The importance of a healthy gut
Your digestive tract, or you ‘gut’ is made up of 9 organs starting with your mouth, oesophagus (throat), stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, colon, and rectum. All these organs are involved in the digestion and absorption of food. You have a healthy gut when all these organs work together to do this without causing pain and discomfort. A healthy gut contains billions of good bacteria and immune cells that fight of infections (UC Davis Health, 2019).
Gut health is central to Asian medicine and the abdomen is seen as the location of the soul. The Japanese call the intestine as the “Onaka” (Honoured middle) and the ”Haka” (centre of the spiritual and physical health) (Bischoff, 2011). Most people only think of the stomach and intestines when referring to gastrointestinal complaints, it’s important to think of the gut as a whole because as I said above, for good gut health you need all the organs to work together.
The past century has shown an increase in chronic diseases in western society, and it is believed that this could be linked to industrialization and urbanization (Broussard and Devkota, 2016). Peoples eating behaviours and preferences have changed to convenient food that tastes good. Sleep can now be manipulated by artificial light, and according to The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine there has been an increase in sleeping disorders (Gaidia, 2020). Labour is more commonly done indoors (Broussard and Devkota, 2016). Although modern medicine and industrialization has had many benefits for humans, it has also caused many health problems such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, food allergies and food intolerances.
So why is this? Why is our health so effected by these changes in our environment? There is no definite answer, but studies are strongly indicating that gut health plays a major role in preventing chronic diseases and having good overall health.
When you hear the word ‘bacteria’ you probably think of disease-causing microorganism. The truth is not all bacteria are bad, in fact, our guts are full of trillions of different strains of bacteria called microbiota. Our gut contains ten times more microbiota that we have cells in our entire body! These ‘good’ bacteria have a symbiotic relationship with us. We supply them with nutrition and a place to live, while they help us get essential nutrients and energy from food, they synthesis vitamins such as vitamin K, Thiamine, Folate, Riboflavin and Pantothenic acid. In fact, up to 50% of our daily requirement of vitamin K is synthesised in the gut by microbiota. They help turn fibre into short-chain-fatty-acids which feed your gut wall, stimulate your immune system and strengthen your gut wall which helps prevent pathogens (substances that will cause harm) entering by provoking the immune (Gunnars, 2020) (Coyle, 2017), and promotes angiogenesis (a process that makes blood cells), and enteric nerve function (Zhang et al., 2015). Personally, I think we got the better end of the deal!
Unfortunately the gut microbiota are very sensitive and anything that changes their composition causing the gut ecosystem to undergo abnormal changes can cause an imbalance between good gut microbiota and harmful bacteria in the gut (Zhang et al., 2015). Some diet and lifestyle habits that can harm your gut bacteria include
- the use of antibiotics
- bad dietary habits (not eating a balanced diet with not enough fibre, high levels of sugar, saturated fat sodium, additives, and preservatives)
- poor sleep quality and
- inactivity (Coyle, 2017; Zhang et al., 2015)
Now obviously the use of antibiotics may be necessary, and that’s ok. If you only use them if completely necessary and don’t overuse them. Illness and ageing in general can also lead to abnormal changes in gut bacteria which is probably why loss of appetite and upset stomach come hand in hand with most illnesses. It is important to have a diverse range of microbiota in our gut in order to help us recover from harmful influences such as illness or antibiotics (Claesson et al., 2012; Lozupone et al., 2012).
When your gut contains too many harmful bacteria and not enough good bacteria this is called dysbiosis. Dysbiosis and a reduction in gut flora diversity have been linked to the development of type 2 diabetes, obesity, inflammation, inflammatory bowel disease, Metabolic disease, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression and colorectal cancer (Coyle, 2017; Kho and Lal, 2018; Tuohy et al., 2014; Askarova et al., 2020)
Another interesting thing about gut microbiota is how they have a strong relationship with the brain underlying some neurological disabilities. There have been numerous studies that looked at children on the Autism Spectrum and there gut microbiota and most of them found dysbiosis in the gut microbiota of the children with ASD (Iglesias-Vázquez et al., 2020). This would affect the development and severity of ASD symptoms.
What are ‘Probiotics’ and where do you get them?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that can help improve gut health (and overall health) by colonizing you good gut microbiota and increasing diversity. You can get prebiotics from certain fermented foods such as,
- Yoghurt and yoghurt products (Actimel, Yakult)
You can also get probiotic supplement. Probiotic supplements can be purchased in a health food shop or a pharmacy. Something you need to be aware of is that probiotic supplements are recognised as ‘food products’ not medicine, so they aren’t required to go through the many rigorous trials that medication is before it can be sold to the public. The way probiotics are regulated means there is no way of knowing for sure if that particular supplement contains the strain of bacteria it claims to, if it contains enough of that bacteria to actually have any effect or if it will survive long enough to even reach the intestine (NHS, 2017).
There are many different types of probiotics out there that may have different health benefits so it’s a good idea to do a bit of research or ask your doctor before taking probiotic supplements to make sure you get the right one. Also, probiotic supplement isn’t suitable for everyone. It’s recommended that people with weak immune systems or are being treated for cancer should avoid taking probiotics without their doctors ok I feel it’s best to get any nutrient, probiotics included, from food, but if you aren’t a fan of the probiotic food sources mentioned above taking a supplement is the next best thing. If taking probiotic supplements pharmaceutical grade ones are best as they’ve had promising clinical trials carried out to show their effectiveness.
When should you take probiotics?
Like I said above, including plenty of fermented probiotic rich foods in your diet should ensure you gut microbiota stays healthy. However, sometimes we need a bit of help. Taking a probiotic supplement in times of illness and if you’ve had to take a course of antibiotics could help get your gut health back on track quicker. It’s also perfectly ok to take a probiotic everyday as long as you’re taking a brand that has been clinically tested. It’s what suits you. You could try taking one everyday for a few weeks then stop and see how you feel. If you felt better whilst you were taking them then maybe that’s what’s best for you. Some research advises taking probiotics on an empty stomach at least an hour before eating, so first thing in the morning, or last thing at night. The reason behind this is that when you eat food you stomach becomes more acidic (this is so food can be broken down), this acidity would kill the probiotic bacteria before it could reach the large intestine (Bedosky, 2020) (Danahy, 2019).
What are prebiotics?
Probiotics are foods that promote the growth of good gut microbiota (Semeco, 2016). Basically, they are fibre rich foods, which is why fibre is so important for a healthy gut. Fibre can’t be digested by humans so microbiota in our gut uses it as its food source. Good sources of prebiotics include
- Cocoa (check out my blog on the health benefits of chocolate)
Eating a diet containing plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains should provide plenty of prebiotics. You can also buy prebiotic supplements.
In conclusion I feel that having a healthy gut is paramount to your overall health, and eating a balanced diet including a wide variety of foods is the first step in ensuring this. Some other things you can do to keep your gut healthy are to,
- Get enough good quality sleep, if you have trouble sleeping you should visit your doctor or pharmacist to see if they can help you. Alternatively, there are some great herbal remedies for sleep that you can get in health food shops.
- Reduce stress. In todays society stress isn’t something easily avoided, so having a stress outlet such as meditation, going for a walk or another type of physical activity, reading a book, whatever helps you relax, is so important for our overall health.
- Eat slowly and chew your food properly. This will help with digestion.
- Stay hydrated. You should be drinking a minimum of 8 glasses of water per day (1200mls). You also get fluids from fruit and vegetables which are 90% water and teas. Sugary drinks dehydrate you more so it’s best to avoid them.
- Check for food intolerances. If you feel that eating certain foods cause abdominal cramps, bloating, pain and/or diarrhoea then you might be intolerant to something. You can get a simple test to clarify what it is you’re intolerant to an then you should avoid eating foods containing it. Eating a food, you’re intolerant too long-term can lead to irreparable damage to your gut and negatively effect your health.
- Reduce the amount of refined sugar, saturated fats, trans fats and preservatives you consume as they will negatively affect your gut health. Include plenty of fibre rich foods.
- Include probiotics and prebiotics in your diet. Either from food sources or from supplements.
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