All disease begins in the gut.
Hippocrates said this over 2000 years ago and researchers are just beginning to realise how much our gut health really influences the health of our entire body.
There are two things that influence gut health. The first is gut-flora, the second is the intestinal barrier.
Our guts are home to literally trillions of bacteria, some good and some bad. Collectively they’re known as the gut microbiome and together they make up a sort of “mini-ecosystem.”
There are roughly the same amount of bacterial cells in the gut as there are human cells in the entire body. What’s more, two-thirds of the gut microbiome is thought to be unique to each individual.
The gut microbiome has received much attention for its role in health and disease, however our understanding of its role in overall health is still in its early days. Yet, we do know that it promotes healthy bowel function, helps with digestion of food and absorption and production of nutrients. It also helps protect us from infection, in fact over 75% of our immune tissue is found in our digestive system. Additionally, the microbiome has been associated with autoimmune disease, mental health and metabolic disorders and obesity.
The Gut Barrier
Imagine the gut (or more specifically the gastrointestinal tract) as a hollow tube starting at the mouth and ending at the anus. The lining of the gut functions as a barrier, preventing foreign substances that have been ingested from entering the body. If the barrier becomes weak or permeable (a.k.a. “leaky-gut”) protein molecules are released into the bloodstream causing an immune response. Such immune responses have been linked to the development of autoimmune diseases.
Some of the more common symptoms of a leaky gut are food sensitivities, skin conditions, digestive problems, bloating and fatigue.
So how do you improve your gut health? Following these 7 tips will help get you on track to a healthier gut.
1. Eat more fibre
Fibre is essential for gut health and many Australian’s don’t get enough from their diets. Dietary guidelines recommend eating at least 25-30g of fibre per day. This amount keeps the digestive system healthy and reduces risk of constipation, diverticular disease, hemorrhoids, bowel cancer and cardiovascular disease. Sources include: legumes (peas and beans), oats, chia seeds, psyllium husk, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds.
2. Increase your prebiotic intake
Prebiotics are what our gut bacteria use as a fuel source – they promote the health and growth of our gut microflora. Good sources include: garlic, onions, leeks, bananas, asparagus, chicory, Jerusalem artichoke and dandelion greens.
3. Eat fermented foods
Fermented foods are nature’s probiotic supplements because they’re packed with gut friendly bacteria. Fermented foods to look for include: yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, kombucha and pickled vegetables. Look for products that haven’t been pasturised and avoid ‘shelf-stable’ fermented products, these are probably heat-treated to kill bacteria.
4. Avoid over-using antibiotics
I am not suggesting you avoid antibiotics when you need them. However be aware of the havoc they wreck on our gut. If you do take them, take a supplement containing Saccharomyces boulardii (SB) at the same time. SB is a probiotic yeast that is resistant to antibiotics and inhibits the growth unfavourable pathogens in the gut. It has also been shown to help prevent antibiotic associated diarrhoea. After finishing your course of antibiotics swap the SB for a broad spectrum probiotic – this will help restore the microflora balance in your gut.
5. Follow a Mediterranean style diet
Studies show that the Mediterranean diet positively affects the gut microbiome. The diet is based on foods traditionally eaten in Italy, Greece and surrounding countries in 1960. Researchers observed that these people were particularly healthy compared to the average American.
The diet is predominantly plant-based with a focus on vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, extra virgin olive oil, fish and seafood. Poultry, eggs, cheese and yoghurt are eaten moderately and red meat is eaten only occasionally. Especially important is the exclusion of sugary drinks, added sugars, processed meats and foods, and refined grains and oils.
6. Manage your stress
Managing stress levels may play an important role in maintaining gut health. The gut has a relationship with the central nervous system. This is commonly called the gut-brain axis and allows the gut to send and receive signals to and from the brain. Studies on animals show their microbiome changes considerably when the animal is stressed. Another study found that adding lactobacillus, (a strain of bacteria found in yoghurt) to the gut of mice reduced their anxiety levels.
Meditation, yoga, exercise and mindfulness practices may be helpful ways to manage your stress.
7. Drink bone broth
Bone broth is cheap and easy to make yourself. Its made by boiling animal bones and joints (usually chicken or beef) on a low heat for 6-24 hours and is particularly high in healing amino acids such as glutamine, glycine and proline, as well as nutrients like glucosamine, hyaluronic acid, chondroitin, calcium, magnesium and potassium.
Bone broth is also a good source of collagen or gelatin, which has been shown to exert an anti-inflammatory effect on the digestive tract. Connective tissue such as bone, marrow, cartilage, tendons and ligaments contain collagen and when boiled for long periods it produces gelatin. Well made bone broth should have gelatinous consistency.
Other tips: drink 2-3 litres of filtered water per day to keep your bowels moving (particularly important if you’re increasing dietary fibre). Eat organic where you can, exposure to fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides is likely to affect our gut microbes.
Be sure to make dietary changes gradually and introduce new foods in small amounts to avoid unpleasant side effects and add more as your gut adjusts to the changes.
This content is created for informational purposes and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice.