Today, we know a lot more about gut health than we did a few decades ago. And as the term ‘gut health’ becomes more popular, we are bombarded with new products, each one promising to restore your gut bacteria and provide you with all kinds of different health benefits. But what is the hype really about? Is there any merit to these claims? And most importantly, are these products really necessary?
More than 2000 years ago, the famous Greek philosopher Hippocrates said that “All disease begins in the gut”. Seems that he wasn’t far from the truth. Research is now showing that our gut health can influence our overall health in numerous ways. It affects our sleep, immune system, digestion, and even our mood!
You have about 1014 (that is a “1” with 14 zeros behind it!) bacterial cells in your body, which is ten times more than your own cells. Our microbiome (the bacterial community inside our bodies) starts developing at an early age. The type and quantity of bacteria are determined by several factors: how you were born (vaginal birth or C-section), type of feeding (breast-fed or formula), how you were introduced to foods, and the surrounding environment, to name a few.
Our gut flora is made up of both opportunistic and beneficial bacteria. Together they form a community that work together in ensuring efficient digestion, regulating of our hormones, and our immune system. As one can infer, beneficial bacteria are good for us. But the opportunistic ones are not so great. Their byproducts (like methane and hydrogen sulfide) can build up in our bodies and cause bloating, inflammation, and flatulence.
We disrupt our gut flora in various ways – by taking antibiotics, by the type of foods we eat (our modern diet is very low in fiber, the foods bacteria need to survive), toxins in the environments, and exposure to certain chemicals. This can lead to a decrease in beneficial bacteria, and a collective increase in the opportunistic bacteria, causing a variety of physical and psychiatric health conditions.
Our gut bacteria play a role in our central nervous system. Thus, the term ‘gut feeling’ could actually have a deeper meaning. Your brain and gut are in constant communication with each other – scientists call this the gut-brain axis. This is why you may often experience digestive issues when you’re stressed or anxious and vice versa. The bacteria in your gut plays a major role in this communication system, so when their activity is disrupted, it can alter your body’s response. Recent evidence reveals a link between psychiatric disorders like anxiety, ADHD, depression, and perhaps even autism, to an unbalanced microbial community.
If you are feeling a bit under the weather, experience bloating, or have inflammation, perhaps it’s time to give your beneficial bacteria a boost. In fact, if you have trouble digesting beans, it could be a sign that you have too little of the Bacteroidetes bacteria group. These bacteria are essential for optimal gut health and you can increase their numbers by eating more high-fiber foods like apples and pears, and foods high in polyphenols (like berries and dark chocolate).
To improve your gut health, there are quite a few lifestyle changes you can make:
Drink at least 8 glasses of water a day
Avoid unnecessary antibiotics, and reduce your intake of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (they increase the inflammation-causing bacteria)
Eat more plants (fruits and vegetables) and less red meat Try to reduce your stress (read, meditate, or take up a new hobby)
Do at least 30 minutes of exercise or physical activity per day