This quarantine life that we’ve been living may be more of a struggle for some than for others, but I’m certain we’ve all had our moments with regards to our food choices. At this time, we have been provided the opportunity to more or less be wary of what we stock up on in the refrigerator and pantry; thereby allowing us to control the one major food environment (our home) where we find ourselves most of the time. Much of the time you may ask yourself, ‘am I hungry or just bored?’ One way to determine this is to drink water in those moments. If that doesn’t help and you do feel the urge to snack, simply be conscious of your choice.
Our gastrointestinal tract runs from the mouth all the way down to the anus. It consists of, but is not limited to, the oesophagus, the stomach and the intestines. It plays a very important role in your digestive system and as such, one must ensure that it is treated well as to do its job effectively. Contrary to historical belief, microbiomes (microorganisms) are found all over the body and have been realised no longer as entities that cause disease, but rather those that can help us. They are dynamic and can also be molded. The majority of microbiomes are found in the gastrointestinal tract and the range in quantity and variety have a direct effect on the health of our gut. According to an article published in the Journal of Nutrition in November 2019, ‘a healthy microbiome is more resistant and resilient to disruption...and influences the health of its host (our human body). This shows that what takes place in the gut affects not just the gut, but all parts of the body.
So how can we improve our gut health?
Diet. The microbiome is affected by many factors, including genetics, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. However, 20% of gut microbiota is affected by environmental factors like diet. For instance, diets high in refined carbohydrates, animal fat and salt and low in dietary fibre deplete the gut microbiome and put us at risk for chronic disease. Additionally, low fibre foods have been associated with a reduced colonic mucus barrier. Why isn’t this good?- because the barrier protects mucus tissues and the circulatory system from toxins. Whereas, the health benefits of dietary fibre which were discovered around 430 B.C (thanks Hippocrates) in foods like fruits and vegetables encourage the growth of good gut bacteria. Therefore, what we eat, how it is prepared (should be minimally processed) and how it is consumed (take your time when eating and don’t just gobble up your meal, to encourage increased absorption of nutrients) is quite beneficial.
Exercise. Like many other things, gut health is also affected by level of physical activity. Moderate exercise for at least 30 minutes daily definitely aids in not just all round good health, but specific improvement in gut microbiota function as well.
Stress reduction. There is an indirect correlation with stress levels and the amount of good bacteria in our gut. Working to reduce your stress gives the good bacteria in your gut a better chance of flourishing.
Limit antibiotics. Failure to reduce inappropriate use or repeated courses of antibiotics results in incomplete microbiome repair therefore reducing microbiome diversity. Limited diversity puts you at risk for a compromised immune system which limits your body’s natural ability to fight off pathogens.
As stated, the gut is complex and has a major impact on the entire body so the more balanced your gut health is, the better functioning the body will be overall. The wider the variety of good bacteria in your gut, the better. Secondly, improving the quality of gut microbiota also encourages food tolerance. It ensures easier digestion of food and elimination of waste- the opposite (intolerance) can sometimes present itself as abdominal pain, bloating and even nausea.
In addition, you can thank adequate gut health for body weight consistency instead of unexplained weight fluctuation even when your lifestyle remains the same.Lastly, improved sleeping patterns and quality of sleep are majorly influenced by a healthy gut too.
Gut health is way more important than previously perceived and more research is yet to be done. We do know enough though, to be able to do something about improving our gut health using the aforementioned tips. Stay tuned for part two where we’ll discuss the gut-brain axis including new insights into how gut bacteria affect memory and much more. I have a ‘gut feeling’ you won’t want to miss it!