Gut Bacteria: Probiotics, Prebiotics and Everything In Between
Gut health is the hottest topic at the moment, and rightly so. More and more people are struggling with digestive issues; bloating, stomach pain, diarrhoea, constipation - these symptoms can all have a significant impact on people's day to day lives. Out gut is vitally important to our health, it houses 70% of our immune system, it is connected to our brain and mood and is responsible for absorbing all of the nutrients in food that we need to survive. It is also home to billions of bacteria, our gut provides food for these bacteria to thrive and in return they do a range of wonderful things for us. Humans are born sterile with no bacteria in us whatsoever, immediately after birth we are exposed to bacteria and our system then builds throughout our lives. We have many different types of bacteria in our gut, some are associated with beneficial effects whereas others are associated with disease and poor health. Minute changes in the makeup of our gut bacteria, whether it is a loss of good bacteria or an increase in bad bacteria, can have negative consequences and has been associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), obesity, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), fertility and hormonal problems, acne, depression, liver problems, allergies and more. Therefore it is crucial we look after our little friends as best we can!!
What do they do?
How can we support them?
Prebiotics are the fuel for our good bacteria that help them grow and multiply. A good analogy is to think of the bacteria as seeds and prebiotics as fertiliser, that fertiliser helps our bacteria to be as healthy as possible. Prebiotic foods are all types of fibre, however all fibre is not prebiotic. To be prebiotic, it must be demonstrated that the food helps the bacteria to grow. Like with all dietary fibre, prebiotics are not digested by our body in the small intestine, so they enter our large intestine where they are fermented by the bacteria and used as food. Foods that contain prebiotic fibre are: artichokes, chicory root, leek, garlic, onions, asparagus, banana, wheat bran and apples. For all of these foods, the benefit is in the raw form, cooking these foods breaks down the fibre and removes the prebiotic benefit. You can also buy prebiotic supplements.
Consuming more beneficial bacteria is evidently a great way to support your gut health. Introducing more good bacteria on a regular basis ensures that your gut is well-populated. It is particularly important after taking an antibiotic or after illness to replenish the bacteria lost. There are several foods that contain live bacteria, such as kombucha, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut and other fermented foods. However you may be interested to learn that because the amount and type of bacteria in these foods isn't clearly known and their survival in the gut isn't known, they do not technically qualify as probiotics! Of course that is not to say that eating these foods isn't a great idea to support gut health, just that anyone looking to really bolster their gut bacteria should look to a supplement that has proven bacteria counts and survival. Additionally, live yoghurt has no benefit whatsoever. The "live" part just means that it still contains the bacteria used to make the yoghurt, but this bacteria cannot survive our gut and has no benefit! Unless a yoghurt has another strain of bacteria added, such as Activia, it does not support gut health directly.
Manage your Stress Levels
Our gut is undeniably linked to our brain and our mood via the vagus nerve, we call this the gut-brain axis. Research shows that chronic stress can actually cause negative changes in our gut bacteria which of course then has negative effects on our health and digestion. Add in to the mix that when we are stressed we may not eat as well or sleep as well and you have a recipe for a gut disaster. Therefore finding ways to manage your stress levels and sleep well is key. Whether it be yoga, going for a walk, baking a cake, having a bath or hitting the gym, find something that works for you and make it a regular habit.
As we just discussed, exercise can be great for managing stress levels, but it also has its own beneficial effects on the bacteria. Studies show that regular exercise increases the amount of good bacteria and improves their efficiency. We also know that regular exercise is good for keeping you regular and keeping things moving along through so it is a no-brainer!
Eat a Balanced Diet
Alongside eating plenty of prebiotics, our general diet has a massive impact on our gut bacteria. How much meat we eat, how much alcohol we drink, our sugar consumption and our fibre intake can all change the composition of our bacteria. Therefore the best way to support your gut with your diet is to have a fresh, balanced diet. Plenty of fruits, vegetables and fibre and everything in moderation. There is no need to cut out sugar or alcohol just because a few studies have shown a slight negative effect, these studies often use very high doses so some sugar and the occasional drink will do you no harm and will probably help your stress and happiness levels!