15 things to know about gut bacteria
New research suggests that for optimum health of both body and mind, the key is to go with your gut. From everything from bloating, to a better night's sleep, and even weight loss, here are 15 ways to manage your gut.
1 Gut bacteria needs a healthy balance
Your intestinal tract contains significant amounts of bacteria, some beneficial, some neutral, and some harmful, which are collectively referred to as the microbiome. Single-celled organisms - mostly bacteria - outnumber our own cells 10 to one, with most of them making their home in our gut.
2 A healthy gut creates a healthier mind
Researchers based at the Science Foundation Ireland-funded APC Microbiome Institute in University College Cork (UCC), recently discovered a previously unknown link between the mix of microbes in our gut and neurological activity. The breakthrough is expected to have major implications for the future treatment of depression, anxiety and diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
Professor John Cryan, Dr Gerard Clarke and student Alan Hoban, proved that myelination in the brain, a process used for communication between nerves, is regulated by gut microbiome. These findings also back up a Spanish study, which was published in the journal BMC Medicine last year, showing that a Mediterranean diet - including lots of fish, fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts and olive oil - can stave off depression and heart disease.
3 Diet and exercise cannot cure an unhealthy gut
Dublin-based functional medicine expert Dr Fionnula McHale says that no matter what diet or training regime you follow, you will not get results if your gut is not working optimally.
"The organisms that reside in our gastrointestinal tract have been shown to play a role in our ability to drop body fat," Dr McHale explains. "Many people I see in my clinic are those who have been referred by personal trainers because they can't drop body fat despite good diet and exercise.
"In 90pc of cases, I will find on their stool test [a specific functional diagnostic test that assesses the microbiome] an imbalance between good and bad organisms in the gut. They may have excessive growth of candida or a parasite, or simply not enough good bacteria, and inevitably once I have effectively reset that balance, they start dropping body fat right away, often at an even higher calorie load than they had when they first presented.
4 The western diet is killing off our good gut bacteria
The common, Western-style diet, high in salt, dairy and meat, is believed to be destroying our natural gut bacteria, leaving us more prone to chronic issues like colon cancer, asthma and cardiovascular disease. However, a recent study conducted by the University of Alberta has shown taking 55 grams of fibre a day could substantially restore the gut's microbiome diversity.
5 We receive helpful gut bacteria during birth
We receive a large portion of our microbiome from our mothers as we pass through the vaginal canal at birth. Babies delivered via C-section therefore miss out on this transference making them more vulnerable to health issues like asthma, food allergies and obesity later in life. Earlier this year scientists from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, demonstrated for the first time that the microbiome of newborn babies delivered via Caesarean section can be partially restored to resemble that of vaginally delivered infants by swabbing newborns with a gauze containing vaginal fluids from their mothers.
6 Your gut is like a second brain
Serotonin, which is often referred to as 'the happy hormone' is well known as a brain neurotransmitter. However, it is estimated that 90pc of the body's serotonin is made inside the digestive tract. "The gut is effectively our second brain," Dr Fionnula McHale explains. "There have been many studies recently linking the microbiome with mood."
According to a study carried out by the UK's Food and Mood project, led by mental health charity Mind, nearly 90pc of people found that changing their diet significantly improved their mental health.
7 Bloating is not normal
"Bloating is not normal," Dr McHale says. "It is not even normal to bloat after pizza despite popular belief, which has been largely created by Instagram 'food babies'. The digestive system is designed to be able to cope with all sorts of foods, without causing significant distress to the individual for days in some cases. So there is usually some form of underlying dysbiosis (an imbalance in gut flora) in this case."
8 It is important to get to know your gut
Cutting out food groups may not be the solution. "Too many people resort to food intolerance tests when they have problems with their gut or symptoms indicative of poor gut function, whether that is diarrhoea or constipation, bloating, passing foul smelling gas, loose stools, undigested food in stool, acne, eczema or irregular periods," Dr McHale says.
"But most people are not intolerant to certain foods for life. They need a stool test that assesses how the gut is actually functioning. This will identify whether or not they are making sufficient enzymes and juices to break down foods or if there is an imbalance between good and bad organisms in the gut. Once these issues are rectified, the individual won't have a problem eating any of the foods they previously thought they were intolerant to."
9 Good gut health prevents colds and flu
According to Dr McHale, a healthy gut is also key to maintaining a resilient immune system. "When we have an optimally functioning gut, we are less prone to suffering from colds or flu," she says.
10 Eat with your gut in mind
The 4th-century BC Greek physician Hippocrates once wrote "let thy food be thy medicine", and there are certainly a large number of foods, including bananas, beans and blueberries, which are famed for their gut-friendliness. However, an already unhealthy gut will have difficulty absorbing these benefits.
"When the gut is not healthy, it becomes very difficult to absorb nutrients from the food that we eat," Dr McHale explains. "So no matter what we eat - organic this or gluten-free that - if gut function is impaired in any way, we won't be able to extract the full nutritional benefit of the food that we are eating."
11 Constipation is not normal
"You should be passing one fully formed stool per day," Dr McHale explains. "Being blocked up or constipated for a few days at a time is a good sign that there is something not working properly. I have had ladies come in to me saying they usually only pass stool once per week, thinking that that was normal, and once they start passing more regularly, they realise how terrible they felt when they were constantly constipated; everything from energy to sleep and mood to body composition changes once the gut becomes healthy again."
12 It can be a case of mind over matter
Ever felt nervous and then nauseous as a result? In his book, Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain - For Life, American neurologist David Perlmutter points to a host of research on how diet influences the gut and how our gut in turn affects our brains. So the next time you're feeling sick with nerves, try calming your mind first and your gut should adjust accordingly.
13 Getting enough sleep is vital
According to Dr Mark Hyman author of New York Times best-seller Eat Fat, Get Thin, a lack of sleep and chronic stress can be a major contributor to gut imbalance.
14 Bacteria influences our weight
Our microbiome plays a pivotal role in determining whether or not we are overweight. Systems biologists at Chalmers University of Technology found last year that the population of bacteria in our gut has a dramatic impact on how much our weight fluctuates on different diets.
"In the long term we might be able to add intestinal bacteria for patients whose metabolism does not function properly," research team member Karine Clement explained at the time.
15 Pick your probiotic wisely
Probiotics are naturally found in your body and you can also find them in some foods (yoghurt, kefir, some soft cheeses and sauerkraut) or you can take them in supplements (available in tablet, capsule, powder or liquid form), which can help to re-establish good gut flora. However, according to Dr McHale, it is worth having an idea of what organisms you do and don't need to be taking. "Taking too much of one can upset balance elsewhere," she cautions.
* For more information on Dr Fionnula McHale, check out invigorateclinic.com
Health & Living