So what are gut bugs (our microbiome) and what do they do?
In our digestive system there is a place where many bacteria like to call home – this is called the large intestine, or the colon. While a lot of the time we hear about bacteria in a bad light (i.e. they can cause disease), in our digestive system, good bacteria play an extremely important role in how we use food. Bacteria that live in our large intestine help us break down components of food that our digestive system can’t do alone. So it is important relationship that we need to look after.
Bacteria are often referred to as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ bacteria, however, this is not entirely correct. A more accurate picture of our gut is to think of our gut bacteria like an ecosystem, much like a rainforest. It is the balance between all the plants and animals in the rainforest that allows the ecosystem to remain stable. If one species of plant or animal increases or decreases beyond the normal levels, the results can be devastating for e.g. if there are too many animals that eat plants, then the plant life may decrease and the rainforest may start to get smaller, causing an imbalance to the ecosystem. Each rainforest has its own ecosystem and the balance of plants and animals are different. Think of our gut as being much the same. There are many different types (or species) of bacteria living in our gut, each one of them different and with the potential to have different effects on our body and health. Some research suggests an imbalance of certain species of bacteria has been linked to the development of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease. New emerging research has even suggested that some allergies may be in part due to infant gut microbiota imbalances.
Can you change your gut bacteria?
Many different factors such as antibiotics and illness can cause an imbalance of these bacteria. However, our gut bacteria has been shown to change when we make changes to our diet, and these changes can happen quite quickly. A ‘westernised’ diet, meaning a diet high in sugar, saturated fat and alcohol has been shown to promote the growth of a form of bacteria that can negatively impact our long term health.
What has been shown to improve the health of bacteria in our digestive system is a component of food called fermentable fibre. Fermentable fibre is a component in foods such as fruits, vegetables and legumes (beans and peas). This fibre from our diet can’t be absorbed by our digestive system and so our gut bacteria use the fermentable fibre as their own food and break it down for us. When the bacteria do this, they also produce a substance that keeps our intestines strong and healthy. This system has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and therefore, positively impact long term health outcomes.
What can you do to improve your microbiome health?
- Start by including more fermentable fibre (prebiotics) and resistant starch in your diet
- Reduce your intake of low fibre foods such as refined carbohydrates
- Eat a balanced diet – balancing carbohydrate, protein and fat intake
- Include more fermented foods in your diet such as yogurt, kimchi, kefir, saurkraut etc
This blog was written by Christie Bennett, Nutted Out Nutrition’s new dietitian