Gut in­stinct: Healthy ad­vice on bac­te­ria

Gut health has never been trendier — but it can still be a con­fus­ing topic for con­sumers. Liz Con­nor speaks to a mi­cro­biome ex­pert to help sort fact from fic­tion

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Health -

THANKS to lots of ex­cit­ing new re­search and the rise of pre­bi­otics, gut health has be­come a hot topic. But with so much con­flict­ing ad­vice out there, it can be dif­fi­cult to know what to be­lieve.

Dmitry Alex­eev, from per­son­alised health tech­nol­ogy com­pany Atlas Biomed, helps sort through six of the most un­help­ful mis­con­cep­tions around gut health... 1. All bac­te­ria is bad for you

Many of us fear bac­te­ria be­cause we as­so­ciate them with dis­ease-caus­ing pathogens. But Alex­eev ex­plains that our body has its own army of friendly bac­te­ria called the mi­cro­biome: tril­lions of mi­crobes that hang out on your skin, your gas­troin­testi­nal and uro­gen­i­tal tracts. Your gut mi­cro­biome helps reg­u­late your me­tab­o­lism, break down food and pro­tect the body against harm­ful in­fec­tions, along with a host of other im­por­tant func­tions — we couldn’t re­ally live with­out it.

“A huge num­ber of them [gut bac­te­ria] re­side in our small and large in­testines — the lat­ter is par­tic­u­larly dark and damp, kind of like a rain­for­est,” says Alex­eev. “We have a ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ re­la­tion­ship with our good mi­crobes: they serve on the front­line when it comes to in­fec­tion, help­ing our im­mune sys­tem dis­tin­guish good guys from bad, and they help us break down com­plex foods for nu­tri­ents. In re­turn, they get a free meal ticket — so long as we eat a healthy diet. Ev­ery­one ben­e­fits.” 2. Calo­rie count­ing is key to healthy eat­ing

You’re not just eat­ing for one, you’re eat­ing for bil­lions. That ham sand­wich you had for lunch may tick the boxes when it comes to calo­ries, but mean­while the mi­crobes in your gut are starv­ing. “Think about it: a piece of white bread has been pro­cessed so that it can sit on the store shelf with­out go­ing stale,” says Alex­eev. “That same pro­cess­ing means it’s very easy for your body to break it down. It’s coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but be­ing able to break food down eas­ily is not nec­es­sar­ily a good thing: that bread won’t make it far in your in­testi­nal tract be­fore it’s pul­verised and ab­sorbed for all the nu­tri­ents it has, which aren’t a lot. There is noth­ing left for your mi­crobes, most of which are hang­ing out fur­ther down in your large in­tes­tine.”

While added sugar and cer­tain kinds of fat are bad for you in large amounts, Alex­eev be­lieves we should be fo­cus­ing on what’s good for us: “We need foods that are com­plex and dif­fi­cult for our body to break down, so that our mi­crobes have some­thing to eat.” 3. If you’re skinny, you’re healthy

“You can have a high BMI and be healthy, and you can have a low BMI and have ma­jor is­sues with mi­cro­biome nu­tri­tion. We’re dis­cov­er­ing that the mi­cro­biome has all sorts of im­pli­ca­tions for other dis­eases: di­a­betes, metabolic dys­func­tion, car­dio­vas­cu­lar and bowel dis­eases,” says Alex­eev.

“An un­bal­anced mi­cro­biome is of­ten marked by low-grade in­flam­ma­tion that char­ac­terises many of these dis­eases-so while other fac­tors, from your en­vi­ron­ment to ge­net­ics, play a role, gut in­flam­ma­tion is a par­tic­u­larly in­flu­en­tial fac­tor.” 4. Tak­ing pro­bi­otics is good for gut health

Pro­bi­otic drinks are mar­keted as a cure for a cock­tail of health is­sues, but Alex­eev says “they cer­tainly aren’t that. When you eat pro­bi­otics, you’re not ac­tu­ally feed­ing your mi­cro­biome: first of all, pro­bi­otics them­selves need ex­ter­nal sup­port, like di­etary fi­bre, to sur­vive. Se­condly, pro­bi­otic crea­tures need com­prise less than 1% of your mi­cro­biome, while the rest of it is starv­ing with­out ex­tra fi­bre,” he adds.

While pro­bi­otics — the live bac­te­ria found in yo­gurt and other fer­mented prod­ucts — are good for you, Alex­eev says it de­pends on what your prob­lem is. “If you’ve just taken an­tibi­otics or have had other dam­age to your gut, it’s im­por­tant to re­store your mi­cro­biome, and pro­bi­otics are a good way to do that. How­ever, while we would all love a magic pill for gut health, the best way for now is the old fash­ioned way: veg­gies, fruits, and whole grains.” 5. I can only get vi­ta­mins from food and tablets

Our bodies need a range of vi­ta­mins in or­der to keep ev­ery­thing func­tion­ing. While you can get them from sup­ple­ments or food, you might be sur­prised to hear that many vi­ta­mins are also pro­duced by the mi­crobes in your gut. “We are just learn­ing about the dif­fer­ences be­tween the ways vi­ta­mins con­sumed orally and those pro­duced in our gut are ab­sorbed, but we are cer­tain that some vi­ta­min groups — for ex­am­ple, many B vi­ta­mins — can be ob­tained via our mi­crobes,” says Alex­eev. “An­other in­ter­est­ing dis­cov­ery has been an im­por­tant one for the el­derly: as you age, it be­comes harder for you to ab­sorb cal­cium and vi­ta­min D, which leads to de­creased bone strength. We are now learn­ing that we can in­crease ab­sorp­tion of cal­cium in the gut by tack­ling the mi­cro­biome with pre­bi­otics like in­ulin.”

GUT FEEL­ING: The­body has its own army of friendly bac­te­ria called the mi­cro­biome, tril­lions of mi­crobes that hang out on the skin and gas­troin­testi­nal and uro­gen­i­tal tracts.

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