Once thought of as just a machine to churn through food, the role of our gut is becoming increasingly more complex and more understood.
Our gut is home to a bunch of miniscule living organisms that scientists and health professionals refer to as the “gut microbiome”. Research is now showing that there are at least 1000 different species of bacteria in the gut. But, while they may be small in size, they are present in huge numbers - estimates suggest that most people have about 2kg or tens of trillions of these microorganisms in their gut.
Development (or colonisation) of the gut begins at birth. Prior to birth, the microbiome of the foetal gut is low. After birth, the gut is rapidly colonised with a variety of different microbiomes. Over time, the gut microbiome becomes quite stable, however, there is variation in the exact composition between individuals. In fact, just like fingerprints, the composition of the gut microbiome is unique to each individual. This variation is due to a number of factors including antibiotic use, stress, geographic location, intestinal pH, temperature, and of course…food. When it comes to gut health, we really are what we eat!
So why is gut health important? Well, beyond its obvious role in digestion and digestive health, there is now a growing body of scientific research showing the essential and diverse roles that the gut microbiome has within the body. The gut has an important role in immune function with the gastrointestinal tract forming the most complex part of the human immune system. There is also early research finding positive links between good gut health and body composition, reduced inflammation and reduced risk of chronic diseases.
An emerging area of interest is the link between the gut and the brain (often referred to as the gut-brain axis). We are learning more and more about this every day, but the gut and the brain can “talk” to each other. The term “gut instinct” isn’t just a feeling. Stress can slightly alter the gut microbiome which can then reduce immune function – this is one reason why you may get sick when you’re under the pump and stressed out. But the gut also ‘talks back’ to the brain with 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that helps with mood stabilisation) produced in the gut. Research is showing that good gut health can have a huge positive impact on mental health and mood – particularly anxiety and depression.
So, how do you eat your way to good gut health:
- Boost your fibre intake – Fibre rich fruits and vegetables are packed with prebiotics that help “feed” the microbiome in your gut. Aim to get in fill at least half your plate with a variety of veggies to reap the benefits.
- Choose foods rich in probiotics – these living organisms found in foods introduce good bacteria to your gut to help to balance the body’s gut microbiome. Good options include yoghurt with live cultures, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso and tempeh.
- Be adventurous – we tend to get into a routine with the foods we eat each week, but the more diverse your food choices can be the more diverse your gut microbiome can become.
- Reduce the damage – alcohol, highly processed foods and excess sugar can upset the balance of bacteria found in our gut. No need to eliminate these foods altogether, just be mindful of the frequency and quantity that you’re having.