When you eat, you are not only feeding yourself, but also the trillions of bacteria living in your gut. Nowadays, it is common for people to complain of gut-related symptoms such as bloating, heartburn, nausea, constipation and so on after a meal. An unhealthy gut may be the result of this.
Although not life-threatening, it can affect your wellbeing and quality of life. This is because the gut comprises more than 75% of the immune system, where gut bacteria protect the body from infection and regulate your immunity as well as other bodily processes. A problem with gut health will weaken the body’s defences, which can lead to diseases such as cardiovascular disease and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Gut health can affect your mood as well, with research showing chemicals critical for mood, anxiety, motivation and linked to depression and happiness are produced in the gut by the bacteria living in it. With all this said, it is clear that we have to ensure our gut is healthy to have an overall healthy body, and this article will provide useful information and tips on how to do so.
Introduction to the gut
The gut, also known as the digestive tract, is a group of organs that includes the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, colon, and rectum.
As mentioned before, the gut has trillions of diverse bacteria which are beneficial and essential to human health, with the large intestine having the most diverse range of bacteria. It is important to have a species-rich gut bacteria ecosystem with the right mix of bacteria as it helps the gut be more resistant to environmental influences. Research has shown that people with lower bacterial diversity tend to suffer from diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, atopic eczema and obesity. Our diet is the key to cultivating and maintaining this diverse range of bacteria and having good gut health.
Good gut health is defined by the World Gastroenterology Organisation as a state of well-being without gastrointestinal symptoms that require a doctor’s consultation and absence of any gut-related diseases or risk factors of such diseases.
Nutrition and diet tips for the gut
Including and excluding certain foods in our diets can help maintain a diverse range of bacteria and ensure that only the good bacteria make up most of the population.
1) Consuming prebiotics and probiotics
Probiotics are live micro-organisms that are beneficial to your body. They can be supplied through consumption of foods, beverages and dietary supplements. Eating probiotics can increase the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut, and research has shown that in doing so, it can support a healthy gut microbiome, and prevent gut inflammation.
Fermented foods are a natural source of probiotics, hence consuming the following may improve gut health:
- Fermented vegetables
If you don’t eat food sources of prebiotics regularly, probiotic supplements can be an alternative option. Just like vitamins, they can come in the form of pills, capsule, tablet or liquid. Supplements are convenient, not only because they are easy to bring on the go, but because they can be categorised according to which conditions they help with. For example, some probiotic supplements are designed to specifically improve Irritable Bowel Syndrome, some are for better brain health or to boost overall immunity.
On the other hand, prebiotics are food ingredients that are not digestible by the human body but serves as food for bacteria and other microorganisms in the gut and helps promote their growth. These are usually certain types of fermentable fibres found in fruits and vegetables. Research has also shown that prebiotics may help probiotics be more tolerant to the gut environment, which in turn helps them to survive and be effective. You may consume more prebiotics naturally through these foods:
- Jerusalem Artichoke
- Whole grains
Active Health Coach Azlina shares more, “There is a huge surge in the benefits of probiotics due to the comprehensive research not only in how it benefits the digestive system but also immune and mental health. Try to obtain probiotics from foods such as yoghurt, miso and kimchi. When purchasing yoghurt, try to purchase the ones where the labels indicate the presence of ‘live and active cultures’ on the label.”
2) Consuming dietary fibre and resistant starch
Eating foods with dietary fibre and resistant starches can benefit gut health as well. Dietary fibres are parts of plants that usually the body cannot digest and absorb as nutrients. Although they are found not to have direct beneficial effects to gut bacteria, they still benefit the body through encouraging the production of small chain fatty acids. Good gut bacteria breaks down these fibres to produce small chain fatty acids that feed cells in the colon. The cells then have the fuel they need to function normally, where they help to get rid of waste material by moving it to the rectum to be passed out as stool.
As you already know, eating fruits and vegetables provides you with fibre, but it is important to know how much to eat to ensure sufficient fibre is provided to your body. Resistant starches are starch molecules that resist digestion and have similar function like dietary fibre. These starches are also considered prebiotics as they are consumable by good bacteria, allowing them to increase in population in your gut. Not only that, resistant starches benefit the colon by reducing PH levels, inflammation and colorectal cancer. They can also be digested by bacteria to produce small chain fatty acids. These resistant starches are found in grains, seeds, legumes. Certain starchy foods such as potato and rice form resistant starches when they are cooked and then cooled to room temperature. Hence, increasing such foods in your diet can increase your consumption of resistant starches.
3) Eating lesser sugar and sweetener
Too much sugars or artificial sweeteners may change the composition of gut bacteria. An animal study suggests that artificial sweetener aspartame can increase population of certain bacteria and may result in an increased risk of metabolic diseases. The ingestion of saccharin, an artificial sweetener, in animals and humans have shown alterations in the metabolic pathway reducing glucose tolerance. Although more research is needed to study the effects of sugars and sweeteners on gut health, reducing sugar intake can be beneficial to the body.
4) Avoid antibiotics unless necessary
Research have reported that taking antibiotics result in the gut lacking several species of bacteria even after 6 months due to the bacterial killing properties of such medicines. Thus, throwing gut bacteria diversity off balance. Though it may be necessary to take antibiotics to combat infections, it is recommended to discuss with your doctor if there are alternative options before deciding on antibiotics.
Diets to treat gut-related disorders
Diets can be utilised as a form of treatment for gut-related disorders by altering the bacteria composition and diversity in the gut. For example, people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), may be recommended by a doctor to try out the FODMAP diet, a diet low in certain sugars (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols) that may cause digestive issues in people with IBS. This means avoiding foods that are dairy-based, wheat-based, beans and certain fruits such as apples and eating only low FODMAP foods such as eggs, meat, dairy alternatives, and grains such as rice. This diet is found to alleviate symptoms of IBS, such as cramping or diarrhoea, by reducing the proportion of a certain bacteria linked to this issue.
Due to the drastic changes and restrictive nature of this diet, do seek advice from a doctor first before undergoing this diet, as you may be unaware of how it affects you or whether you are following the diet correctly to maintain proper nutrition.
In conclusion, maintaining a healthy gut is key to better health and immunity. Changes to your diet, such as eating appropriate amounts of probiotics, prebiotics and fibres and avoiding sugars and antibiotics, can do wonders to your health and even improve your quality of life.
Always keep in mind what you eat as it not only for your physical health, but also for the many helpful bacteria that reside in our gut. Make the right choice for a healthier gut and a healthier you.