In our pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, we often focus on the fundamental pillars of well-being: regular exercise, balanced nutrition, quality sleep, and proper hydration. Yet, there’s a hidden world within us that plays a crucial role in our overall health – the gut microbiome. Beyond the commonly known factors, there are additional nuances to consider if we aim to optimize our gut health.
Researchers and experts in gut microbiome studies agree that a healthy gut is one that harbours a diverse range of microbes and maintains an effective gut barrier – the protective lining between the intestines and the bloodstream.
Diet, as one might expect, stands out as a pivotal influencer of gut health. Diets rich in fibre, unsaturated fatty acids (found in fish and nuts), and polyphenols (plant chemicals) promote a healthy gut environment. Conversely, diets high in saturated fats, additives (such as “E numbers”), and sugar can adversely affect gut health, emphasizing the importance of avoiding excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods.
Among the culprits in processed foods are emulsifiers, common additives known to cause intestinal inflammation and a “leaky gut.” Watch out for lecithin, guar or xanthan gum, and mono- or diglycerides on food packaging, especially in protein supplements, which have seen a surge in popularity among fitness enthusiasts.
While it may be impractical to completely eliminate additives from our diets, experts suggest a more balanced approach. Limiting their intake while increasing consumption of prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods can contribute to protecting the gut.
Prebiotics, such as dietary fibre, are non-digestible ingredients that stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in the colon. Meeting the recommended daily fibre intake of around 30g for adults and 15-25g for children is crucial for a flourishing microbiome. The advice now extends to incorporating 30 different plant species in one’s weekly diet, a goal that becomes more achievable when considering diverse options like high-quality coffee and dark chocolate.
Probiotics, live bacteria and yeasts, are easily obtained through fermented foods, drinks, or supplements. Opting for high-quality probiotics is key, and while supplements are available, fermented foods like yoghurts, cheese, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, and miso can be equally effective and cost-effective. Look for products in the fridge section labelled as containing “live cultures” or “live bacteria” for optimal benefits.
Beyond what we eat, the frequency of our meals may impact gut health. Intermittent fasting, for instance, has been shown to support gut lining repair and reduce inflammation, adding a new dimension to our understanding of meal timing.
The impact of medications on the microbiome is another crucial aspect to consider. Antibiotics, especially broad-spectrum ones, can disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut, potentially leading to gastrointestinal problems and decreased immunity. It’s essential to follow medical advice when prescribed antibiotics, considering the potential effects on the gut microbiome.
While some aspects of medication may be beyond our control, there are strategies to support gut health during and after medication use. Prioritizing good sleep and managing stress levels is always beneficial, and increasing the intake of both prebiotics and probiotics can potentially mitigate the impact of medication on the microbiome. However, it’s crucial to consult with a healthcare professional before introducing probiotic supplements alongside any treatment.
As the field of microbiome research continually unveils new insights into the intricate connections between gut microbes and overall well-being, it’s prudent to stay informed. In the meantime, following the above advice will undoubtedly contribute to maintaining a healthy gut microbiome in 2024 and beyond.