With millions of gut bacteria, fungi, yeast and viruses living in our large intestine, it’s a little creepy to think that these are the good guys for the digestive processing of all food. Studies show that this diverse microflora in our guts partially determines how efficiently our cells process and store food and how it can affect our mood, immune system, sleep and overall health.
While scientists had been captivated by microbes for a while, a 2013 study helped catapult these bugs into the media spotlight: Scientists took some microbes from human twins — one obese, one thin — and injected them into two normal-weight mice. They watched as the mouse with the heavy twin’s gut bacteria put on weight and the one with the thin twin’s microbes stayed slim. It provided the best indication so far that gut bugs could be tied to our obesity epidemic.
While we are not aware of it, there is a war going on in the gut as good and bad bacteria and our cells compete for the available nutrients. Unfortunately it is only when the wrong bacteria gain ascendancy that things start to go wrong. For example when we take antibiotics which can kill off both good and bad bacteria, it can cause a potentially deadly infection from Clostridium difficile, or C. diff because it regrows the most quickly. This can detonate the gut and lead to diarrhoea, fever and abdominal pain.
The only treatment that seems to work is when scientists found they could get the right bugs into the guts of affected people via a faecal transplant. (Poop from a healthy donor is delivered to the recipient’s colon during a colonoscopy, or via an enema or pill.) Now desperate sufferers are not waiting for further studies but doing DIY faecal transplants in an effort to solve everything from Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis to anxiety and depression.
Listening to our gut – or how to build a better microbiome for our gut bacteria
Experts agree that a healthy diet with an emphasis on fresh unprocessed food is the best way to create a vibrant microbiome. Once we start making changes, our bugs respond rapidly. “The composition of the bacteria in our gut can shift within hours,” the scientists tell us.
So what to do to bring things into balance:
Eat more fibre.
Foods that are rich in fibre don’t get digested in the stomach or absorbed in the small intestine, which means they get to keep traveling until they reach the colon, where they become food for the healthy bacteria in the gut. Most people on a processed western diet consume only a third to half the amount of this fibre that their bodies want in a day. The best sources of fibre are beans (roughly 6 to 7 grams per half cup), raspberries (about 7 grams per cup), and oatmeal (4 grams per cup).
Sneaky Tips to Add More Fibre to Any Meal
- Add flaxseed meal to oats, smoothies, yogurt, and baked goods—you can even try breading chicken or fish with it. A 2 tablespoon serving contains 3.8 grams of fibre and a dose of omega-3 fatty acids as well.
- Chia seeds have a huge 5.5g of fibre per tablespoon. When they meet with water, they form a glutinous gel that is great for thickening smoothies, making healthy desserts or even replacing eggs in cakes and cookies.
- While spinach and carrots aren’t as high in fibre as the veggies mentioned above, they can easily be sliced or grated and substituted into many dishes without anyone noticing: Try adding some to banana bread, shakes, eggs, or even a homemade pizza base.
- Food processors are fibre’s best friend. Purée some cooked vegetables and add them to sauces and stews, or swap out rice for chopped-up cauliflower.
- Throw two ‘new’ fruits or veggies into your cart next time you shop.
Controlling our “bad” bugs.
Just as feeding our “good” bugs with fibre-rich foods will help them thrive, eliminating junky foods could keep “bad” bacteria in check. Scientists know that when we cut sugar, unhealthy trans fats and processed foods from our diet, we are more likely to keep our gut bacteria in balance. Also cut down on animal meat as a glut of it can fuel endotoxin-making bugs. Remember, diversity of foods is the goal, with a little protein and lots of plant-based foods in a day.
Take antibiotics only when necessary.
We’ve heard it before: Don’t ask for these drugs when we’ve just got a cold or flu. We need them only when we have a bacterial infection, like strep throat or pneumonia. While antibiotics are great at killing harmful bacteria, they also wipe out a lot of our “good” bugs in the process — and some of those may never come back. There’s strong evidence in studies on mice that the change in the microbiome after just one course of antibiotics can cause weight gain, and scientists think this may be true in humans, too — especially children. Some doctors suggest taking probiotics during a course of antibiotics in an effort to prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhoea.
“Good” bacteria are flying off store shelves in the form of pills or foods that contain these organisms. But those yoghurts or products with “live, active cultures” contain an unknown number of gut bacteria. At the moment manufacturers are making promises (“promotes gut health!”) that are way ahead of the science.
There’s also no way to know for sure which probiotics in processed foods — meaning the chocolates, trendy juices, trail mixes, energy bars, and more — truly survive the manufacturing process or the store shelf, or make it all the way to our colon so they can settle down in there.
Similarly, since our gut contains thousands of strains of bacteria, taking a supplement that has just one specific type may not help us out much.
If we want to give supplements a try, look for one with a large number of strains. That gives us the greatest chance of getting something useful that might take root in our gut.
Antibiotic Associated Diarrhoea
Two strains of good bacteria, Lactobacillus GG and Saccharomyces, have been found in controlled trials to shorten a bout of diarrhea in certain cases. They may prevent the type that can come along with taking antibiotics or even the sort that can occur with the potentially dangerous colon bacteria called Clostridium difficile (C. diff).
Which can be found in these brands:
Culturelle – USA, UK, Canada
Ethical Nutrients, Nutrition Care – Australia
In several studies, probiotic supplements containing the strains Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus or B. infantis helped reduce some IBS symptoms such as abdominal pain and bloating. It’s still not known whether these are the only useful strains for IBS or how long you should take them. Studies have ranged from one to six months.
In summary: what we can do to improve our gut health.
Tonight, go for a natural boost to your microbiome. Not only will you improve your digestion but you will feel happier, less anxious and calmer.
So put a range of fresh food on your plate that is colourful and seasonal and say cheers to your body’s healthier, happier bug party.