‘Gut health’ is such a topic of discussion these days that the word gained four-fold interest on Google Trends between 2021 to 2023.
It’s impossible to not stumble upon self-appointed ‘gut health coaches’, who are doling out advice on how to fix everything wrong with your health if you scroll through Instagram reels even for five minutes. This is the trending topic of our current times on which every nutrition content creator, qualified or otherwise, is lecturing on social media.
While social media throws at us a lot of confusing information on the topic, the best way to work towards good gut health is to be armed with the right information.
What Is Gut Health?
The clinical definition of gut health suggested by scientific papers is the absence of gastrointestinal symptoms (eg, abdominal pain, diarrhoea) and disease (eg, inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer). It also involves an absence of other unfavourable local conditions including increased intestinal permeability, mucosal inflammation, or deficiency (or even excess) of short-chain fatty acids.
In layman's terms, this means that your entire digestive system is functioning as it should without giving you any problems.
Understanding Gut Microbiome
The gut microbiome is an easier-to-understand concept.
Our entire digestive tract from the mouth to the anus is colonised by over 100 trillion microbes of different kinds that influence our metabolism, nutrition, and immune function and reduce inflammation.
The gut bacteria also behave like a chemical factory in our body, producing thousands of chemicals and hormones, each acting in their own way to break down the food we eat, to produce other chemical molecules and compounds that send signals to our brain and immune system.
Gut microbes also secrete and respond to mood-regulating chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, GABA, norepinephrine and melatonin.
In two people eating the exact same diet, it is each of their gut microbiomes that decides if that food spikes their blood sugar, gets stored as fat or whether it affects their mood.
Eubiosis And Dysbiosis
For overall good gut health, it is also important to understand what a healthy microbiome is. Also called eubiosis, it is a good diversity and number of bacterial colonies in a balanced and stable healthy environment.
Dysbiosis, in contrast to eubiosis, is an imbalance and lesser diversity in the microbiome leading to metabolic imbalance. Some of the conditions that lead to dysbiosis are eating ultra-processed on a regular basis and antibiotic therapy.
It is interesting to note that highly refined foods with little or no fibre and nutrients promote the excessive growth of the kind of gut bacteria that make you crave more of the same kind of foods, also leading to a loss of diversity and balance in the microbiome. Antibiotic therapy wipes out all the gut bacteria – good and bad, and it takes a while of eating gut-friendly foods mindfully to restore the balance.
Now that we understand the importance of a healthy gut microbiome, let's explore how our dietary choices can support it.
Eat To Feed Your Gut Bacteria
When you don’t eat the right kind of food, you are not only losing out on getting all the required daily nutrients but also not feeding the gut microbes, leading to an unhealthy gut microbiome.
There are mainly two kinds of foods that you can eat to support a healthy microbiome – probiotics and prebiotics.
Probiotic foods are fermented foods with live microorganisms, which when eaten regularly maintain or improve the good bacterial colonies in the gut. Be it the homemade yoghurt, fermented rice-based dishes (pazhaidhu saadham, pakhala), kanji, lactofermented pickles eaten by Indians, or the fermented hot sauces, kefir, kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut from around the world, all of these foods can be included in our day to day diet to add diversity to our microbiome.
A significant number of bacteria in fermented foods can survive stomach acid due to their adaptation to acidic environments and protective structures. Adding probiotic foods to the diet contributes to better digestion, enhanced immune function, and potential relief from conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Before buying store-bought fermented foods, it is good to check if they are fermented in the true sense. The presence of vinegar, excess sugar, or too many ingredients other than the actual ingredient (tea, vegetables etc.) plus salt and water is an indicator that it may not be a good probiotic. Also, a long expiry date, the presence of artificial sweeteners in probiotic beverages and the mention of pasteurisation are all red flags when it comes to choosing a store-bought probiotic food.
In addition to probiotics, prebiotic foods play a crucial role in supporting a healthy gut microbiome. These foods are high-fibre foods that go undigested into the large intestine where they act as food for the good bacteria. The gut bacteria after feeding on prebiotics, release chemicals (short-chain fatty acids) that lead to a healthier digestive system. These fatty acids are also absorbed by the body leading to better metabolic health. Everyday foods like onion, garlic, apple, banana, whole oats, cocoa, flaxseeds are all very good prebiotics. Chicory root powder that gets added to pure ground coffee to make south Indian filter coffee (non-purist version) is another great source of prebiotics.
In short, eating a lot of plant-based foods close to their natural form is a great way to nurture the families of good bacteria in your gut and keep them thriving.
Other Factors To Keep In Mind
All the factors that keep us healthy also keep our gut microbiome healthy. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, stress management, good hydration, and avoiding alcohol and smoking all contribute towards a healthier gut microbiome. Also, it is good to avoid the unnecessary use of painkillers, antibiotics and germicidal cleaners in the house (hand sanitisers too) to keep gut microbes happy.
In this dynamic field, ongoing research shows the intricate relationship between gut health and overall well-being. As science advances, so does our understanding of how nurturing our gut microbiome is key to a vibrant, thriving life.