What you eat isn't just nutrition for you, you must also feed the bacteria in your gut. Did you know there are around one trillion bacteria in your digestive system, (weighing three-four pounds) that we need to look after!
The community of bacteria that colonise your gut is referred to as the microbiome. It is vital your gut is populated with ‘friendly’ bacteria, to keep the ‘bad’ bacteria at bay, promoting better well-being.
Focusing on probiotics and prebiotics in your diet is the best way boost these friendly bacteria. Probiotics are the actual, live bacteria capable of multiplying. Prebiotics serve as the food source for probiotics and do not grow or reproduce.
Using a plant analogy, if the intestine is comparable to a flowerbed, probiotics are the individual seeds that you plant. Prebiotics work like fertilizer used to promote growth of the flowers or probiotics. As the flower thrives, it will pollenate and multiple in time.
When the balance is shifted in favour of the bad bacteria, symptoms may arise such as bloating, constipation or diarrhoea. This is termed ‘dysbiosis’ – the state in which the microbiome is out of balance.
The increase of bad bacteria and decrease of friendly bacteria correlate to numerous types of health problems and disease. Processed foods and sugar (as can stress and use of antibiotics) can increase the growth of bad bacteria. A strong microbiome can be associated with:
- Improved digestion (Helping digestion and absorption of nutrients)
- Fewer digestive problems (may reduce constipation and bloating)
- Alleviation of IBD symptoms (Crohn’s, Colitis and Diverticulitis)
- Improved immunity
- Protection against yeast overgrowth and UTI’s
- Improved microbiome during pregnancy (which can confer better immunity to the child)
- Improved mood and stress management
- Improved blood sugar regulation – Type ll diabetes prevention
- Lower blood cholesterol levels – protection from heart disease
There's also some interesting research emerging around our gut microbiome and body weight; fatter people seem to have less bacterial diversity (more diversity the better to be honest) and there are 2 bacterial species in particular being examined more closely. Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes seem to be more dominant in fatter compared to thinner people and may be linked to increased fatness. It appears they may help the body extract more energy out of our food and lay down fat more easily. BUT this is mostly in animal studies so be mindful not to jump to conclusions on this. The wider health benefits of looking after your gut is much more important than body weight. Really.
If you would like to start taking better care of your gut, there are 3 things you can do:
1. Consume more prebiotic foods:
- Jerusalem Artichoke
- Coconut Flesh & Flour
- Flax and Chia Seeds
- Sweet Potato
Try munching on raw carrots, cucumbers, berries, bananas, apples and pears, or make a tasty fruit, nut and seed flapjack to snack on during the day.
Oh and do start small and work up gradually. Whenever we increase our fibre intake, it can make you windy if you add too much too quickly. Also drink plenty of water, because this can also help avoid abdominal discomfort that may result.
2. Consume more probiotics in the form of fermented foods:
- Live yogurt (some dairy options now contain live cultures)
- Kefir (traditionally made from cow's milk but water based or coconut based options are now available for vegans / lactose intolerant. It can be rather sour and rather an acquired taste)
- Sauerkraut (All vegetables are covered in the good bacteria lactobacillus, and when you slice up, grate and squeeze them with salt, they release their juice, which mingles with the salt to create a brine. Once contained within this briny environment, lactobacillus multiplies and begins to break down the ingredient, digesting the natural sugars and transforming them into lactic acid, This creates the tangy flavour and a sour environment that keeps the growth of nasty bacteria at bay)
- Kimchi (an Asian and spicy equivalent of sauerkraut)
- Tempeh (a type of soya bean cake, made from fermented, compacted beans)
- Miso (used in soups / broths, also made from soy beans)
- Soy Sauce
- Sourdough bread
3. Go for a probiotic supplement
Research suggests the daily combination of both dietary probiotics and prebiotics in your diet is the best approach but sometimes a stronger dose of probiotics is required; such as after a stomach bug, course of antibiotics or period of travelling (our bacteria get bug lag, just as we can get jet lag!).
If we ate the prefect diet, were not ill or stressed over a 6 month period, our body would be able to restore the balance on it's own but how likely is that?
Not all supplements are the same however and I wouldn't recommend the small little yoghurt drinks you can buy from supermarkets (Actimel, Yakult or Danone) as they simply don't pack enough punch. Although they taste nice, drinking them is like adding a drop in the ocean of your microbiome.
You will need a 4 -6 week period to feel any effects. If they don’t work, try another brand or stop them – they won’t work for everybody.
You don't need to take them forever either - around 8-12 weeks should be enough.
Personally I like Biokult (they do kids ones too) as you don't need to re-mortgage the house to buy them and they are now available ion the high street.
Probiotics may not be suitable for someone who is immunocompromised.