Geraldine Sexton (BSc RD MINDI) is a Consultant Dietitian & Clinical Nutritionist who specializes in women’s health and nutrition. Her passion is to empower women to take control of their health and well-being. View profile
The gut microbiome is a vast ecosystem of microbes, such as bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and viruses. In recent years scientists have come to embrace the vital role that these microbes have in every function of the human body from fostering a robust immune system to keeping us healthy. Building and maintaining a healthy microbiome is essential to help us age well and to prevent a range of chronic diseases.
HOW CAN I IMPROVE GUT HEALTH?
It is all about balance, and unfortunately, the gut balance is easily disrupted, especially in modern society. Overuse of antibiotics, the environment, poor sleep quality, stress, and eating a poor-quality diet can all upset this balance, but if we start to manage these things, we can improve our gut health. Diet is one of the most powerful tools we have for optimizing our gut health. So, if you want to keep your resident microbes happy, you need to help the bacteria that live there naturally grow by feeding them prebiotics and probiotics.
WHAT ARE PREBIOTICS AND PROBIOTICS?
Prebiotics are types of fiber that feed the good bacteria and encourage their growth in our gut. Many people assume that the only way we can include prebiotics in our diet is to take them in supplement form when in fact, prebiotics are in many plant-based foods such as leeks, onions, bananas, garlic, and asparagus.
So, if you are looking to optimize your gut health, make sure to include a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes in your diet. A good tip is to try and have at least 30 different types of plant-based foods each week.
Probiotics are live cultures – including bacteria and yeasts – similar to those found naturally in your gut. They support digestive health and immune function by boosting the number of good bacteria in our gut.
There are many different probiotics strains, all with unique health benefits; for example, the strain Bifidobacterium Lactis can help treat constipation in some people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). There are two ways to increase these beneficial bacteria in your gut: fermented foods and supplements.
Fermentation is an ancient method of food preservation which enhances the nutrition value, texture, and flavor of foods. Although an area that requires more research, it has been suggested that these foods are beneficial to our gut health due to probiotics within the fermented food.
It is important to note that not all fermented foods are probiotics. Probiotics are live microbes that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit. Not all fermented foods meet that standard.
The microorganisms used to make fermented foods haven’t been tested in clinical trials to see if they have a health benefit or if this benefit continues beyond fermentation. If a fermented food has been tested in human studies and has shown a health benefit, then it can be classified as a probiotic.
Many yogurts and fermented milks such as kefir are considered probiotics for that reason. Although some fermented foods may not fall under the definition of “probiotics,” many do contain live microbes; most cheeses, non-heated sauerkraut, kimchi, olives, miso, dry fermented sausage. These foods contribute to the existing microbiota and thus have the potential to affect our health.
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There are several things that you can do to keep your gut microbiota healthy, balanced, and functioning optimally.
- Eat a wide range of plant-based foods. We should be aiming for about 30 different varieties each week. A healthy gut has a diverse community of microbes, each of which prefers different foods, so we must try to vary the foods that we eat from week to week.
- Eat more foods rich in fiber. The fiber found in some fiber rich foods (but not all) has a prebiotic effect, stimulating the growth of good bacteria. Most people don’t eat enough fiber. Fruit such as nectarines and grapefruit, vegetables such as garlic onion and leeks along with some pulses, nuts, and whole grains feed healthy bacteria, so should be included in the diet.
- Avoid highly processed foods as the gut microbes don’t like them.
- Include probiotics and fermented foods in your diet, e.g., live yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, sourdough bread as they might encourage more microbes to grow.
- Take regular exercise.
- Work on limiting your stresses.
- Try and achieve at least 7 hours of good quality sleep each night.
The information in this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your healthcare provider regarding any questions you may have about any medical condition.
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