Body

Our expert guide to gut health

Want to live a healthier, happier life? Experts think the bacteria in your belly could be the secret to living well

If gut health was a religion, it’s fair to say there are an increasing number of devout believers. Long gone are the days when our digestive system was simply seen as a conveyor belt for food. Today, we understand the gut plays a pivotal role in our overall wellbeing. If you’re dealing with digestive issues, a weakened immune system, lethargy, inflammation, skin conditions or more, it could be worth taking a look at your gut health – and we’re not talking about implementing a holier-than-thou diet or giant gelatinous kombucha.

“Even a small change in our microbiome [the body’s ecosystem] can have a snowball effect,” explains Professor Phil Hansbro, author of The Good Gut Anti-Inflammatory Diet. “Inflammation and damage to the gut creates an opportunity for more ‘bad’ bacteria to grow. These bad bacteria species take more and more space, resulting in a loss of immune tolerance and chronic inflammation.”

Although processed and sugary foods are linked to feeding inflammatory-producing bacteria in your gut, the damage they do is very individual because it depends on what other microbes you have that could tip the balance in your favour.

“There are about 4000-6000 bacteria species in our gut,” says Phil. “Incredibly, each species has its own specific nutritional needs and produces its own metabolites. Some are pro-inflammatory – they produce toxins and metabolites that cause inflammation in our body.”

Pick a health problem and you can bet that those pro-inflammatory gut microbes play a part.

“When things are absorbed through our gut wall, they are transported throughout our entire bodies through the bloodstream,” explains Phil. “So anything that is produced by our microbes can affect the health of each part of our body and our body as a whole.”

Microbiologist Dr Erin Shanahan researches bowel cancer (the second highest cause of cancer death in New Zealand) and says eating the wrong diet can encourage a proliferation of bacteria that, over time, push surrounding gut cells to become potentially cancerous.

“What we eat is what they eat!” reports Erin. “But we don’t understand why, if you put 100 people on a ‘bad’ diet, they won’t all develop bowel cancer. And the answer to that might lie in the microbiome.”

Finding those definitive answers is tricky because our gut bugs are as individual as our fingerprint – even twins don’t share the same intestinal bacteria. We often talk about “good” and “bad” bacteria, but it’s far more complex than that – some bugs can be beneficial for certain people but cause havoc for others. Some can be harmless in small numbers but bullies in big groups.

It can be hard to predict how individual bacteria will get along with other bugs – not only are the trillions of gut germs influenced by genetics, environment and lifestyle choices, they’re even influencing each other. When they do work well as a team, their combined diversity means there is less room for pathogens to muscle their way into the community.

We desperately need these germs to keep us alive – they control everything from our ability to digest food to fighting off viruses and infections (an estimated 70 percent of the body’s immune cells are in the gut).

The bacteria in our belly produce a variety of vitamins, synthesise hormones such as serotonin, and turn the fibre we eat into short-chain fatty acids that can lower inflammation. Scientists have identified gut microbes that are linked to insulin resistance, obesity and metabolic disease, and gut dysbiosis – an imbalance of gut micro-organisms – is a common denominator among many autoimmune diseases.

The research on how gut microbes affect our brain and mood is ballooning. Gut bacteria even controls our cravings – they tap into the nerve pathways that link your gut and brain.

The good news is that we can change our gut health by changing our lifestyle.

“The life cycle of our gut bacteria is so quick that the food choices you make in 24 hours will impact the evolution of over 50 generations of gut microbes,” says naturopath and nutritionist Anna Mitsios.

“When we nurture a diverse ecosystem of bacteria, our gut becomes incredibly resilient, and so does our overall health and immune system as they are linked.”

Other than the obvious (good health does not lie in the bottom of a bag of chips, and so forth), feeding your “good” microbes can genuinely involve a bit of trial and error. Without testing, you can’t know exactly what you’re dealing with. Generally speaking, a diverse diet high in fruit, veges, whole grains and nuts will put you on the right path. Your microbiome can shift in a week, but serious imbalances may take longer to adjust. Phil notes microbes adapt to an inflamed gut.

“If the by-products they release are also pro-inflammatory, those microbes keep the gut in a vicious circle of inflammation, effectively maintaining a state of inflammation in an endless positive feedback loop.”

Most of us will experience a gut-related issue at some point, but there are several ways to avoid discomfort.

A recent survey of 73,000 adults in 33 countries found that more than 40 percent had gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome or constipation. And according to nutritionist Agnesa Simcic, people have a tendency to ignore abdominal discomfort.

“Symptoms like bloating and constipation are so common, they’re often dismissed as insignificant, but it affects so much more than just digestion,” says Agnesa. “The digestive tract is a major player in immune function, detoxification, hormone production and energy levels, so it pays to nip those niggling discomforts in the bud.” This is how to do just that:

Fasting

Some studies suggest intermittent fasting increases the diversity and number of microbes in the gut. “Allowing enough time between meals allows food to be digested and moved along the digestive tract efficiently. It has been shown to reduce blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity,” says nutritionist Alexandra King. “The gut plays a major role in regulating brain activity and cognitive function, and some research suggests fasting can improve mood and cognitive function.”

Pre, pro and postbiotics

We don’t yet know exactly how and why probiotics work, but we do know when we consume prebiotics, we make postbiotics. Dietitian Chloe McLeod explains, “Postbiotics are technically the waste product after digesting prebiotic and probiotic foods, however their health benefits are far-reaching for both gut health and overall wellbeing.

Postbiotics include nutrients, for example vitamin K and certain B vitamins, amino acids, as well as anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids.” You can find these in supplements, but it also happens if you eat prebiotic-rich foods (fibrous grain, fruit and veges) with probiotic foods (fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, miso and live natural yoghurt).

Fermented foods

“To improve digestion, start meals with foods that stimulate stomach acid, such as sauerkraut, kimchi and pickled vegetables,” advises Agnesa. “Then add foods that actually contain digestive enzymes, like pineapple, mango and kiwifruit.” Although alcohol is technically a fermented food, the jury is out on whether it’s beneficial for your gut.

“There are lots of antioxidants such as resveratrol in red wine, less so in white wine and beer,” says Phil. “As long as you drink in moderation and have some nights off, it’s fine.”

If you’ve got a budget to stick to, consult our guide to the best budget-friendly superfood swaps.

Sugar & salt

Keep both to a minimum. “Excessive sugar leads to an increase in a small number of bacteria, which makes our microbiome less diverse and throws it out of balance,” reports Phil. “Excessive
salt intake can damage our microbiome’s ability to produce anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids.”

Favour plants

Studies have shown that plant-based proteins increase beneficial bacterial species.

“Incorporating a mix of fruit, veges, whole grains, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices is the best way to encourage a healthy microbiome,” says Chloe. “Your microbiome can start to change in as little as a week! By following a wholefood, plant-based diet consistently, you will notice huge benefits to your health.”

Sleep on it

“A lack of sleep affects food digestion and alters our stress and hormone levels,” says Phil. “That affects our gut microbiome and gut health.”

Beat the bloat

A healthy digestive system isn’t just about what you eat – it’s also about movement. Gentle exercise, such as yoga, is a simple way to stimulate the colon. This can provide both immediate and long-term relief.

“Improvements in digestion should help improve nutrient absorption, waste and toxin removal, sleep quality, sleep hormone regulation and better balance of certain mood-calming hormones,” says Agnesa. “Not to mention the freedom of simply being free of bloating, which can cause distension, foul gas and foul moods too.”

In yoga, stretches target abdominal organs and twists massage the colon, stimulating muscular contraction to move things along the digestive tract.

“Sometimes the results are immediate – the famous yoga fart! – but it’s mostly about being consistent over time as that increases and maintains digestive flow.

“Improve imbalances in your digestive health and you’ll notice improvements everywhere. Of course, you will have more energy, too!”

Between yoga sessions, Agnesa suggests incorporating any form of light movement into your routine after eating a main meal. Whether it’s hanging out the washing or vacuuming the floor for 15 minutes.

“Traditional cultures do this well,” says Agnesa. “In Italy, the ‘passeggiata’, a walk around town after dinner, is part of daily life.”

On the opposite page, Agnesa shares her four favourite exercises to improve digestive health.

Cat cow

Keep your hands shoulder-width apart and your knees directly below your hips. Inhale deeply while curving your lower back and bringing your head up, tilting your pelvis upwards like a cow. Exhale deeply and bring your abdomen in, arching your spine and bringing your head and pelvis down like a cat. Repeat several times.

Benefit: “The forward-and-back motion means the abdominal muscles contract and release, like a gentle massage for the lower digestive organs.”

Seated side bend

Start seated with your legs crossed. Place your left hand on the floor with your elbow slightly bent. Reach your right arm up and overhead, leaning to the left side. Repeat on the right side.

Benefit: “When done on both sides, it stimulates key digestive organs: stomach, gall bladder, pancreas, spleen and liver.”

Knees to chest

Bring both knees to your chest, keeping your lower back pressed to the floor. Hold for at least 30 seconds.

Benefit: “It is used to relieve many digestive issues, commonly gas and bloating.”

Bow pose

Lie on your belly and grab the outer edges of your ankles with your hands. On inhalation, press your ankles into your hands, lifting your chest and thighs. Breathe into your chest and ribs. On exhalation, release your ankles and gently lie down on your belly for a few breaths.

Benefit: “The combination of pressure and compression on the lower digestive organs can help increase bowel movements and reduce congestion.”

Gut feeling

These super-supplements are a convenient way to give your digestive health a little extra love!

Livestream Gut Soothe

$45.80 (usually $47.90), at HealthPost

Clinicians Gut Soothe & Balance

$30.50, at HealthPost

BePure Two Probiotic

$88.90, at HealthPost

Gutsi Gut Reset Kit

$197.90, at HealthPost

For more info on the beast gut health probiotics, see here.

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