WHY YOU NEED A GUT FULL!
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.
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!
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