Gut Health Part 2: Practical tips to improve your gut microbiome
In part one of this series we delve into the microbiome. Discussing how each individual has a unique microbiota which is shaped from our exposure to different bacteria, from birth through to the present day, as well as the impact of microbes on both our physical and mental health.
In part two we discuss some practical tips that you can implement, in order to improve the health of your gut, and create an ideal environment to house your diverse collection of microbes, as well as the truth about probiotics.
So how do we create this paradise for our guests?
There is not one right answer to this question. Due to the high variability between 2 people’s gut microbiomes, you will need to find out what works for you. Avoiding gluten is a great strategy when you’re a celiac and will improve your health and quality of life. However, if you are not, research has shown it can impact your microbiome negatively because it tends to reduce the intake of whole grains, and thus fibre (1).
Research on the gut microbiome underlines the importance of personalised nutrition. However, there are some general guidelines that will improve gut health for most people.
- Eat more fibre – Beneficial SCFA’s are produced from complex carbohydrates and fibre (4). We may not be able to digest fibre, but it is what feeds your gut bacteria – which in turn produce these beneficial compounds for you. Most people will therefore benefit from an increase in fiber intake. The recommendation is 30 g per day, but research suggests in the UK we only get about two thirds of that. Fibre is found in plant foods only. So load up on vegetables and unrefined starch to increase your intake. An often overlooked source of fiber are beans and pulses.
- Eat a varied diet – Old advice, but its importance cannot be overstated. A diverse community is a sign of a healthy gut and protects against a host of diseases (6). To promote a diverse community in our gut, it’s important to eat as many different plants (and animals if you like) as possible. Humans are habitual creatures, we tend to eat the same foods repeatedly, but for a healthy gut it is beneficial to be adventurous and try new flavours to introduce as many new bacteria strains as possible.
- Eat whole foods – Again, it’s hardly new advice, but research in mice has shown that artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers can have a negative impact on our gut microbiome (5). Processed foods tend to contain lots of additives and not much fibre or microbes. Bacteria can also be found under the skin of vegetables, which cannot be washed off. Keep the skin on to obtain the maximum nutrients too.
- Avoid antibiotics – Antibiotics can save lives, but they are also often prescribed when it is not really necessary. Antibiotics work through a shotgun technique: they kill all microbes, the harmful but also the good ones. Prolonged use of antibiotics can therefore cause serious imbalances in your gut microbiome which sometimes never recovers. Especially in young children who are treated with antibiotics often when the gut flora is still developing, this can have detrimental health effects that extend far into adult life (6). So next time you have a bladder infection, try Cranberry and vitamin C extract and save the antibiotics for when you are recovering from a life saving operation, should you ever need that.
- Take care of your wellbeing – As we have seen our mental state impacts our physical health in part through our microbiome. Making sure you’re getting enough sleep, managing stress levels appropriately and exercising regularly all have a beneficial impact on our gut flora.
Now I can hear you thinking.. what about probiotics?
Following the increased interest in gut health, the market on probiotics has exploded. Probiotics are live strains of microbes that have a beneficial effect on health. They are usually sold in yoghurt (drinks) or supplements. In some cases probiotics can make a difference such as if you have IBS or after extensive use of antibiotics. But rather than experimenting yourself I’d recommend to speak to a healthcare professional first.
However, because each microbiome is so different and most of these supplements aren’t tested for efficacy as drugs are it is probably not worth the effort or money for most to try these. Unless you have your microbiome tested you don’t know if any of these would be useful for you. Furthermore the quality of supplements can vary a lot. Probiotics are live organisms, which means they can die, which might happen if the packaging is not suitable to keep the microbes alive long enough until they reach your colon.
Rather than introducing a certain strain of bacteria by popping a pill and hoping it will improve your health, you may be better off feeding many different microbes by eating prebiotics or fiber.
In biology this is what we call a symbiotic relationship: in exchange for a place to live and food to eat, the microbes help the host, yes you, digest food and keep you healthy. Our microbes have evolved with us for millions of years to do this the best way possible. A healthy community of microbes can fight off disease and make you feel good, depending on what you feed it.
- Anderson, S.C., Cryan, J.F. and Dinan, T. (2017). The Psychobiotic Revolution: mood, food and the new science of the gut-brain connection. Washington: National Geographic Society.
- Carabotti, M., Scirocco, A., Maselli, M. A., & Severi, C. (2015). The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. Annals of gastroenterology, 28(2), 203-209.
- Collen, A. (2015). 10% Human: How Your Body’s Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness. UK: William Collins Publishers.
- Lin, H.V., Frassetto, A., Kowalik, Jr. E.J., Nawrocki, A.R., Lu, M.M., Kosinski J.R., et al. (2012). Butyrate and Propionate Protect against Diet-Induced Obesity and Regulate Gut Hormones via Free Fatty Acid Receptor 3-Independent Mechanisms. PLoS ONE. 7(4): e35240.
- Rinninella, E., Raoul, P., Cintoni, M., Franceschi, F., Miggiano, G.A.D., Gasbarrini A., and Mele, M.C. (2019). What is the Healthy Gut Microbiota Composition? A Changing Ecosystem across Age, Environment, Diet, and Diseases. Microorganisms, 7(1).
- Valdes, A.M., Walter, J., Segal, E. and Spector, T.D. (2018). Role of gut microbiota in nutrition and health. The British Medical Journal, 361: Supplement 1.