Mental health is of utmost importance, but with wellness experts now recognising our gut as our 'second brain', it's time to look after those microbes too.
Digestive health is fast becoming the cornerstone of overall wellness and while there is age-old evidence to support its function in terms of the breaking down of food and removal of waste products, more recent research is exploring the intimate relationship between the population of bacteria in our gut and both metal and physical conditions, such as depression and IBS. The connection between the brain and gut is so interlinked, that what we eat and the dietary habits we form are proving to massively influence our mental and gastrointestinal states.
The health of our digestive system is governed by an invisible component known as our microbiome, and the trillions of bacteria microbes it homes. Gut microbes, while tiny (so tiny, they’re only visible to the human eye though a powerful microscope lens), are integral to a well-running digestive system, helping to maintain bowel regularity, keeping tract-lining free from inflammation and supporting immune system function. Traditionally, bacteria, as a whole, tends to get a lot of bad press, but in this mutualistic relationship, provided we, as hosts, supply the microbes with a hospitable environment, they’ll do their best to keep us at optimal health.
Unfortunately, many aspects of modern-living are creating a less harmony in our gut’s microbiome; stress, long-term antibiotic use, alcohol-consumption, and limited diets all coming top of the list. These habits all contribute towards disrupting the balance of bacteria, which in turn leaves our digestive system more vulnerable to infection, dysbiosis, inflammation and intestinal permeability. Contemporary research also shows, that is not just the quantity of microbes in present in our gut, but the diversity of species present that equate to a healthy and efficient digestive system.
Despite gut health depending on some elements that are out of our control, like illness and stress, one thing which we can exercise some control over is the food that we eat. Here’s what The Healthy Gut Handbook, by Justine Pattison advises for a microbe-friendly diet.
Our gut microbes depend on undigested fibre reaching them in the colon to survive and reproduce. In return for fermenting our fibre and recycling our waste, our microbes liberate many key nutrients, a third of our vitamins and produce chemicals like serotonin, which alter our mood and appetite. Microbes also use chemicals called polyphenols as a fuel source, which are released when certain foods are fermented in the colon. The list of foods that have high polyphenols includes some surprises – dark chocolate (70% cocoa plus), coffee beans, nuts, seeds, good quality olive oil and – breathe a sigh of relief – red wine.
Other foods that our microbes embrace, but that we have more recently been told to avoid are dairy products, high in saturated fats. The reason dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese are healthy for most of us is that they are a form of probiotic. They are packed with microbes which feed of the lactose and produce lactic acid that keeps other potentially harmful microbes away.
Fermented foods benefit our gut in a similar way to dairy, in that they are contain hundreds of different microbes. There is a whole range of fermented foods being rediscovered, such as sauerkraut, kimchi and sourdough. Kombucha, fermented tea, is another that is becoming popular; it is made of using a starter pack of a gooey blob of hundreds of different microbes, including both lactic ad acetic acid-producing bacteria a.
Given the right food and environment, our gut microbes can reproduce millions of generations in just a year of our lives. By eating a varied, vegertable-rich diet and limiting the consuptiom of processed foods, your gut will host a broader range of microbe species, catering for all of their needs and having your gut fuctioning at its peak.