Not all bacteria are bad, promise!
In the context of today’s modern world and the past year of a pandemic, it can be easy to forget that the majority of microorganisms are either harmless, or even beneficial for us. In fact, research currently estimates the total number of bacteria in the 70 kg "reference man" to be 3.8 x 10^13 (that's a really big number - 38,000,000,000,000). The vast majority of these bacteria reside in the colon (large intestines).
A heck of a lot of attention and research has been focused on the gut and the gut-brain axis recently, with some really interesting results. We know that our gut bacteria are vital for producing certain chemicals for us e.g. neurotransmitters, and therefore have a direct impact on our mental health, as well as immunity, and long-term risk of many chronic diseases. I really think the current research is just the tip of the iceberg also; we still have some much to understand about the role our gut plays in our overall health.
Top tips to improve your gut health:
1. Eat more fibre – this is food for our gut bacteria! The ‘roughage’ that we can’t digest is actually what our gut bacteria need! Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grain are amazing sources of fibre. And crucially, most of us are not aware we aren’t getting enough. The daily fibre recommendation is 30g/day but some of us are hardly hitting half this. I highly recommend a slow increase in your fibre intake to reduce some of the discomfort (bloating, wind etc.) from large amounts of high fibre foods. Your body will adapt if you slowly increase it, and stay well hydrated!
Aim for thirty plant-based foods per week including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, wholegrains, beans, lentils and other legumes. Don’t worry if you’re nowhere near this yet - use one week as a baseline to see where you’re currently at and then increase by one portion the next week! (Make sure to check with your doctor before any drastic changes in diet to rule out any underlying health conditions).
2. Reduce stress. It’s not called ‘rest and digest’ mode for nothing. But in our high-stress, constantly go-go-go lives, we are often fuelling with our body in a state of chronic stress an in fight-or-flight mode. Imagine trying to get petrol in a car whilst it’s still moving. It’s not going to be very effective or efficient! Slow down, breathe, take notice of your food – and consider the stress in the rest of your life too.
Be aware your body holds stress in a way that you might not even notice it. Watching TV on an evening might be relaxing for your brain, but isn’t a way for your body to release tension. We're chronically overstimulated, and many of us would benefit from investing some time in our nervous system. Breath work is one of the most important signals our body uses to work out how stressed we are, so breath work can be a powerful tool in helping you find a more balanced mind, body and nervous system.
3. Eat less sugar and sweeteners. You may send your gut microbiome out of balance if you consume too much processed food, sugar and sweeteners. Early evidence in animal studies suggest some potential negative effects of sweeteners on a number of bacterial strains linked with negative health outcomes such as metabolic diseases.
4. Sleep and move more – not only do both of these contribute to lowering stress levels, and decreasing inflammation; good news for our gut bacteria!
5. Probably no need to take a probiotic. It’s not that it’s going to be harmful, but the evidence suggests that hardly any of the live bacteria reach the gut still alive. There is some research to suggest benefits of using probiotics after a course of antibiotics however.
6. Avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics and disinfectants. Antibiotics can destroy gut flora which gives more space for more harmful strains, and disinfectants can increase strains of bacteria linked with obesity and type 2 diabetes. Yes, really, stop killing 99.9% of bacteria everywhere. Whilst obviously there is a place for disinfectants, be intentional with where you use them (e.g. door handles) compared to maybe where you don't need to (e.g. in your laundry).
You know I am a fan of making change easy and manageable, and that's a big list above! Now you have all the info, let's boil it down to some simple 2 minute actions that you can start doing straight away.
Some super simple tips and ways to start:
Add olive oil. It’s rich in polyphenols which are great for our gut bacteria!
Buy mixed colours of vegetables e.g. packs of peppers, packs of mixed vegetables.
Mix up your meals daily to increase variety e.g. by adding different toppings to yoghurt, porridge etc.
Take ten deep breaths. Your breath is one of the main ways we can down-regulate our stressed-out bodies. Take long, smooth exhales.
Like many things in the health and fitness space, there's not going to be a silver bullet that's going to magically 'fix' things for you.
Think long term! Microbes in the gut can begin to change within days of changes to your diet, but the long-term benefits can take several years to show. Remember that if you go back to your old ways, you aren’t going to get much of a benefit – it’s about long-term change.
Healthy gut = healthier, happier you.