Deep in your gut, 40 trillion microbes are hard at work helping you digest your meals, making essential nutrients you can’t produce on your own, protecting you from disease, and even shaping which parts of your DNA appear and which remain dormant.
Trillions of bacteria live in your digestive tract and play an important role in health. The digestive process breaks down food and beverage particles so that your body can absorb the nutrients it wants and excretes the rest. These microbes also play a critical role in shaping your appetite, allergies, metabolism, and neurological function. In fact, scientists have found that gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, all of which play a key role in determining your mood.
“What determines the different types of microbes in a person is a result of ones genes, age, gender, diet, hygiene, and even the climate you live in and your occupation,” says Rachel Buck, PhD, Abbott’s lead research scientist and resident gut health expert. “In fact, studies show that the gut microbiome affects everything from pain, mood, sleep and stress, to how our bodies use the food we eat and how we fight off infection.”
When it comes to our diet, our gut health affects what we eat and vice versa – what we eat affects our gut health. The microbes in our gut make small molecules that travel throughout the blood stream. These molecules affect how our bodies store nutrients, use sugar, regulate our appetites, and control our weight. The foods we eat also play a significant role when it comes to optimal gut health. Researchers have found links between the “Western” diet, usually high in animal fat and protein and very low in fiber, with increased production of cancer-causing compounds and inflammation. On the other side, a diet high in fiber and low in red meat has been linked to increased levels of faecal short-chain fatty acids, which have been found to have anti-inflammatory effects and improve the immune system.
However, research on the gut microbiome is just beginning and what we know is limited. Scientists hope that population-wide research will advance existing findings. One such project, the ongoing American Gut Study, is collecting and comparing the gut microbiomes of thousands of people living in the US. So far, research suggest those whose diets include more plant-based foods have a more diverse microbiome, and one that is “extremely different” from those who don’t, says Daniel McDonald, the project’s scientific director.
Gut microbiota has a major role to play in the health and function of the GI tract, with evidence that conditions such as as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) often coincide with altered microbiota. But it also plays a much wider role in our health, and this is largely determined in the first few years of life.
Tips for Gut Health
Fill Up on Fiber
High-fiber foods feed the healthy bacteria that improve immune function, reduce inflammation and chronic disease, and even help regulate mood.
Pick Prebiotic-Rich Foods.
Prebiotics feed healthy bacteria. Good sources of prebiotics include Jerusalem artichokes, chicory root, raw dandelion greens, leeks, onions, garlic, asparagus, whole wheat, spinach, beans, bananas, and oats.
Try Probiotic Foods.
Probiotics are live bacteria or yeasts found in fermented foods that, when consumed, take up residence in the gut and improve health. Healthy sources include sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, kimchi, and water kefir.
Avoid Too Many Animal Products.
Red meat, high-fat dairy products, and fried foods all reduce the growth of healthy bacteria and enhance the growth of “bad” bacteria linked to chronic disease.
Limit Unhealthy Fats.
Avoid fried foods and sauté with small amount of oil, especially if you have diabetes or prediabetes. Most plant foods are naturally low in fat. However, fat play an important role in supporting our body and limiting our sugar intake, so we suggest switching to healthy fats such as ghee or other oils, avocado, and nuts. Ghee is amazing for the gut microbiome as the butyric acid is what is produced in a healthy gut.
Avoid Unnecessary Antibiotics.
Overuse of antibiotics can kill off healthy bacteria. Studies have seen that antibiotics, especially when taken many times, can affect the mircobiome negatively long-term. Only take antibiotics when necessary.
Practice a Healthy Lifestyle.
Exercising, getting enough sleep, and managing stress can all have a positive impact on your gut. Our bodies are incredibly connected from our gut to our brain. Practice mindfulness with food to your lifestyle to optimize your health.