Is Your Gut Healthy?
Did you know that we humans have around 40 trillion microorganisms (also called microbiota or microbes) in our body? Imagine this, zooming in with a microscope and seeing a huge, busy, bustling country inside of you.
We host thousands of different species that include not only bacteria, but fungi, parasites, and viruses. In a healthy person, these “bugs” coexist peacefully, with the largest numbers found in the small and large intestines, however, also throughout the body. This is called our microbiome and it is even labelled a supporting organ because it plays so many key roles in promoting the smooth daily operations of the human body.
The microbiota network that each individual has is completely unique and is first determined by our DNA. Think of it as a bacterial fingerprint, specific to you. We are all first exposed to microorganisms as infants, during delivery in the birth canal and through our mother’s breast milk. The specific species of microorganisms to which we are exposed exclusively depends on the species present in our mums. Later in life, dietary changes and environmental exposures can alter our own microbiomes, either for the better or worse in terms of health and disease risk.
What is ‘Dysbiosis’?
In a healthy body, the pathogenic (bad bacteria) and symbiotic (good bacteria) microbiota coexist without problems. But in some instances, the gut microbiome can become imbalanced or disrupted – this is called dysbiosis.
Numerous factors, including stress, disease, being overweight, using antibiotics excessively, or eating a diet of poor quality, might contribute to this. In fact, diet is the most important modifiable factor affecting the composition of bacteria living in our gut.
Eating a diet composed of energy-dense and highly processed foods, as well as emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners, appear to compromise the barrier lining our gut. If your gut barrier is weakened, then small particles, like bacteria or small bits of food are able to escape into your bloodstream, where they are marked as intruders and trigger your immune system into action. This is known as ‘Leaky Gut’ and there is rapidly expanding evidence for this as a factor in disease. Continuous immune activation and the inflammation that goes with it puts us at risk for a range of diseases and can compromise both our physical and mental health.
With clear links between gut health and the immune system, it’s important that you treat your gut microbiome right. What are the signs that you should watch out for?
5 Signs of an Unhealthy Gut
If you often feel under the weather – mentally, physically, emotionally or otherwise – then you may be dealing with an unhealthy gut. Before taking steps to improve it, here are the signs to look out for:
- Upset stomach
There are lots of stomach troubles that can cause health issues – gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and heartburn. These signs mean that your body is struggling to process food and eliminate waste.
- Unexpected weight changes
If you find you are gaining or losing weight unintentionally, then it could be a sign of an imbalanced gut. Your body can’t absorb nutrients, regulate blood sugar, and store fat at its optimal levels.
- Disrupted sleep
Are you constantly fatigued because you can never seem to get a good night’s rest?
An unhealthy gut may be the culprit, causing poor sleeping habits or even insomnia.
- Irritable skin
Common skin conditions like eczema may actually be related to a damaged gut, with a poor diet or food allergies increasing the ‘leaking’ of proteins into the body.
- Food intolerance
If your body finds it difficult to digest certain foods (not being allergic to it) then you may have a food intolerance. This digestion issue may be caused by poor-quality bacteria in your gut.
What Can We Do to Improve Gut Health?
Don’t panic! Thankfully, there is good evidence showing that there are several things you can do to keep your gut microbiota healthy, balanced and functioning optimally. How you eat, your exercise habits, and how frequently you take antibiotics are examples of happy-gut factors within our control. Here are some healthy habits you can try:
- Eat your greens! Vegetables are loaded with fibres, which cannot be digested by people but are consumed by the good bacteria in our gut. It has been observed that people who follow a diet rich with fruits and vegetables are less likely to grow disease-causing bacteria. Some great examples of vegetables that feed your microbes are:
- Cut out sugar and avoid processed foods
Fast digesting sugars, otherwise known as monosaccharides, are digested so quickly that your little microbes don’t get a chance to take a bite out of them! If you eat too many simple sugars too regularly, you run the risk of literally starving your microbiome to death. Additionally, hungry microbes will resort to munching away at the lining in your intestine, which can lead to inflammation. Try to alter your diet to include more whole foods with complex sugars, to ensure a happy and healthy microbiome. Here’s a list of some sweet foods that will keep both you and your gut happy!
- Dark Chocolate
- Coconut Flour
- Sweet Potatoes
Also make sure you keep out an eye for dreaded hidden sources of monosaccharides. Sugar can sneak into foods you would never expect them to be. Keep an eye on sugar levels in things like smoothies, nut butters, protein bars, salad dressings!
- Eat fermented food
Fermented foods have undergone a process in which the sugars they contain are broken down by yeast or bacteria. Research shows that people who eat a lot of yoghourt appear to have more lactobacilli in their intestines. These people also have less of the bacteria associated with inflammation and a number of chronic conditions.
Some examples of lactobacilli-rich fermented foods that you could try:
- Avoid Antibiotics
If probiotics are your gut’s best friend, then Antibiotics are your gut’s worst enemy!
Antibiotics work by wiping out any and all bacteria, which makes them very effective for treating illnesses, but very bad for your microbiome. The antibiotic cannot recognize the difference between good gut bacteria and bad bacteria. They work on a ‘kill now ask questions later’ model. Try to buy meat products that were raised without antibiotics, and if you do have to take an antibiotic to treat a virus, make sure to take a probiotic daily for the duration of your prescription to help replenish your gut bacteria.
- Try to cut back on the red meat
Aside from the fact that these days, many meat brands are known for raising their livestock with antibiotics, which is detrimental to your gut, there have been several studies that show healthier microbiomes in vegetarians. A vegetarian’s gut, for example, will have a significantly smaller number of disease-causing bacteria that an omnivore’s gut. However, it is still unclear if this is due to the lack of meat being consumed, or the fact that vegetarians and plant-based individuals tend to consume a great deal more fibre than the average person.
- Use different cleaning products
Just as antibiotics can disrupt the gut microbiota, so too can disinfectant cleaning products, according to the results of one study. A 2018 research analysed the gut flora of over 700 infants ages 3-4 months.
The researchers found that those who lived in homes where people used disinfectant cleaning products at least weekly were twice as likely to have higher levels of lachnospiraceae gut microbes, a type associated with type 2 diabetes and obesity.
At age 3, these infants had a higher body mass index (BMI) than children without exposure to such high levels of disinfectants.
- Avoid smoking
Smoking affects gut health as well as the health of the heart and lungs. It also greatly increases the risk of cancer.
A 2018 review of research published over a 16-year period found that smoking alters the intestinal flora by increasing potentially harmful microorganisms and decreasing the levels of beneficial ones. These effects may increase the risk of intestinal and systemic conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
- Get those Zs!
Getting enough rest is so important! Studies have shown that people with erratic sleeping patterns run the risk of disrupting their microbiome and developing inflammatory diseases. Try to make sure that you get at least 8 hours of sleep a night. Set that alarm!
Your microbes feel that if they’re working hard to keep you healthy, then you should be working hard too! The microbiomes of physically active people are more healthy and diverse. It also has to be said that one of the best ways to de-stress after a long day is by working out. Even just walking for 30 minutes a day could really impact your gut health, and help these little microbes continue to make sure that your stress levels are managed and your mental health stays intact.
- Make time for self-care!
Say ‘no’ more often, explore meditation, mindfulness, yoga, or tai. Establishing balance in your life will support your mental and emotional health and optimise your gut and overall health. Stress can negatively affect your microbiome and you need a healthy microbiome to help you manage your stressors. If you’re not careful, you may get caught in an unhealthy cycle if you do not give yourself time to re-energize.
Our gut health plays a huge factor in our overall well-being and immune function. By making appropriate lifestyle and dietary changes, we can alter the diversity and number of microbes in our guts for the better!
Cheers to healthy guts!