Gut Health — the new kid on the block
written by Kirstin Kade from Taste & See
Gut health is a topic that has taken the world by storm in recent years. More and more healthcare professionals are recognising the importance of the gut in relation to overall health, and fermented food products are popping up on supermarkets worldwide with the promise of restoring our intestinal microbiome.
Some important terminology
This refers to the digestive tract, which includes the stomach, small intestines, and colon. The food that we eat passes through the gut, where it is digested into smaller components and absorbed into our bloodstream for our bodies to use.
This refers to the trillions of microorganisms ( bacteria and yeast ) that live in our gut as well as their genetic material. This microbiome largely differs from person to person, and can include a combination of at least 1000 different species.
The living organisms that line your digestive tract and help the gut microbiome remain balanced, intact, and diverse. They are the live microorganisms believed to provide health benefits when consumed.
Non-digestible food components ( i.e. dietary fibre ) that promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the gut.
A state of microbial imbalance inside the body, whereby healthy microbial species are crowded out by harmful microorganisms ( pathogens ) that multiply and colonise the gut.
Why are gut microorganisms important?
From the day we are born our bodies are inoculated with different microorganisms that make their home in our gut. Over time the amounts and types of microbes that colonise our gut changes thanks to the food we eat, the environment in which we live, the products we use daily, and our use of prescription antibiotics.
The types and amounts of microorganisms found in our gut can affect the proper functioning of our bodies and our overall health. The main functions of the gut microbiome include:
Digestion of food components, such as indigestible fibre
Synthesis of vitamins for our bodies to use
Synthesis of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which influence human metabolism
Protection from pathogens through maintenance of the gut lining and helping to stimulate our immune system
Communication with our brain through the synthesis of neurotransmitters
Although our body is pretty good at adapting to change, a loss in microbial balance in our gut can result in dysbiosis. This can make us more susceptible to illness and disease, including things like urinary tract infections, gastrointestinal issues, and eczema.
Fermented foods and probiotic supplements are known to help populate your gut with good microbes.
Some great food-based probiotic sources include:
Milk or water kefir
Natto & tempeh
Kombucha (non-pasteurised versions)
Picking a good probiotic supplement is important to ensuring a real benefit from taking it. Make sure to consider brand quality, CFU count ( the number of viable organisms in the probiotic ), strain diversity, shelf stability, clinical research that has been done, and the best before date before purchasing a probiotic supplement. This is best done alongside a health professional who can help you to make the right decision for your needs.
Foods containing prebiotics are possibly one of the most overlooked ‘superfoods’ on the shelves. Prebiotics are important for feeding the good bacteria in your gut, allowing them to thrive and provide the gut with important nutrients and compounds important for maintenance and repair.
Easy to find sources of prebiotics include:
Members of the Allium family ( onions, garlic, leeks )
Oats & barley
Nutrition & gut health
The microorganisms in our gut need food components to survive, thrive, and do their jobs properly. Some foods aid them in doing this, whilst other foods kill them off and pave the way for harmful microorganisms to make their home in the gut. Out diet plays an important role in regulating the activity of our gut microbe, and in turn the by-products produced by microorganisms in the gut interact with and influence our gut health. Things like our dietary pattern, the whole foods that we eat, and the consumption of specific food constituents influence our gut microbiome.
Stress & gut health
Stress is intimately linked to our gut, and one could say that is why we feel butterflies in our tummy when we feel nervous. Our gut contains a branch of nerves within its walls known as the enteric nervous system, which transmits messages between our gut and brain. In addition to this, microbes housed within our gut produce neurotransmitters that are required to transport messages along the gut-brain pathway. When we experience chronic stress our bodies experience more inflammation, which in turn can influence the good guys found in our gut. In this situation fewer mood-boosting neurotransmitters are synthesised by good bacteria, and more toxins are produced by bad microbes, which can affect your mood.
Small steps to help your gut stay in tip-top shape
Remove highly refined foods. Make sure to remove any gut-related infections that you may be experiencing alongside a qualified health professional. Avoid using prescription antibiotics unnecessarily, remove alcohol from the diet for a period of time, stop using anti-microbial hand wash too often, and stop smoking to give the good guys a chance to thrive.
Enjoy whole foods in abundance, including lots of fibre-filled veggies and wholegrains. Prebiotic foods are fuel for the good guys in your gut, so don’t neglect them.
Repopulate with probiotics
Enjoy a variety of probiotic foods and if necessary include a daily probiotic supplement to get a therapeutically significant number of good bacteria to repopulate your gut.
Look after your tummy
Work together with a qualified health professional to replace things that may be lacking in your body, such as digestive enzymes or hydrochloric acid, or things that are needed to help repair and protect your gut lining. L-glutamine and slippery elm bark supplements work wonders, as well as natural anti-inflammatory omega-3 fish oils.
Figure out what works best for you
A basic, balanced diet is important for good gut health, but above and beyond that learn to ‘listen to your gut’. Some healthy foods may make you feel bad, whilst other less healthy foods may help your body thrive. If you tend to be sensitive to certain foods, avoid them.
Kirstin is a qualified Food Scientist and is currently studying a MSc Human Nutrition at the University of Surrey in the U.K. Her blog, Taste & See, is a space where she shares nutrition-related knowledge and wholesome recipes that aim to make good health through food accessible to others.