Bacteria affect your vitamin and mineral absorbency, hormone regulation, digestion, vitamin production, immune response and ability to eliminate toxins, not to mention your overall mental health.
With the start of a New Year I’m sure we will see a whole load of new health and fitness trends emerge. One that has been gaining traction for a while now and which rightly deserves our attention is gut health.
There are about 100 trillion organisms living in the gut, which means that at our very core we are less than human. In terms of cells, the microbial kind outnumber their human counterparts by about three to one. And in terms of genes, the microbial advantage is more like 300 to one.
In a nutshell the microbes which make up our bodies have a MASSIVE impact on our overall health and wellbeing.
We have known for thousands of years that bacteria has existed in the body but only with recent DNA sequencing have we been able to study them. Such is the microbiome importance that it is now viewed by scientists as a separate organ with its own dynamic metabolic activity.
In scientific circles, having a wide diversity of these bugs is understood as essential to many aspects of health, but many of us have a depleted microbiome. There is strengthening evidence that the explosion of autoimmune diseases and immune dysregulation diseases in western society may be due to suppression of gut bacteria from infancy onwards.
It takes about two years from birth through a process of selection for a child to attain a mature microbiome. And just how robust our microbiotas become is largely determined by the way we’re delivered as babies, what we’re fed and how much dirt we come in contact with.
In utero, we float in a pretty much germ-free environment, but as soon as we’re born, we’re rapidly colonized by microbes, and that means everyone’s microbiota is unique. (Even identical twins can have vastly different microbiotas.)
“And it turns out that exposure to dust and bugs and germs, the very entities that the immune system must monitor, is critical, especially early in life, for proper immune-system development.”
Erica Sonnenburg, senior research scientist at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
For a culture that has bathed itself in hand sanitiser, this embrace of bacteria is a profound shift. The irony is that our obsession with cleanliness helped us get into this mess.
“Safe drinking water, treatments for bacterial infections, food that doesn’t spoil quickly — these are all fantastic and important innovations, but they may have an inadvertent side effect. It’s the disappearing microbiota hypothesis: With each generation, as we clean up, we’re decreasing the potential microbial pool that we can tap into.”
Brett Finlay, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia.
Other phenomena that are contributing to microbial diminishment include the increase in cesarean sections, lack of breast milk, and the increased use of antibiotics.
There are many studies around the globe that are still in their infancy but which point up connections between the microbiota and diseases and complaints as diverse as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, type-two diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, autism, depression, cardiovascular disease and colon cancer.
Although there is still much to discover, there is enough evidence to suggest that gut health is going to have a big impact on how we approach our overall health.
Not only do the type of bacteria you have affect the critical functions of the body’s digestive and immune systems. They also have the capability of affecting your body’s vitamin and mineral absorbency, hormone regulation, digestion, vitamin production, immune response, and ability to eliminate toxins, not to mention your overall mental health.
Where To Go From Here
Your gut flora is incredibly important to your overall well-being, and it would seem that when it comes to what you eat, two factors are very important: Fibre and diversity.
If you were to view your microbiome as a garden, fibre would be your fertiliser. Fiber has long been linked to better health, but new research shows how the gut microbiota might play a role in this pattern.
In particular, beneficial microbes feast on fermentable fibers—which can come from various vegetables, whole grains and other foods—that resist digestion by human-made enzymes as they travel down the digestive tract.
These fibers arrive in the large intestine relatively intact, ready to be devoured by our microbial multitudes. Microbes can extract the fiber’s extra energy, nutrients, vitamins and other compounds for us.
Today’s Western diet, however, is exceedingly fiber-poor by historical standards. It contains roughly 15 grams of fiber daily. For most of our early history as hunter-gatherers, we were likely eating close to 10 times that amount of fiber each day.
BUT variety is the top priority. A good analogy would be an ecosystem like a rainforest. There are hundreds of species of bacteria in your intestines. Each species plays a different role in your health and requires different nutrients for growth.
Generally speaking, a diverse microbiota is considered to be a healthy one. This is because the more species of bacteria you have, the greater number of health benefits they may be able to contribute to. So aim to create as much diversity in your diet (through whole foods) as often as you can.
Other tactics you can employ include:
Eating Probiotics (Fermented Foods)
Fermented foods are foods altered by microbes. They are known as ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ microbes as they compete for space and food against harmful microbes and prevent them from settling in the gut.The process of fermenting usually involves bacteria or yeasts converting the sugars in food to organic acids or alcohol giving them a distinct flavour.
Some examples include:
Eating Prebiotic Foods
Prebiotics are foods that promote the growth of beneficial microbes in the gut. They are mainly fiber or complex carbs that can’t be digested by human cells. Instead, certain species of bacteria break them down and use them for fuel. Many fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain prebiotics, but they can also be found on their own. Examples of prebiotic foods include:
Limit Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are widely used as replacements for sugar. However, studies have shown that they can negatively affect the gut microbiota.
Avoid Processed Foods
We know this anyway but when it comes to gut health they break down into components that feed the less hospitable bacteria in your gut. In one memorable experiment, professor of genetic epidemiology Tim Spector found that when his adult son ate strictly fried foods and junk foods for a week, he lost about a third of the species of bacteria in his microbiome, including many beneficial ones. And among the species that stuck around, one linked to problems with weight really flourished. Similar results have been found in other studies.
Make Changes Slowly
Make slow changes to avoid discomfort, especially if you have digestive problems – or you could end up with uncomfortable bloating and wind. Each gut is unique and one diet doesn’t fit all, so if you change your eating habits to no avail, try something else.
Your gut bacteria are extremely important for many aspects of health, with many studies now showing that a disrupted microbiota can lead to numerous and potentially serious problems.
It’s tempting to think that there could be an easy fix — a strain of bacteria or a dietary supplement — that could repair an imbalanced microbiota. But preliminary research shows that there is no one-size-fits-all diet.
But right now it seems the best way to maintain a healthy microbiota is to eat a range of fresh, whole foods, including lots of plant sources like fruits, veggies, legumes, beans and whole grains.
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