The health of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract or “gut” is vital to your overall physical and mental wellbeing. Few people realise the extent to which gut health impacts how we function on a daily basis. Physical symptoms related to poor gut health can be as obvious as digestive issues like abdominal pain, bloating, reflux, or flatulence, to less obvious physical issues like skin problems, headaches, fatigue, and joint pain. However, it doesn’t stop there. Issues such as anxiety, depression, mood swings, irritability and lack of concentration have also been linked to poor gut health.
WHY IS GUT HEALTH SO IMPORTANT?
The GI tract is home to large communities of microorganisms living inside your body called your microbiome. This includes trillions of bacteria, some good, some bad, fighting for space in your gut. Naturally, we need more good than bad because the good gut bacteria help to:
>aid healthy digestion
>promote and enhance the absorption of essential nutrients
>produce vitamins (vitamin K, B12, B6, B5, B3 and folate)
>support and boost the immune system, and
>minimise inflammatory reactions
Bad gut bacteria promote inflammation and as a result, digestion issues, mental problems and disease. Too much bad bacteria can also affect your body’s ability to burn fat. They can extract more calories from your food, contributing to weight gain and obesity. Simply speaking, the health of your gut microbiome is determined by the ratio of good vs bad bacteria (ideally a ratio of 75:25) living in your gut. It’s all about balance!
In addition to the trillions of bacteria found in the gut, about 70% of our immune system cells are located inside or around the gut. It therefore makes sense that when your gut microbiome is out of balance, your immune system, and as a result, your health is compromised.
Aside from the physical impact of a healthy gut, it also has an effect on our mood. One of the biggest influencers of mood in your body is a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) called serotonin, sometimes referred to as our “feel good” hormone. While some serotonin is created in the brain, 80-90 percent of it is created in our gut. If your gut is unhealthy and inflamed (because you have more bad than good bacteria), your serotonin production is compromised contributing not only to constipation but mood imbalances!
WHAT COMPROMISES GUT HEALTH?
The gut microbiome can be disrupted by several factors, including:
> Overuse of antibiotics which deplete gut bacteria including the beneficial strains
> Too much alcohol
> Poor diet – high in sugary, fatty foods and processed carbs promotes bad bacteria and inflammation in the gut
HOW CAN WE RESTORE OUR GUT HEALTH?
As with everything, it’s all about maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Eat and live well, limit lifestyle stressors (including alcohol intake) and stay active.
Here are some more specific pointers to follow to restore the balance in your gut bacteria and promote a healthy gut. (You should also read our tips on how to Spring Clean Your Wellness.)
Consult a medical professional
If you’re routinely experiencing any symptoms related to poor gut health (some of which we’ve mentioned above), consider seeing a dietitian or other medical professional. They will assist you with a diagnosis and an appropriate course of treatment and rehabilitation to restore your gut health.
Eat whole, unprocessed foods, drink lots of water and stay away from sugar.
Eat more cruciferous vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and kale contain valuable compounds which help to regulate gut bacteria, the immune system, and speed up the elimination of toxins.
Check your vitamin D
Vitamin D is fundamental to digestive health as it helps to reduce overall inflammation in the gut.
Take omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3s help to reduce inflammation in the gut as well as support the immune system and promote better digestion.
Limit the use of antibiotics
While there are certainly cases when it is best to use antibiotics, consider giving them a miss for mild illnesses or infections that can be left to run their course or treated naturally. It’s always advisable to consult your doctor first. If you do need to take antibiotics, make sure that your doctor also prescribes a good quality probiotic to help replenish good bacteria.
Try to include more probiotic foods in your diet
Probiotic foods contain living bacteria that are like the good bacteria that exist in your body. These are generally found in fermented foods because fermentation uses microorganisms or probiotics such as live bacteria and yeast to break down food into a simpler substance. Popular probiotic foods include sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), live-cultured natural yoghurt, kefir (a fermented drink like yoghurt), fermented soy products (soy sauce, miso, tempeh), sourdough bread and kombucha (green or black tea fermented with sugar and yeast).
Consider taking a probiotic supplement
Although it’s important to include more probiotic foods in your daily diet, practically, it may not be enough. It may still be necessary to boost your probiotic intake with a good-quality probiotic supplement with the right strain of bacteria to suit your individual needs. While probiotics are safe for most people, talk to your doctor first if you suffer from any illness.
Don’t forget the prebiotics!
While probiotics introduce good bacteria into the gut, prebiotics nourish the existing good bacteria. Try to include the following prebiotic foods in your diet:
> Nuts and seeds
> Legumes such as soaked chickpeas
> Fresh raw cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens
> Sweet potato
> Aloe Vera
> Onions and leeks (cooked if you react badly to raw)