Here we discuss gut health in detail and why it should be taken seriously. There are many factors that affect gut health. Among them, does food help in improving gut health and what should you eat?
What is gut health?
If you aren’t aware, our gut is a complex community of microorganisms called microbiota. Microbial colonisation of around 100 trillion microbes in the body, occurs mainly in the colon, also throughout the length of the gastrointestinal tract. This microbiota is made up of cells including 500 different species of bacteria, viruses and fungi.
Microorganisms in the gut can be good, and bad. They help in getting energy from the food we eat, getting rid of the toxins, also helping in producing mood-boosting brain chemical serotonin. One of the major functions of the microbiota is to protect the intestine against the colonisation of exogenous pathogens and other potentially harmful indigenous microorganisms. This is termed colonisation-resistance (CR). Needless to say, the gut microbiota is important for the overall health of the body. Upon disturbance of the microbiota, CR can be transiently disrupted, and pathogens can gain the opportunity to grow to high levels. One consequence of pathogen expansion is the triggering of inflammatory host responses and pathogen-mediated disease. Hence, they are important for nutrition, immunity, and effects on the brain and behaviour.
What alters gut health?
A shift in the stomach acid, the microbiota and gut immunity influences the gut health. Recent studies on gut health provide important insights about how the microbiota might influence many disease processes both within and distant from the gut. Many studies have reported changes in the gut microbiota during not only obesity, diabetes, and liver diseases but also cancer and even neurodegenerative diseases.
Signs of poor gut health
Our guts control and deal with every aspect of our health. How we digest our food, and even the food sensitivities we have, are linked to our mood, behaviour, energy, weight, food cravings, hormone balance, and immunity. So what are the immediate symptoms of poor gut health? You’ll be surprised to see many common health concerns being associated with the gut.
- Stomach disturbances like gas, bloating, heartburn, constipation or diarrhoea.
- Unexplained weight gain or weight loss.
- Sleep issues.
- Skin rashes and allergies.
- Unexplained mood disorders like depression.
- Unexplained fatigue.
It’s always advisable to check with a medical practitioner instead of coming to your own conclusions when you have these symptoms to check if everything is in order.
Factors that affect the gut health
Many factors of a poor lifestyle are the culprit for poor gut health. This could include your bad habits like smoking, excessive alcohol intake, insufficient exercise, etc. Let us have a look in detail.
- DIET: Recent studies show that diet plays a significant role in the functioning of the microbiota in the gut. Dietary alterations can induce substantial, temporary microbial shifts within 24 hours. A diet deficient in the fibre, fruits and vegetables creates an imbalance in the gut. Researchers believe that understanding the association between diet and gut health would help in creating effective alterations in the microbial activity through a diet. In other words, we could eat certain foods to improve the functioning of the gut.
- ANTIBIOTICS: We consume antibiotics with a good intention to take care of our infections in the body. Little do we know of the implications of resorting to antibiotics each time we fall sick. Use of antibiotics has been linked to the deprivation of the gut bacteria, due to its general bacteria-killing nature. Antibiotics kill both good and bad bacteria in the gut, this creates a microbial imbalance in the gut. This is a perfect chance for the overgrowth of other organisms like yeast which could lead to many problems in the gut. There’s one more way in which antibiotics could enter your body: through animal foods. Unless certified organic, animals are typically given courses of antibiotics to prevent diseases in their poor living conditions and stimulate growth.
- STRESS: The gut-brain connection is something we need to take seriously. Millions of neurons in the gut function in close communication with the brain and stress can be a disruptive factor of this process. It is also associated with a change in the gut microbes which can influence an individual’s mood. Thus, the gut’s neurons and microbes strongly influence the brain and vice versa. For instance, when under stress, individuals tend to overeat or under-eat or eat comfort foods with a lot of sugar and calories. The increase in smoking or consumption of alcohol could also lead to heartburn and acid reflux. This, in turn, affects the overall digestion process, making the person feel sick with symptoms like abdominal cramps and diarrhoea.
- EXERCISE: The relation between physical activity and gut health is a topic gaining attention in recent years, and several studies show that regardless of diet, or body composition, exercise changes the gut microbiota of humans. A study in humans published in 2018 found that found lean, sedentary people who exercised for six weeks also developed higher levels of Clostridiales, Lachnospira, Roseburia, and Faecalibacterium in their guts, but those microbes returned to baseline levels when the individuals stopped exercising. Studies also suggest that exercise might alter the gene expression of immune cells in the tissues of the gut, leading to the production of fewer pro-inflammatory cell-signalling proteins and more anti-inflammatory ones, as well as antioxidant enzymes.
- SLEEP: The quality of your sleep and the health of your gut are interconnected. The gut microbiome not only affects the digestive, metabolic, and immune functions in the body but also influences the mood and sleep through the brain-gut connection. Studies suggest that circadian rhythms regulate the gut microbiome. Circadian rhythms are 24-h patterns regulating behaviour, organs, and cells in living organisms. These rhythms align biological functions with regular and predictable environmental patterns to optimise function and health. In layman terms, the circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock. When there is a disruption in this rhythm, the health and functioning of the gut microbiota are affected. Hence, poor sleep can have a negative impact on gut health.
How to improve gut health with food?
We know that among other factors, diet plays an important role in influencing the proper functioning of the gut. An unhealthy diet with more sugar, salt, saturated fat, along with bad habits and erratic lifestyle can lead to many health concerns. So are there foods which could improve the health of the microbiota? Let us have a look.
- Fermented foods and probiotics: The use of fermentation to improve the keeping quality, taste and nutritional value is a well-known ancient practice. Fermented foods and beverages like Tempeh, kefir, kimchi, yoghurt, sauerkraut etc, produced and preserved by the action of microorganisms like Saccharomyces yeasts and lactic acid bacteria cause a significant improvement in the gut health.
People often get confused between the probiotics and fermented foods. While fermented foods can contain probiotics, they are not the same. Probiotics have “living microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”. These beneficial live microorganisms will regenerate our microflora, fermenting our food correctly and improving our health. Fermented milk, kombucha etc are excellent sources of probiotics.
- Food rich in fibre: Prebiotics are fibres that the human body cannot digest, but act as the food for the bacteria in the gut. A diet rich in fibre or prebiotics ensures proper growth of the gut microbiota and helps them multiply in numbers and thrive. This helps in better protection of the gut against harmful bacteria, which aids in digestion and the health therefore. Fruits, vegetables and legumes are rich in prebiotics.
- Whole food plant-based diet: A balanced plant-based diet with whole foods, legumes, fruits and vegetables are rich in fibre, some non-digestible carbs, and nutrients like polyphenols, which make their way to the colon when not digested completely. In the large intestine, they are broken down by the microbiota and promote the growth of certain beneficial bacteria. Additionally, this diet helps in keeping down the inflammation in the gut and helps you feel fuller for a longer time.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners are branded and marketed as a healthy replacement for refined sugar. However, several studies show these create an imbalance in the gut microbiota and negative effects on the blood sugar levels.
A healthy, balanced lifestyle with a proper diet could be the solution to a good deal of health related problems in your life. As they say, “you are what you eat”.