Your Blissful Microbiome: Tips for Better Gut Health

March 2022
By Irini Hadjisavva

Irini Hadjisavva

Is Your Gut Giving You Trouble? 

 

About one third of the world’s population suffers from gut symptoms. 

 

These can make us suffer from feelings of isolation and low self-image and adversely affect both our social and professional life.  

 

Our gut health impacts so much, including our weight, immune system, mood, cognitive health, risk for development of certain chronic diseases, and all of our digestive woes. It’s fair to say that gut health can have long term effects on our health and overall wellbeing.   

 

As a scientist and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) sufferer, my goal is to introduce you to the basics of gut health and the trillions of gut microorganisms that live in your gut, which are collectively known as the gut microbiota. 

 

Gut health and the gut microbiome are buzzing these days with plenty of scientific evidence to back up their importance to our health. Read on to learn how the microbiome forms and what it does for us and pick up basic tips on how to keep your gut happy.   

 

What Exactly Is the Gut Microbiome?

 

Our gut microbiota, or the trillions of microbes that call our digestive tract (mainly the colon) home, are a key contributor to good gut health. 

 

Bacteria are crucial to gut health with more than a thousand different species residing in our gut. No wonder these have received most of the attention by doctors and scientists in recent times. 

 

Along with our genetic make-up, we now have the genetic make-up of our gut microbiota to consider. This is what is called the gut microbiome, and what is fascinating is that each of us has a totally unique microbiome, just like a fingerprint.  

 

The microbes in our gut go that extra mile to look after our health. Here are some of their main roles: 

 

  • Breaking down our undigested fibre to produce much-needed chemicals in our body. 
  • Helping in the development of our immune system and fighting off disease, especially since 70% of our immune system resides in the gut. 
  • Balancing our blood sugar.
  • Contributing to our happiness and overall wellbeing by assisting in the making of serotonin.
  • Communicating with the brain to keep our body in a balanced mental and cognitive state.
  • Strengthening and maintaining the gut barrier, which stops harmful chemicals from passing through and into the blood

How Does Our Microbiome Develop?

 

The most important colonisation of the gut by bacteria happens during the first three years of our life. 

 

Before babies are born, they are thought to have very few microbes living in their gut. The major initial seeding of the microbiome comes during natural birth, as the baby comes into contact with the mom’s bacteria lining the birth canal. 

 

As the baby grows, microbial diversity is influenced by what the baby eats (breastfeeding versus bottle feeding, simple to more complex foods, etc.) During this period, we see the speediest development in microbiome diversity.

 

During adult life, microbial diversity remains stable and predictable unless some major event disturbs the microbiota and starts to decline in the elderly. 

 

Make Your Gut Health a Priority

 

The gut microbiome plays a fundamental role in people staying healthy and preventing chronic diseases. 

 

Studies have shown that disturbances in the balance of bacteria in our gut are linked to conditions such as obesity, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), type 1 and type 2 diabetes, celiac disease, psoriatic arthritis, atopic eczema, asthma, and arterial stiffness. The microbiome has even been associated with the development of some cancers, for example, colon cancer. 

 

The gut and brain constantly communicate with each other. This gut-brain axis consists of bi-directional communication via a complicated network of neurons and chemicals. In fact, the gut has its own nervous system, which is why it’s sometimes called our second brain.

 

For instance, the brain will send signals to coordinate the immune system, the production and release of fluids in the gut, and muscle contractions for food to move through the gut.

 

Since the two are so interlinked, it is no coincidence that we use phrases such as “I have butterflies in my stomach” or “I have a gut feeling” in our day-to-day lives. 

 

Lately, there has been increased focus on disturbances of this gut-brain relationship and how they might influence irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Parkinson’s disease, stress, anxiety, and depression. For instance, psychological factors may affect muscle contractions in the gut, worsen inflammation, or make the body more prone to infection. Alternatively, an altered gut microbiome can increase anxiety, making this a vicious circle. 

 

Below are some factors that negatively affect our microbiome. I selected these because they are all activities we can often manipulate and improve upon. Others such as genetics, our mode of birth, and ageing are not really up to us, so focus on things you can change. 

 

  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Excessive use of antibiotics & other medications
  • Smoking & heavy alcohol consumption
  • Emulsifiers & food additives
  • Eating very little fibre
  • A diet high in saturated fat & refined sugar
  • Stress
  • Poor sleep
  • Environmental toxins & pollution

7 Tips for Microbiome Bliss

 

Incorporate Plenty of Plants to Your Diet: Give those gut fibre-loving microbes a variety of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, herbs, and spices. 

 

Our friendly gut bacteria feast on fibre, providing us with products that are important for both our physical and mental health. Giving them fibre allows them to multiply, thrive, and maintain diversity.  The more the plant diversity, the bigger the microbiota diversity, which is what we want.  Aim for at least 30 different plant-based foods a week. 

 

Experiment with whatever produce is in season to make things more interesting. That way your menu will change according to the time of the year! 

 

Include Foods Rich in Polyphenols: These compounds are found in plant food, and their consumption has shown to favour an increase in beneficial bacteria in the gut. Foods under this category include coffee, tea (black and green tea), dark chocolate, virgin olive oil, broccoli, asparagus, red onion, spices, berries, black grapes, and black and green olives.

 

Eat Fermented Foods: Throughout history people have consumed fermented foods. This includes any food or drink that uses controlled microbial growth to change some of its ingredients into another product in order to preserve and enhance shelf-life, flavour, and/or texture, as well as its functional properties.

 

Examples of these kinds of food are kefir, kimchi, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut, pickles in water (not vinegar), sourdough bread, yoghurt, and tempeh.

 

Fermented foods add living cultures of microbes, fibre, and important substances such as enzymes, vitamin B and omega-3 fatty acids to your meals.

 

Address the Mind-Body Connection: Gut symptoms increase stress and stress increases gut symptoms. The higher the levels the stress, the worse the messages being shared with your microbiota. Hence, invest in stress management techniques, such as mindfulness and meditation, and pamper yourself often. 

 

Engage in Moderate Exercise Often: Exercise can boost the number of beneficial bacteria in your gut and make the community more diverse. Aim for frequent and moderate exercise at least 5 times a week. Walking, swimming, hiking, yoga, pilates, dancing, water aerobics, football, basketball, you name it.

 

Sleep Well: Evidence shows that if we disturb our internal clock, we also affect our microbiota’s. Make sure you sleep for 7 to 9 hours and limit phone and tablet use before bedtime. 

 

Fall in Love with Nature: Walking in nature has positive effects both on body and mind. Besides helping reduce anxiety and stress, walking in a forest exposes you to different bacteria that can enrich your microbiome. Another good option is to work in the garden, encouraging children to play with dirt, as this exposes you to other beneficial bacteria.  

 

What do you think? Will you be making your gut health a priority? 

 

Irini Hadjisavva has a PhD in Molecular and Cellular Oncology and is passionate about science communication, producing content on gut health, the gut microbiome, and overall health and wellbeing. She is the co-author of the book Step-by-Step Guide to Stop Bloating and Heal Your Gut, sold both as a paperback and e-book on Amazon. To learn all about gut health, follow Irini on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter at @DrIriniH.

Amazon.com: A Step-by-Step Guide to Stop Bloating & Heal Your Gut: Clean Low FODMAP Diet with 101 Clean, Unprocessed, Super Healthy Mediterranean-Ιnspired, Gluten-Free Recipes, Dietitian Approved eBook : Economides MS RDN, Aliki, Hadjisavva PhD, Irini: Kindle Store

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