It’s ar­guably the most im­por­tant health dis­cov­ery in re­cent times — our gut bac­te­ria are a barom­e­ter of our cur­rent and fu­ture well­be­ing. When they’re not well, our health suf­fers too. Di­eti­tian Ka­t­rina Pace ex­plains.

Healthy Food Guide (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

Learn all about the most im­por­tant health dis­cov­ery in re­cent times — the way that our gut bac­te­ria con­trols our health, weight and even our mood, and the im­por­tance of eat­ing the right food to keep these gut bac­te­ria healthy

What are gut bac­te­ria?

It’s the bac­te­ria, viruses, yeasts and fungi that live in our di­ges­tive sys­tem. To­gether, they are called the ‘gut mi­cro­biota’. They help to keep our in­tes­tine lin­ing healthy and ab­sorb nu­tri­ents from our food.

Gut bac­te­ria make vi­ta­mins that sup­port our body func­tions, and help our body make en­zymes, neu­ro­trans­mit­ters and hor­mones. Dif­fer­ent types of gut bac­te­ria do dif­fer­ent things: some help to re­duce in­flam­ma­tion, some help to di­gest and metabolise nu­tri­ents, while oth­ers help reg­u­late the genes that trigger disease. No won­der they’re at­tract­ing so much at­ten­tion!

What’s new?

Once it was thought we had no bac­te­ria un­til we were born, but re­cent stud­ies have shown that bac­te­ria and viruses can be trans­ferred dur­ing preg­nancy. And by the age of about three years old, we have a fully de­vel­oped range of gut bac­te­ria.

Risk of disease

Emerg­ing re­search shows the va­ri­ety of gut bac­te­ria we have can in­flu­ence whether or not we de­velop eczema, hay fever, asthma or food al­ler­gies. And as we get older, the health of our gut bac­te­ria could in­flu­ence our risk of get­ting di­a­betes, heart disease, ir­ri­ta­ble bowel syn­drome, liver disease or de­pres­sion.

Can gut bac­te­ria play a role in our men­tal health?

Yes, our body re­lies on gut bac­te­ria to pro­duce sero­tonin — a neu­ro­trans­mit­ter that helps sta­bilise our mood and emo­tions. And some an­tide­pres­sants work by keep­ing this sero­tonin in our body longer. The links be­tween gut bac­te­ria and men­tal health is a new and ex­cit­ing area of re­search.

Can’t sleep? Are your tummy bugs to blame?

Hor­mones help keep our body clocks tick­ing. And it now looks as if our gut bac­te­ria, in turn, keep these hor­mones reg­u­lar. But be­ware that any changes to your body clock through jet lag, miss­ing meals or go­ing on fast­ing di­ets can change the com­po­si­tion of your gut bac­te­ria.

The link be­tween stress, gut bac­te­ria and food in­tol­er­ances Ir­ri­ta­ble bowel syn­drome (IBS) is a way that our gut bac­te­ria tell us they’re not happy. One of the main symp­toms of IBS is tummy pain. Stress, and par­tic­u­larly long-term stress, in­creases pain around the tummy area (called ‘vis­ceral sen­si­tiv­ity’). Re­cent re­search shows that both short- and long-term stress can also dam­age the makeup of your gut.

Two of the most suc­cess­ful treat­ments for IBS are stress man­age­ment and a low-FODMAP diet. FODMAP is an acro­nym for a group of car­bo­hy­drates: Fer­mentable Oligosac­cha­rides, Disac­cha­rides, Monosac­cha­rides and Poly­ols. FODMAPs are poorly di­gested by some peo­ple. Carbs are ac­tu­ally the main food source for gut bac­te­ria, but FODMAP carbs feed the bac­te­ria that are grow­ing out of balance and caus­ing prob­lems. How­ever, dif­fer­ent bac­te­ria eat dif­fer­ent foods, so with a low-FODMAP diet, other gut bac­te­ria are given a chance to grow back and flour­ish. This is why, over time, FODMAP foods can be grad­u­ally and suc­cess­fully rein­tro­duced.

Stud­ies have found that around 75 per cent of IBS pa­tients had fewer symp­toms while on a low-FODMAP diet. One study showed ev­i­dence that the low-FODMAP diet in­creased the rich­ness and di­ver­sity of one type of bac­terium. An­other study, which fol­lowed peo­ple over 18 months, found most had suc­cess­fully rein­tro­duced FODMAP foods.

Ex­er­cise gives gut bac­te­ria a real work­out

We all know that reg­u­lar ex­er­cise is im­por­tant for keep­ing us both phys­i­cally and men­tally well, but emerg­ing re­search sug­gests that ex­er­cise can also af­fect our gut bac­te­ria. In a study com­par­ing mem­bers of a rugby team to a less ac­tive group of men, a wider range of gut bac­te­ria (which is a good thing) was seen in the rugby play­ers, even after di­etary dif­fer­ences were ac­counted for.

Stud­ies on ac­tive mice also showed a larger range of gut bac­te­ria com­pared to a group of more seden­tary an­i­mals. This con­nec­tion be­tween gut bac­te­ria and ex­er­cise is so new that we are not ex­actly sure how it works.

It could be a com­bi­na­tion of in­creased speed of move­ments through the gut, re­duced stress and anx­i­ety, and weight loss — all things that keep your gut healthy.

Gut bac­te­ria can help to sta­bilise our emo­tions

Gut bac­te­ria keep our in­sides happy and healthy

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