digest your food, absorbed nutrients and excrete waste.

Now while all of those are vital functions of the gut, research is building to suggest that the health of our gut is actually key to much of our overall health and happiness, including our immunity, resistance to chronic disease and even mental health.

In our gut we carry a unique population of bacteria - called our 'microbiome'. This microbiome is made up of some very impressive numbers:

  • we carry around 2kg of bactera;
  • that 2kg is made up of trillions of bacteria;
  • they outnumber the cells in our bodies by about 10 to 1;
  • more than 1000 different species have been identified;
  • we carry about 150 - 170 different species each, which is a unique combination for each of us.
Our microbiome carries out some important functions in our body. From ensuring proper digestion and helping with the production of some vitamins; through to playing an important role in our immune system, protecting us from 'bad' bacteria.

Gut Bacteria

If, for some reason, our microbiome has been compromised – such as a tummy bug, antibiotics, chemotherapy, or born that way - you can help boost the population of ‘good’ bacteria in the gut by taking probiotics, which is something that’s being increasingly researched. There’s mounting evidence that probiotics improve resistance to disease and infection by enhancing immune response in the intestine. Considering what goes on in our gut accounts for two thirds of our immune system this is important research. There is evidence that certain strains of probiotic can alleviate constipation, diarrhoea, IBS & chronic bowel disease. Some studies have shown potential for certain probiotic strains to be beneficial in reducing the risk of the recurrence of certain cancers, including colon and bladder cancers; as well as affecting the brain, especially the areas associated with processing emotions and pain.

Probiotic strains do not become established members of your microbiome. They generally persist only for the period of consumption and a short period after. So for probiotics to have a long-lasting benefit, they must be consumed regularly. The choice of how you take probiotics has much to do with personal preference and individual needs, but important things to consider are shelf life, convenience & safety. The most effective probiotics tend to be in capsule or tablet form. The capsules contain bacteria are in high numbers, specific strains (often clinically proven) and are safe (no known 'bad' bacteria).

You can also find probiotics in foods such as yoghurt, kefir and kombucha (fermented drinks) and raw sauerkraut. With these forms you need to be careful if you have digestive issues or poor immunity as they can contain unknown bacteria that may make you ill or upset your tummy.

Now it is important to remember that you microbiome is a living organism; well trillions of living organisms, and they need to be fed and looked after to be healthy. This means that your diet and lifestyle are very important in maintaining a healthy microbiome.

One of the best foods for your microbiome is prebiotics. These are a type of dietary fibre that feed intestinal flora; we can’t digest it so it passes through into our bowel, where the bulk of our microbiome is, and it ferments the prebiotics providing us with important nutrients and chemicals.

Some prebiotics occur naturally in foods such as leek, asparagus, garlic, artichoke, onion, wheat, banana, soybean & oats. We often hear how important fibre is, and we often don’t get enough (but that’s another article for another time). Fibre is important to keep things functioning well and to feed our bacteria.

So as you can see a healthy gut needs to be full of healthy bacteria, for a healthy, happy you.

References:

Enders, G. (2015). Gut:The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ. Vancouver, Canada: Greystone Books.

Cresci, G.A. and Bawden, E. (2012) Gut Microbiome: What We Do and Don't Know. Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 27(2), 1-13.

European Society of Neurogastroenterology and Motility. (2015). Everything you always wanted to know about the gut microbiota. Retrieved from http://www.gutmicrobiotawatch.org/en/gut-microbiota-info.

NZ Nutrition Foundation. (2015). Probiotics and Health. Retrieved from http://www.nutritionfoundation.org.nz.

Bezzant, N. (2015). It all starts with the gut. Retrieved from http://www.healthyfood.co.nz/blogs/niki-bezzant/2015/march/16/it-all-starts-with-the-gut.