Let’s talk about gut health! It’s a hot topic in the scientific world right now, as it’s a subject that we have learnt so much about in recent years, and what’s even more exciting is that we have so much yet to learn when it comes to understanding how caring for our gut microbiome can help to prevent disease, and improve both physical and mental health. And it’s not just scientists, gut health has become a popular matter of interest amongst the health-conscious community too, as it poses a whole new opportunity to help us achieve our health and wellbeing goals.
I’m aware that, being such a new popular topic, all the information and science around gut health can be a little confusing – even for us healthcare professionals – so here’s a short guide to the main things you should know when it comes to gut health and the simple things we can do to look after those wonderful gut microbes, that in turn, will look after us!
The term gut health refers to the physical state, and function of the gastrointestinal tract – this is the continuous tube that starts at the mouth and ends at the anus, and is about 9 metres long in the average adult.
DID YOU KNOW THAT ONE IN THREE UK ADULTS SUFFER WITH SOME FORM OF GUT HEALTH PROBLEM?
A healthy gut is about much more than good digestion, well-functioning bowels, and reducing our risk of bowel cancer. We now know that the health of your gut, and in particular the health of the gut microbiome has a direct and significant impact on your immune system, your mental health, and your risk of developing chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Your gut microbiome, (sometimes called microbiota) is the collective name for the trillions of microbes that live in your gut. Sometimes it is referred to as gut bacteria, and whilst it is mostly made up of bacteria, it also includes, viruses, fungi, and parasites, all living, feeding and thriving along your nine-meter digestive tract. Every single one of us is unique in terms of how our microbiome is made up, this is even true for identical twins. The most important thing to know about these microbes is that they are our friends. The larger and more diverse the community of healthy, well-fed microbes that make our own personalised microbiome, the better. And the most important bit of good news is that we can all make some simple changes to help our microbiome garden grow.
HOW TO HELP YOUR 'MICROBIOME' GARDEN FLOURISH!
Let me start with a question… What is a prebiotic? Think about it for a moment, and can you come up with a couple of examples of foods that would be classed as prebiotics?
I wonder how many of you named fermented foods such as yoghurt, fermented cheeses, kimchi, sourdough, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh or kefir. Whilst these are all great things to include as part of a healthy diet, and can support your gut microbiome, they are not prebiotics, instead they are probiotics, gets a bit confusing doesn’t it?
So let’s define the difference between probiotics and prebiotics.
Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain living, beneficial microbes - mostly bacteria and yeasts. Let’s take Greek yoghurt for example, this naturally contains different types of helpful bacteria from the lactobacillus family. The best way to improve your probiotic intake is to include fermented foods, such as those in the list above to a healthy balanced diet. Probiotics can also be taken as supplements, and whilst the evidence is not conclusive enough to recommend the expense of these for healthy people, they can be useful for people who are taking antibiotics, recovering from gut infections or having repeated illnesses thought to be linked to a poor functioning immune system.
NOW ONTO PREBIOTICS…FINALLY YOU SAY!
If probiotics contain microbes, then prebiotics contain food to feed the microbes. Remember I said that we want our community of healthy microbes to be well-fed. And the only way for them to get the food they need is if we consume it for them. And the food that they require is fibre!
Fibre comes from plants; it is a type of carbohydrate that the human body can’t actually digest. It passes through the gut undigested and so helps us have healthy bowel movements, by adding bulk to our stools and aiding passage of stools through the bowel. This undigested fibre reaches the final part of the digestive tract, where most of the friendly gut bacteria that make up our microbiome reside, and it is here, in the large intestine (or colon) that it provides their essential nutrition.
HOW MUCH FIBRE?
Adults are recommended to get around 30g of dietary fibre each day, but the latest figures suggest that in the UK, the average fibre intake for adults is just 18g, 60% of what it should be (1).
I think it’s common knowledge that most of us would benefit from increasing the amount of fibre in our diets and there are lots of ways in which we can approach this, such as eating more fruits and vegetables, having wholegrains rather than processed grains - so that means opting for wholemeal bread and pasta, and brown rice, rather than the processed, white alternatives. Consider introducing other healthy wholegrains – such as quinoa, buckwheat and bulgar wheat, switching less healthy snacks for dried fruit, nuts and seeds. Another tip is to consume more legumes – such as beans, chickpeas and lentils, these provide a great source of protein and are also packed with fibre. They’re a great alternative to meat and they’re very cheap to buy too, so a winner all round.
So we’ve established that prebiotics are essentially foods containing fibre, but there’s more to it than just the amount of fibre we eat. Our friendly gut bacteria love fibre, but they also have some preferences, and certain types of fibre (especially a type called inulin) make the best prebiotics. The best sources of inulin include chicory root, dandelion greens and Jerusalem artichokes – fair to say not foods that commonly frequent the typical British kitchen, but onions, leeks, garlic, bananas and asparagus are also great sources of inulin, as are legumes.
DIVERSITY IS THE WORD!
Different types of gut bacteria also have quite different palates, believe it or not, so it’s not just about volume of fibre and inulin fibre but also about diversity. In fact, Dr Megan Rossi, one of the world’s leading expert scientists of gut health encourages us all to aim to eat at least 30 different types of plant fibre each week. This is based on studies which she has conducted that have demonstrated that people who eat at least 30 different plant-based foods a week had more diverse gut microbes than people who ate less than 10.
I know… It sounds unachievable, but here are some simple tips that if you can add to your weekly routine, will easily have you achieving the goal of 30 different plant fibres each week.
1. Choose products that already have variety - so if there’s a selection of different colours of cherry tomatoes in a punnet choose this one, as each species of tomato will have different nutrients
2. Stock up on tins of mixed beans and mixed lentils. The more variety in the tin the better. These make a delicious addition to curries, stews, chilli and soups – can contain up to 10 different types of fibre-rich legumes and are inexpensive too.
3. Stir fry bags are another great way of getting lots of variety whilst being convenient – typically containing 7 or 8 different plant fibres, and you can always add further veggies from the fridge too.
4. Batch cooking a veggie packed soup once a fortnight to use up any leftover vegetables in your fridge before they go off. This will eliminate the risk of waste, whilst on the mission to eat more veg and freezing the soup means you always have a backup lunch for a cold, rainy day. I tend to use leftovers from a roast dinner and chuck in any old, veggies. I also soak some dried broth mix overnight and add this, which adds a further 6 or 7 legumes.
5. Have a daily MOJU prebiotic shot. MOJU have scoured the planet for the world’s most supercharged prebiotic plant fibres. And what’s best is that it tastes delicious too – I think it’s the Baobab that gives it a zingy, sherbet-like taste. It contains a unique blend of plant fibres and is now available in 2 flavours – a new tropical: Mango, Lime and Baobab and a Raspberry, Lemon and Baobab. I have a shot each morning and it gives me the satisfaction of knowing I’m already on the right path.
So the bottom line is that that to achieve good gut health, we should support a healthy gut microbiome. We can do this by increasing the amount of prebiotic fibre we eat (to around 30g per day) and eating as diverse as wide a range of different plants as possible (at least 30 types a week). Including probiotics, such as fermented foods in our diet can also promote good gut health. And remember, gut health is about much more than the health of our gut, but our immune system, brain function, heart health, weight and mental health can all benefit too.