Probiotics, prebiotics, fermented foods, microbiomes – these aren’t just trending buzzwords anymore. We talk to industry experts to understand what makes gut health so integral to our overall well-being and the kind of foods that can make all the difference.
We now know that gut health plays a very important role when it comes to overall optimum health and wellbeing. But what is it about having a healthy gut that makes the difference? Did you know that the human microbiome (the bacteria essential for breaking down nutrients) plays an important role in regulating our immune and inflammatory response, fighting infections and in preventing illness, even if there are no visible digestive symptoms? Diet and gut health are interlinked, so how do you ensure that you keep your gut in top shape?
Bhavani Suryavanshee and Manisha Thakkar, founders of Nature Nudge which makes fresh fermented probiotic drinks and foods, explain: “Your body is an ecosystem in which good bacteria are a vital element. The bacteria in our gut support several bodily functions as they are responsible for boosting immunity, good sleep, weight gain or loss, hormonal balance, hunger satiation, brain health and so on. Take out the good bacteria or reduce its diversity and all kinds of things will start to go wrong, so it makes sense to keep the body’s level of good bacteria robust and diverse.”
Emma Paris, co-founder and director of Balanced Living, a wellness centre offering holistic health support, couldn’t agree more. “A healthy gut is essential for our health and especially our immune system,” says Paris. “Years of stress, poor diet, antibiotics and medication can wreak havoc on gut health, which in turn can affect our mood, lower immunity, and cause a myriad of other issues. But gut health is usually so underrated because it is a relatively new area and how much a poor diet can influence someone’s health is not generally well understood by traditional medical practitioners.”
NOT AS IMPORTANT?
Gut health does not typically feature on top of people’s list of important medical conditions. “General digestive health tends to be overlooked because as a society, we have an epidemic of many other serious or chronic health conditions that we regard as being more important or requiring more urgent attention, which often downplays the importance of digestive health, let alone be thoroughly investigated,” says naturopath Alicia Davenport. The founder of naturopathic medicine clinic Ignite Heal adds that the conventional approach is to treat the body (or disease) in separate parts. Since the body isn’t being addressed as a whole, the physical root cause of the ailment is often not identified.
An unhealthy gut has been linked to a wide range of chronic diseases including diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. Davenport believes that our gut can become damaged when we eat a processed diet that is high in sugars and inflammatory foods; or we don’t eat enough fibre and prebiotics; or when we take too many medications that affect our gut bacteria. Lifestyle factors such as poor sleep and lack of exercise can also affect gut health. Without adequate sleep, the body is under stress, which can affect digestion and the type of nutrients the intestines absorb. Most, if not all health conditions, are related to our lifestyle, or the way we choose to live.
MAKING A POSITIVE CHANGE
“We always look at a person’s diet as part of our initial consultation to see if it is part of the root cause of what is wrong,” Paris says. “For example, a poor diet can cause inflammation in the body which is implicated in a huge range of diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Often by just removing these foods, along with other lifestyle changes, the body returns to homeostasis and begins the healing process without the need for medication.”
Balanced Living’s 30-Day Gut Healing Makeover programme is designed to give the gut a complete reset, helping clients gain energy, eliminate pain and generally lower inflammation in the body. Participants follow a clean eating plan for 30 days that removes inflammatory foods (such as gluten, dairy, sugar, alcohol and processed foods) from the diet, replacing them with healthy and nutritious meals to aid the healing process.
At Nature Nudge, Suryavanshee and Thakkar produce a wide range of products to cater to differing palates and gut compositions to benefit from good bacteria. They rely on nature to provide the biodiversity of good bacteria found naturally in fruits and vegetables, without the addition of any external cultivars. Both emphasise that diversity is key, saying that it’s important to eat a variety of different fruits and vegetables because you don’t get the same bacteria in every vegetable.
PROBIOTICS VS PREBIOTICS EXPLAINED
Probiotics are the living strains of beneficial bacteria found in certain foods and supplements that add to the population of good bacteria in your digestive system. Prebiotics are the specialized plant fibres that act as food for the good bacteria in your digestive system to stimulate growth among the friendly, pre-existing good bacteria.
WHAT FOODS PROMOTE A HEALTHY GUT?
Davenport says, “As a general guideline, a diverse range of healthy foods will nourish a large range of bacteria within our gut. Restricting diets or limiting foods longer term can be problematic to overall gut health.” She generally recommends the following foods depending on one’s constitution and makeup.
Fibre: Plant fibre feeds our good gut bacteria, calms inflammation and supports nutrient absorption. Reach for whole, nutrient-dense foods rich in dietary fibre such as broccoli, brussel sprouts, olives, berries and spinach. Antioxidant- and polyphenol-rich foods: Eat the rainbow! Polyphenols are powerful antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables, some herbs, and spices. Dietary polyphenols promote the growth of beneficial bacteria while the antioxidant properties of some polyphenols make them promising candidates for the treatment of inflammatory gut diseases. Add polyphenol-rich foods such as blueberries, cherries, plums, black olives, and quinoa to your diet.
Resistant starch: Resistant starches are carbohydrates that are not broken down into sugars. Similar to insoluble fibre, the starch passes through most of the digestive system unchanged, and is considered to be a type of prebiotic food. Try plantain flour, green banana flour and potato starch in their unheated forms.
Another group of gut-friendly foods are fermented ones, as recommended by Suryavanshee and Thakkar. Think kimchi, sauerkraut, probiotic drinks, vegan probiotic pickles, immunity boosters and even labneh. A fermented-food diet increases microbiome diversity, decreases inflammatory proteins and is nutritionally richer in enzymes, vitamins, and minerals.
MYTHS TO BUST AND FACTS TO HOLD
Alicia Davenport explains common myths about your gut health.
Myth #1: “All disease begins in the gut” ~ Hippocrates We are more than just flesh and bones, hence a “functional medicine” approach is required for true well-being. While digestion is the gateway to optimum physical health, it is also about how we digest life and take in energy and emotions.
Myth #2: Avoid gluten, dairy and corn only if allergic/ intolerant or experiencing digestive symptoms Eating a diet high in inflammatory foods like gluten, alcohol, and refined sugars and carbohydrates are some of the major contributing factors to today’s chronic health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, dementia and obesity. Simply eating “gluten-free” processed foods is not healthy either. Reducing the intake of inflammatory foods is key for overall optimum health.
Myth #3: A healthy intestinal system only benefits digestion and nutrient absorption. The health of our digestive tract is crucial to the proper functioning of many of our body systems, including mental well-being. Gut health has a strong influence on your body’s serotonin levels, and a serotonin deficiency is linked to depression, anxiety and chronic digestive issues.
Myth #4: A leaky gut manifests the same digestive symptoms in everyone A leaky gut is said to be caused by an overgrowth of bad gut bacteria, and occurs when the gut cell wall loses integrity, allowing much bigger particles such as toxins to pass into the bloodstream, and triggering inflammation. Studies have shown this could play a role in gastrointestinal conditions, and be associated with other problems such as allergies, asthma and autoimmune diseases.
Myth #5: All bacteria are bad and should be killed Gut bacteria are certainly not all bad! It is home to up to 500 different species of bacteria, many of which are beneficial. Some medications, however, can affect your gut microbiome. Antibiotics should always be taken only when necessary as they don’t discriminate between the good and bad bacteria. This leaves a path for “weeds” like candida and pathogenic bacteria to grow, thus causing dysbiosis (an imbalance of gut bacteria).