Gut health certainly does seem to be the health topic of the day. Sure, its important, but I think some of the massive focus placed on it as being the single link to good health is veering towards hyperbole. But sure, there are aspects of gut health that can have huge impacts on short and long term health. One of these big keys is our gut flora.
This is the bacterial colony that naturally resides in the gut. There are up to 40 trillion bacteria living in our bodies, with most of them being in the gut. In the gut there are up to 3000 different species there, all with a role to play. It is a veritable Metropolis.
Gut flora regulate everything from the synthesis of nutrients, the digestion and absorption of food components, and also regulating our immunity. Keeping this population in good shape is important, and we are most certainly in the driving seat here. These simple steps can make a huge difference.
Ok, starting with the basics, a varied diet is great for many aspects of health, gut flora included. It amazes me how many peoples diets really do lack variety. Many people find themselves eating the same meals over and over again. Many studies have shown that the greater the variety of foodstuffs in the diet, the more diverse the bacterial population in the gut is. Remember, these all have roles to play and bacterial diversity can lead to more robust health in many areas. Get creative. Get adventurous. Mix it up a little bit.
So, this one is a two pronged recommendation. I know sugar is the nutritional bogey man of the moment, and many of the justifications for that I happen to agree with, and the influence upon gut flora is noteworthy. Complex sugars are a great thing for gut flora because of the types of bacteria that feed on them and the response this has - this info will come in the next recommendation. But, refined sugars - the white stuff, is a highly effective fuel source for some of the more damaging bacteria that can reside in the gut. If these bacteria get a regular source of their preferred fuel stuff, then they can replicate effectively and soon begin to compete with beneficial bacteria and move us towards a state often referred to as dysbiosis.
The second part of this is the artificial sweeteners. Recent studies have found some quite alarming effects. It seems that regular consumption of non caloric artificial sweeteners can trigger glucose intolerance via changes in the composition of gut bacteria. Wow. Thats significant. There had always been links between non caloric sweeteners stimulating appetite excessively, but now the evidence is pointing towards metabolic disruption via changes in microbiome, its time we rethink our food choices.
High fibre plant foods are top of the tree when it comes to developing a healthy gut flora. Foods such as pulses and legumes, onions, garlic, leeks, sweet potatoes etc are all rich in types of very complex carbohydrates that make up the fibre content. More simple carbohydrates are broken down by digestive enzymes higher up in the digestive tract, and as we have seen, simple sugars can negatively influence our gut flora. However, the large complex polysaccharides such as inulin or fructo oligo saccharides found in high fibre plant foods cannot be broken down by pancreatic enzymes in the same way that more simple sugars and polysaccharides can. They actually need to be fermented by our gut flora by a process called saccharolytic fermentation.
During this fermentation process, a couple of key things happen. Firstly, when feeding on these polysaccharides during fermentation, our gut flora begin to reproduce and grow in number. Their numbers increase making them flourish. Also, as they ferment these polysaccharides, they release by products - short chain fatty acids such as butyric acid, which can actually stimulate repair mechanisms in the gut wall. Long term consumption of these foods is really good housekeeping for the gut. Not only do they keep us regular, they support bacterial colony growth and enable the bacterial colony to do their job more effectively.
My top pick pre biotic foods:
Sounds complicated. It isnt. Polyphenols are a group of compounds found in plants that have been widely researched in relation to their antioxidant and cardiovascular health benefits. I have written about this extensively, particularly about flavonoids and heart health. However, in recent years it has become apparent that they can positively influence gut flora. Sometimes certain polyphenols arent absorbed effectively and make their way to lower parts of the digestive tract where gut flora can begin to interact with them.
Cocoa polyphenols for example have been shown to increase the numbers of Bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. Red wine polyphenols act similarly. Both have been linked with lowering of triglycerides and CRP (an inflammation marker), independent of their localised effects in circulation, suggesting these changes may arise from gut flora influences.
Foods like green tea, dark chocolate, red onions, blueberries, and red wine are all great sources.
Ok, this may seem an obvious move and interest in probiotics is huge. However, I see so many people relying on the probiotic drinks from the supermarket. Some of these…are….okay, but they just wont deliver significant change. They just lack the numbers, the diversity, and the delivery system to create such change.
I suggest that people opt for a high strength multi strain product. remember, there can be up to 3000 different strains of bacteria living in the gut, each with a job to do. With this in mind, just swallowing down buckets of acidophilus is only going to have a narrow spectrum of benefit. Look for a product that has as many different strains as you can find. Taking a course of these every quarter is a great maintenance practice for most.