A happy gut means a happy life!
There’s much talk right now of the ‘gut and brain connection’. This is the understanding that what you eat not only affects your body’s metabolism but also your brain activity, in the form of mood swings, stress response, levels of concentration and strength of memory. So when you find yourself in a low mood, run down, over reacting to a situation or feeling generally grumpy for no particular reason, it could well be caused by the food you’re eating – or not eating!
I find this a fascinating connection and so did some research which I’ve shared with you below…
So, what causes an unhappy gut?
Research is still in early stages, but in the past decade there has been growing awareness of the important role of the human microbiota ( little life) that live on and in our bodies in the microbial community. Consisting of trillions of microbes made up of bacteria, viruses and fungi, each have their own preference for habitat, nutrition and levels of toxicity. Of our entire microbiome, 99% are found in the gut! * (see below for a mind blowing geeky fact)
The 100 trillion (give or take a few million) microbes we have living in our digestive system, lining our intestinal tract – our ‘gut microbiome’ – are an extremely complex living form of defence that fights off foreign invaders. About 80% of the immune system resides in the gut and disturbances to the ratios of different bacteria have been detected in those suffering from obesity, nervous diseases, depression, chronic digestive problems and has even been linked with autism.
Consisting of at least 10 known species, many of the bacteria also play an essential role in the breakdown and digestion of foods by releasing enzymes and vitamins and breakdown toxins and medications.*(see below for another mind blowing geeky fact!)
A gut with healthy intestinal bacteria has been shown to reduce inflammation, a key factor associated with a various disease; from common colds to cardiovascular diseases, cognitive issues, arthritis and cancer. Probiotic treatments have even been shown to help certain types of eczema.
So, where did all these bacteria come from?
Until recently it was generally thought that babies are born with a sterile gut and that microbes migrate from the mother to baby on the baby’s journey through the vagina. However, recent discoveries of bacteria found in a baby’s first stool passed within hours of birth, have linked the bacteria originating from the placenta. It’s now being understood that even our mother’s diet was a huge determinant of which microbes took up residence in the placenta and so in us.
Additional microbes come from breast milk and more are collected from our environment over the first few years of our lives, as we eat and stick things into our mouths, just for the fun of it, as babies tend to do. Even playing with those grubby kids next door helped to increase our happy gut bacteria.
So, what’s so important about these bacteria?
These guys fight off viruses, unwanted bacteria, chemicals and hormones as well as breaking down food into the essential nutrients we need to live healthily. It makes sense that if we feed these bacteria stuff that isn’t nutritious, then we aren’t helping them, or ourselves. In fact, the regular eating of unhealthy foods makes the bacteria lazy or even die. Not a good thing to happen. Over time, the colonies of friendly bacteria age naturally and lose their vitality anyway, so this is not helped by lifestyle choices.
Cigarettes, alcohol, and stress are major culprits, as are antibiotics which are notorious for destroying all of the beneficial bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as Ibruprofen, Nurofen and Asprin, are destructive to intestinal flora.
Virtually all non-organic meat, chicken and dairy that we eat contains antibiotics. Bacteria killing residual agricultural chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides wind up in our guts from non-organic foods.
It’s not good to wipe out too much bacteria either in our home environment with over use of anti-bacterial sprays, as we naturally require some exposure to dirt and germs to maintain a robust immune system.
Good bacteria ferment fibre and resistant starch to form Butyrate, a fatty acid, which increases blood flow to the gut wall, supporting healing. It also provides essential energy to aid repair and growth to the cells that line the colon which are extremely important for colon health. This is one of the reasons why resistant starch and fibre are associated with lower rates of colon cancer
Our gut is full of nerves and neurotransmitters that form a neural network called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The ENS is connected directly to the brain, so any stress or anxiety we feel, strongly affects our digestive system. It’s even recently been discovered that our gut cells produce 80-90 % of the mood enhancing neurotransmitter, serotonin, in our bodies, which links our gut to our behaviour.
So an unhealthy gut can not only lead to chronic illnesses, but negatively affects our brain function and emotions. How we feel emotionally and physically hinges on the state of our gut bacteria.
So what can we do to get a happy gut?
Simple changes to your diet can change the microbiome in your gut. Here are the easiest solutions to help support your good gut bacteria and by doing so, improve digestion, boost your immune system and as a bonus, improve your moods!
- Remove the foods that are harmful to your gut. The top 3 troublesome ones being:
- Sugar – found to great extent in processed food
- Trans fats – unsaturatedfats produced by a heating process to make vegetable fats
- Any allergens or foods that create a sensitivity after being eaten, the most common being: gluten, dairy, eggs, peanuts, corn, soy
- Increase your Probiotics
Probiotics are live Micro-organisms which introduce good bacteria into the gut, derived from dairy products and fermented foods that result in specific changes in composition and / or the activity of gut microbiota. They encourage the growth of good bacteria and also increase the bulk of faeces, increasing the time that food, and so toxins, leave the body.
Probiotics: yoghurt (Read your labels, as many popular brands are filled with high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and artificial flavours), sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, good quality pickles and fermented soy products such as miso, tempeh, soy sauce, tamari, fermented bean paste.
- Increase your Prebiotics
Prebiotics act as a fertiliser for the good bacteria already at home. They help the good guys to grow and improve the good-to-bad bacteria ratio which has been shown to have direct correlation to overall health from the gut to brain, playing a direct role in mental health. Recent studies have shown that individuals who consumed prebiotics daily had fewer issues with anxiety, depression and stress, with their saliva tests showed lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Prebiotics are specialised soluble and insoluble plant fibres, which are either fermented by good bacteria already in the colon or go on to create the bulk of faeces, increasing the time and ease with which waste leaves the body. Many fruits and vegetables contain significant amounts of both soluble and insoluble fibre, with the skin usually being a source of insoluble fibre and the pulp, soluble fibre. E.g. apples, pears, grapes.
- Soluble and insoluble fibre is found in carbohydrates like whole grains, nuts, legumes, seeds, beans,root vegetables and fruits.
Prebiotics: bananas, kiwis, apples, figs, pears, grapes, potato skins, soy beans, Jerusalem artichokes, avocado asparagus, garlic, onions, leeks, organic whole oats, organic wheat (which contains the wheat germ) organic barley, quinoa, garlic, flaxseeds (linseeds), sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, beans and lentils, tomatoes and green vegetables.
- Cruciferous vegetables are also generally good gut bacteria forming
Broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, bok choy, brussel sprouts mustard, horseradish and similar green leafed vegetables contain glucosinolates, natural components of their pungent smell and bitterness released when the plant material is chewed, cut, or otherwise damaged. As a bonus, they break down into isothiocyanates, which may help inhibit the development of cancer.
*A geeky mind blowing fact -The number of individual species is thought to be somewhere between 300 and 1000. The majority probably belong to about 50 species. If you could remove all of the bacteria in one person’s digestive system, the whole lot would probably weigh about 1-2 kg.
*Second geeky mind blowing fact – there are more bacteria in faeces then there are people on the planet….no shit..