Our Guide to Good Gut Health
Gut health plays a huge part in our overall health and wellbeing. Rather than a separate nutritional issue, it should underpin our entire approach to healthy eating.
Most of us are increasingly aware of the importance of the gut in both physical and mental wellbeing, and that it has something to do with ‘gut flora’, yet how many of us really understand what it is all about?
This article aims to explain a little of the science behind the whole gut health thing, in order to arrive at a better understanding of just how important it is to our everyday health, and the food choices we make.
What is Gut Health?
The foundation of gut health rests upon healthy eating and making food choices that better support our health. Stress, medication, and our increasingly unnatural diet, have played havoc with our health, our digestion, and our wellbeing. Which, as we know, are all intrinsically linked.
We have become so disassociated from the connection between food, health, and wellbeing, that many of us may not even be aware that things are not as good as they could be. Even those of us who do not suffer from digestive disturbances may never have experienced the difference that a truly healthy gut can make to the way we feel.
Gut health is about far more than simply reducing unpleasant symptoms, and it influences more of the bodies processes than we might realise. So maybe a better question would be; what is the gut?
What is the gut?
The gut is a collection of organs that belong with our digestive system, largely the stomach and the intestines. Yet, the gut is involved in far more than just digestion of the food we eat.
Did you know most of your immune system is housed within the gut, and that it is under the control of the gut microbiome? Not only does the gut flora act as a defence against invaders, it actively controls the behaviour of other immune cells.
Digestion itself plays a huge role in our overall health, in more ways than you may think. We have come to think of nutrition on a very reductionist basis which completely underestimates the complexity of the human body. The simple act of eating dictates every single bodily function, from the smallest chemical reaction to the largest muscle movement.
Let’s take a closer look at the role of the gut in digestion.
Our Digestive System
Our digestion is a complex system of mechanical and biological processes. In simple terms it is there to extract nutrients from the food we eat (and eliminate waste) in order to survive. As well as the mouth, the stomach, and the intestine, it involves other organs such as the liver, kidneys and the pancreas. All of it facilitated by an array of specialist cells, hormones, neurotransmitters, and enzymes. And an army of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, and other assorted microbes.
Digestion begins in the mouth with the process of chewing, via the stomach where food is further broken down. Bacteria are present here in smaller numbers, playing an important protective role as part of the immune system, essentially acting as the guardians at the gate.
The role of the small intestine
From the stomach food enters the small intestine and this is where the microbial action really begins. It is here that most of our nutrients are extracted and absorbed.
The bacteria in the gut assist the digestive enzymes and provide vital protection to the intestinal barrier, making sure that nothing passes into the bloodstream that shouldn’t. They also play a role in keeping it all moving along nicely by supporting the muscular action of the gut wall.
If the small intestine cannot function as well as it should then the body will not be able to uptake all the nutrients it needs. Many of the symptoms of poor gut health show up here; however unconnected those symptoms may seem.
Once food has been processed by the small intestine, what’s left moves into the large intestine; the colon. And this is where the real magic of all those microbes begins.
The importance of the large intestine
The food that ends up here is the food that the small intestine cannot digest (like fibre, for instance). But whilst the small intestine takes all the credit for doing the bulk of the work, the large intestine is much, much, more than merely a disposal chute.
The largest concentration of gut bacteria is found here in the colon. There are trillions of micro organisms in the large intestine and they are responsible for the final stage of digestion that happens here. They take the food that we cannot digest and turn it into many of the vital nutrients that our bodies need. These bacteria do not just breakdown the nutrients within our food, but they produce essential nutrients too.
The Gut Microbiome
The collective term for all these microbes that live in the gut is the gut microbiome. More than just a handful of bacteria that make your tummy happy, it acts as an organ in its own right, playing a part in digestion, hormonal control, the nervous system, and the immune system. It also plays a crucial role in weight management.
Of the microbes that make up the gut microbiome, most of them (but not all) are bacteria. There are in fact more bacteria in the body than there are human cells, and they contribute to anywhere between 1kg and 3kg of our body weight.
The bacteria of the gut microbiome can be grouped into four dominant groups, and within these groups are thousands of different strains and types of bacteria, all with different requirements and doing different jobs. Of the four major groups, two are the most prolific, yet the overall number and their diversity differs from person to person. Not only does this depend on the biological conditions within the body, but it is also thought that we are genetically predisposed to a dominant type.
Whilst there isn’t really such a thing as good and bad bacteria, some are more beneficial than others. When the colonies of bacteria are out of balance, and the less beneficial bacteria are allowed to thrive, this can have a negative impact on our digestive (and overall) health and wellbeing.
How to Improve Gut Health
The aim of improving your gut health is to increase the diversity of the bacteria that make up the gut microbiome, and reset the balance in favour of the beneficial microbes. The best way to do this is to focus your diet around gut friendly foods. That not only means increasing your intake of those foods that support gut health, but also eliminating those that do not.
We will look in more detail at some of the things that can have an adverse affect on your gut health in another article, as well as explore certain foods that you may be best off avoiding; at least for a while.
For now, let’s look at some of the foods that are considered to be gut healthy.
Gut Healthy Foods
Try to eat as wide a range of whole, natural foods as you can. Diversity really is key here. Choose certified organic, and minimal intervention/pesticide free wherever possible. There are also two key topics here that need mentioning; probiotics and prebiotics.
Probiotics are foods that contain beneficial bacteria. By eating these foods on a regular basis, you can introduce these good bacteria into your own gut microbiome in order to increase diversity, and tip the balance in favour of the good guys.
You do however need to make sure that you are taking good care of the newly introduced bacteria so that they can survive and thrive. That’s where prebiotics come in.
Prebiotics are foods that contain the things that beneficial bacteria like to eat. Like soluble fibre, and resistant starch. These come mainly from the indigestible fibre found in the cell walls of certain plants. Raw garlic, onions and leeks are all excellent sources of prebiotics. As are underripe bananas. Sourdough bread, cooked and cooled white potatoes (yum, potato salad) are good sources of resistant starch. Uncooked oats and apples are also good sources, so you have a good excuse to break out the Bircher muesli.
Fermented foods are your go-to-source for all those probiotics that we talked about. Again, eat from as wide a range of these foods as you can. They each have different populations of varying types and strains of bacteria, so the more you can introduce into your own microbiome, the better.
Try fermented vegetables such as naturally fermented pickles, kimchi, or if spicy is not your thing then maybe sauerkraut. Both is even better!
Live yoghurt, as well as unpasteurised dairy products, in particular goat or sheep cheese, are also excellent sources of probiotics. Yet another good reason not to eliminate entire food groups unless you have a compelling reason to do so.
Whilst not an actual source of beneficial bacteria, raw apple cider vinegar is thought to help balance gut bacteria and support gut health. You can use it as you would any other vinegar, or drink a small shot each morning.
You will need to eat plenty of prebiotic foods to allow all those beneficial bacteria to thrive. Remember that the two go hand in hand. Not only do you need to introduce as many different strains of good bacteria into your gut, but you need to feed them with prebiotics in order to populate them!
We have plenty of foods to help support your gut health, but why not explore our full range of organic products first?
This article was reproduced on this site with permission from operafoods.com.au the “Organic Grocery Suppliers”.
See original article:- Our Guide to Good Gut Health