Have you got the Guts? Tips and Tricks for Maintaining a Healthy Gut
Written by Julie Meek – Dietitian and Nutritionist
You may have noticed over the past couple of years that gut health has never been more topical and the interest in this area is galloping along at break neck speed.
My education on fibre and gut health began at the start of my uni degree and for many years, it was all about keeping your gut healthy to avoid bowel cancer and keep ‘regular.’ Research has progressed so much since then and now we know that gut health is so much more.
There is no doubt that fibre or ‘twigs and sticks is vital to our gut health. It is also one of the keys to maintaining a healthy weight as fibre does a great job of filling up your gut and therefore reducing your intake of high fat and calorie foods.
But what about the connection between our gut, our broader health and our brain?
The gut microbiome refers to the different microorganisms (microbes) living in our gastrointestinal tract, including bacteria, viruses, yeast, parasites and fungi. Your microbiome can be just like a thriving garden and there may be around 38 trillion microbes working away, most of which live in our large intestine or colon. If we lay our intestines flat – it would be large enough to cover the area of a tennis court!
Both good and bad bacteria live side by side in our intestinal tract. I can actually imagine them all having a punch up!
Like our fingerprints, we each have a unique gut microbiome colonised by approx. 160 bacterial species and we only share a small number of these with each other. Research is showing us that if we look after our internal environment, we increase the good bacteria in our gut.
Good bacteria produce compounds called Short Chain Fatty Acids like butyrate and acetate, which are important for our health. These fatty acids can:
- Protect against cancers, especially the bowel
- Reduce inflammation
- Regulate and improve our mood
- Boost our immunity
- Increase the absorption of nutrients from our food
In case you didn't know, the gastrointestinal tract is responsible for producing 80-90% of serotonin – known as our happy hormone. The health of our gut can affect the production of serotonin, which can have a major impact on our mood.
What about probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria that are naturally found in our gut, in supplements and in some foods. They improve our health by reducing the number of harmful bacteria that may survive in our gut. We can add good communities of microbes to our gut by eating fermented foods high in good bacteria or probiotics such as:
- Yoghurt with live cultures – look for 1 billion CFU’s per serve
- Kefir - fermented milk or water-based drink
- Kombucha - fermented black or green tea drink
- Fresh kimchi - Korean fermented vegetables
- Fresh sauerkraut - fermented cabbage
Are prebiotics the same?
Prebiotics are very different to probiotics. Prebiotics are mostly soluble fibres and resistant starches that act as fuel for our good bacteria in the large intestine or colon. Gut bacteria work to ferment these fibres and boost the balance of our microbiome. Some foods that contain a good dose of prebiotics, include:
Vegetables – Jerusalem artichoke, leek, asparagus, garlic and onion,
Fruit – Apples, pears, watermelon, nectarines, dates and figs
Wholegrains – Barley, rye, wheat, oats and lupin flakes
Legumes – Chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans, baked beans and soybeans
Nuts – Cashews and pistachio nuts
There is much to learn about our gut and how we can tend to and strengthen the microbiome ‘garden’ that lives within. Introducing both probiotics and prebiotics into your daily life is a healthy start.
Oh and don’t forget to drink plenty of water too, all that extra fibre does need to get moved along!