Gut health 101
Good gut health is largely grown out of a healthy diet and lifestyle. With a bit of know-how, you can ensure your gut garden flourishes, supporting holistic good health.
The gut is known as our body’s second brain for a very good reason. It’s in charge of absorbing nutrients to support every system in our body, it creates chemicals to regulate our mood and energy levels, and is responsible for a large portion of our immune system.
Our gut is also highly sensitive, responding to certain foods, medications, and environmental stimuli with inflammation and discomfort. While our ‘gut instinct’ may be to reach for the nearest tablets for remedy, it’s our diet and lifestyle that have the greatest influence on what is one of the most intelligent systems in our body.
THE GUT GARDEN
What you put into your mouth affects the delicate balance of bacteria in your gut – the microbiome. Certain foods will ensure that healthier bacterial colonies flourish, while less-friendly groups are kept under control. Just like a garden, your gut requires ongoing tender, loving care. Healthy bacteria can be thought of as the seeds, and the intestinal environment as the soil. As we all know, healthy soil means a healthy harvest, while poor quality soil will produce a substandard crop. To continue the analogy, unhealthy bacteria thrive in poor quality soil, acting as weeds that overrun the gut environment. Let’s continue thinking of our gut as a garden as we learn how to best tend it.
Foods that encourage a healthy gut environment (the ‘soil’) are known as prebiotics. They are predominantly fibre-based and are not digested by the body. Prebiotics act as ‘fertilisers’ for the gut, creating a welcome environment for healthy bacteria to feed. They help to reduce inflammation and improve digestion, as well as keeping your bowel movements easy and regular. Most plant foods are rich in prebiotics, but particularly oats, bananas, lentils, beans, leeks, onions, asparagus, and chicory root (also a delicious coffee alternative). Porridge, lentil soup, or good old bean burritos are all great ways to incorporate prebiotics into your diet. Get creative and try asparagus risotto, black bean brownies (using dates instead of sugar for sweetness), a banana smoothie, or potato and leek burger patties.
Probiotics are groups of healthy bacteria (the ‘flowers’ in our ‘garden’) that provide protection for the whole body with immune system support, reduced inflammation, and mood regulation. Conversely, unhealthy bacteria (the ‘weeds’) are known to reduce the function of your nervous system, increase inflammation, and are implicated in mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Processed sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and excess fat are likely to fuel these unhealthy bacteria. Feed the cookie monster too much, and your whole body may pay the price as these unhealthy colonies grow to outnumber the good bacteria. So, as delicious as some treats are, it’s important to keep them to a minimum to maintain good gut health.
Eating probiotic-rich foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, miso, kombucha, and some plant-based yoghurts can help balance bacterial colonies. These fermented foods are full of live, healthy bacteria. Make sure there is no added sugar, as this can offset the good work of the probiotic. Also, check that your product hasn’t been pasteurised, as this process destroys the good bacteria. Try avocado on toasted sourdough topped with a dollop of sauerkraut and pepper, marinate some tempeh to pair with your roasted veg, or make a nourishing miso soup with mushrooms and soba noodles.
THE GOOD GUT LIFE
Your diet isn’t the only thing that affects your gut health. There are other lifestyle factors that can create an unhealthy gut environment, while changes in your immediate environment can also impact bacterial colonies.
Stress isn’t just about mental health. It can also cause constipation, diarrhoea, bloating and gassiness, as well as aggravating conditions such as Crohn’s disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Stress affects your gut microbiome, reducing numbers of healthy bacteria and impacting mood, energy, digestion, and nutrient absorption. While you can’t always remove the cause of stress, you can modify your response to it with meditation, exercise, counselling, breathing exercises, and herbal medicines (with the guidance of a herbalist or naturopath). The B vitamin complex and magnesium can also help with stress and tension.
A foggy brain may be more than just sleep deprivation – it can also be the result of changes in your gut microbiome, related to a lack of sleep. And it’s a two-way street; poor sleep can also create those changes. Melatonin, essential for your sleep cycle, is produced in the gut, along with several neurotransmitters. Poor sleep can impact the production of these hormones, leaving you stuck in a cycle of stress and fatigue. Addressing stress factors can often help to improve sleep, along with guided meditation, daily exercise, and herbal teas such as chamomile, which is also great for calming a bloated belly. Avoid caffeine as it can overstimulate the nervous system, aggravating stress, and insomnia.
Physical activity is essential to keep the bowels moving as well as for improving mood and reducing stress. Studies show that exercise improves the health of the gut microbiome – perhaps this is part of the reason athletes always appear so happy and healthy! You don’t have to be a competitive racer to gain the beneﬁts of exercise. A gentle 20–30 minutes of stretching, walking, or yoga may be enough to boost your digestive system. Exercise also reduces stress, with a carry-on eﬀect in the gut.
Antibiotics are known to destroy healthy gut bacteria. If you’ve been on antibiotics, or your diet has been less than great, a probiotic supplement may assist in supporting your microbiome back to a healthy balance. Other medications that impact your gut health include antacids, laxatives, SSRIs, and metformin (a common diabetes treatment). You might like to consult with your health professional about alternative medications and treatments for some of these conditions. Remember, a wholefood plant-based diet has the potential to improve reﬂux, constipation, depression, and diabetic symptoms, so could be a natural treatment option for some people.
HEALTHY GUT CHECKLIST
- Beans, legumes, oats
- Fruits and vegetables
- Fermented foods
- Ginger or chamomile tea
- Activities that keep you calm and smiling
- Alcohol and caffeine
- Excess sugar and fatty foods
- Heavily processed foods
- Stressful environments