You may have seen the term “gut health” popping up all over the internet and your Facebook feed lately. Such a vast and elusive term, any one-liners or articles pertaining to the subject often leave the reader confused and terrified that there are billions of big bad bacterial organisms raging war inside their intestine. No need to fear! Over the next few weeks, I’m going to break it all down for you in a special Gut Health Series so that you can really understand:
- What is gut health?
- How to determine whether yours is out of whack
- All about probiotics and prebiotics, including supplementation
- What foods and diets are best to restore and bring balance to your gut microbiome
Let’s get started! First, what the heck is the gut microbiome? Let’s back up and define the term “human microbiome”. The term “human microbiome” was first coined by Joshua Lederberg in 2001 and refers to the catalog of microbes and their genes within the human body. It’s referring not only to the microbes that exist within our body, but also all of our microbes’ genes. The human microbiome can be considered a counterpart to the human genome (all of our genes). In fact, you are more of a host to microbes than you are a human. The genes in our microbiome outnumber the genes in our own genome by about 100 to 1. Pretty amazing if you sit and think about it, you are more microbes than you are human!
The term “gut microbiome” refers specifically to the microbiome that exists in your gut. We used to think that the gut microbiome was 3.5 – 4.5 lbs of just bacteria, but we now know that it also includes some fungi, viruses and even parasites. All of these organisms live in harmony within your gut, and what’s really cool is no two people have the same gut microbiome composition. We are all unique and diverse. There are tons of factors that determine your gut microbiome makeup including (but not limited to):
- Where you were born
- Whether you were breastfed or formula fed
- Your stress levels
- The foods you ate in your first few years of life
- Whether you were given antibiotics as a baby
- If you were delivered vaginally or by C-section
We know that the gut microbiome is really established in the first couple years of life. When a baby is given a week’s worth of antibiotics, for example, they may never fully recover their original gut microbiome composition for the rest of their life. It is so important to support a baby’s microbiome development, for reasons I will discuss over the next few weeks. I’m not saying that a baby should never receive antibiotics, but just that the administration of antibiotics to babies should be done in a very conscious way, looking at all the options and choosing the solution that is most appropriate for the long-term health of the baby.
There are a number of signs that your gut health is out of balance:
- Constipation or diarrhea: Your poop is important!!! To determine if your gut health is out of balance, the first thing you should look at are your elimination patterns. If after a meal you feel super bloated, have to run to the restroom, or if you suffer from chronic constipation, your gut is most likely out of balance. If you are not having regular, smooth bowel movements, the FIRST thing you should look at is your gut health.
- Excessive gas, burping, bloating and/or indigestion: The painful and uncomfortable problem of indigestion occurs when your stomach produces way too much acid during the digestive process and that acids starts making its way up your esophagus. If you have uncontrollable gas, burping, bloating or indigestion, it’s a telltale sign that you have an unbalanced digestive tract.
- Obesity: Believe it or not, your gut microbiome balance is a huge determining factor in whether or not you are obese. The more balanced and diverse your gut bacteria, the healthier your weight will be.
- Type 2 Diabetes: There is a direct connection between an unhealthy gut and the onset of type 2 diabetes. Studies show that people with type 2 diabetes (compared to those without) have higher levels of the bad bacteria residing in their gut.
- Skin conditions: Your skin is your biggest organ and can be a great indicator of health issues. If you suffer from acne, rosacea, psoriasis, dermatitis or eczema, it may be a reflection of an unbalanced gut microbiome.
- Poor immune system functioning and autoimmune diseases: You may be surprised to learn that 75% of your immune system lies in your GI tract. Certain foods (specifically sugar, gluten and dairy) can contribute to the onset of leaky gut syndrome, which leads to a body-wide inflammatory response and the onset of many autoimmune diseases including: hypothyroidism, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis and many more. For more information on leaky gut syndrome, please refer to last week’s blog: Hypothyroidism: My Dad’s Journey
- Chronic stress, anxiety and depression: If you suffer from any of these mental health conditions and have tried everything you can possibly think of to combat your mental illness, I highly suggest taking a look at your gut health. There are 500 million neurons embedded in the intestinal wall. These neurons make up the enteric nervous system (ENS) which plays a huge role in the production of 30 different neurotransmitters (including serotonin, the main neurotransmitter associated with depression). The ENS is often referred to as the “second brain” and plays a huge role in regulating mood, reducing stress/anxiety and maintain good overall mental health.
The good news is that research shows that the best and most effective way to regulate your gut microbiome is with a whole food, plant based diet. Don’t worry, if the thought of eliminating animal products from your diet is super overwhelming to you, start with just adding some more vegetables to your daily dietary intake. I am a big believer in the mantra “ingredients matter”. In other words, the best vegetables and fruits for your gut health are local and organic. Almost every town or city has a farmer’s market, and they are thriving this time of year. It’s a much cheaper alternative to the traditional grocery store, and allows you to find seasonal, local and often organic fruit and veggies. Buying organic is important because you avoid ingesting tons of nasty pesticides and chemicals. Buying local is critical because the fruits and vegetables will be coming from local dirt…meaning local microbes! The bacteria on food is so good for you (in most cases), and you want to gobble it right up!
So how exactly does a whole food, plant based diet help improve your gut health? One word – polyphenols. Polyphenols are phytochemicals, meaning compounds abundantly found in natural plant food sources that have a ton of antioxidant properties and are fantastic for gut health. There are over 8,000 different polyphenols found in foods such as green tea, kale, wine, chocolates, fruits, vegetables and extra virgin olive oil, just to name a few. When you think of polyphenols, think of all the beautiful colors found in fruits and veggies. Have you ever heard the term “eat the rainbow”? Polyphenols are the rainbow! Polyphenols are so important because they modulate inflammation and provide a lot of cell signaling and messaging to the rest of the body. The good bacteria in your gut (aka probiotics – more on this term next week) and polyphenols have a special symbiotic relationship. When ingested, the probiotics in your gut begin to digest the polyphenols in the small intestine, thereby activating the polyphenols, allowing them to do their good work. Essentially, polyphenols serve as food to the good bacteria in your gut. A study out of the UK found that people who eat at least 7 servings of veggies and some fruits everyday have decreased mortality from all causes by 24% and decreased cancer rates by 33%. So, the best way to naturally increase the good bacteria in your gut is to eat more plants!
Hopefully you now have a better understanding of what gut health is and how to recognize if perhaps your gut microbiome is out of balance. Next week, we will talk about probiotics and prebiotics: what they are, why they are beneficial to your health, and how to properly supplement. In the meantime, I challenge you this week to eat more veggies and notice if you have better elimination patterns, less indigestion, better mood and clearer skin! If you are looking for a jumpstart into the land of veg, check out my $21 for 21 Days: Green Smoothie Challenge starting on June 5th. It’s a super delicious way to increase your daily fruit and veg intake without the hassle of slaving over a stove!
See you next week for part two of my Gut Health Series!
Plants for Life,
Stephanie Misanik, INHC, RYT-200