An article on promoting and maintaining good gut health, including diet suggestions and a look at a low FODMAP diet. Includes advice on probiotics, both supplements and naturally probiotic and fermented foods, a quick look at prebiotics and ways of reducing inflammation and stressors. This article starts with a look at what exactly gut bacteria are...
Gut flora (the bacteria that lives in your gut - also known as intestinal microflora or gut microbiota) outnumber human cells by 3 to 1 although it may be as much as 10 to 1. These single-celled microbiomes number as much as one trillion in EACH human body. In addition, there are between 300 and 1000 species of the bacteria living in the gut - most estimates suggest around 500 on average. The microorganisms perform a huge array of useful functions, such as training the immune system, preventing the growth of harmful, pathogenic bacteria, fermenting unused energy substrates, regulating the development of the gut, producing vitamins for the host, such as biotin and vitamin K, and producing hormones to direct the host to store fats.(Wiki Gut Flora- retrieved 20.03.15)
It looks like some of the bacteria are actually genetically inherited. A study looking at identical twins versus non-identical twins "When the group compared the levels of similarity in gut bacteria generally, they found no difference between identical and non-identical twins, suggesting that genes don't influence the microbiome. But when they looked at the heritability of different groups of bacteria separately, they found that some bacteria were more similar in identical than in non-identical twins. In other words, some components of the microbiome are heritable."(New Scientist Composition of gut bacteria - retrieved 20.05.15) Some of the heritable bacteria are ones that have been linked to disease.
What steps can you take to improve the bacteria in your gut?
There may be genetic link to which microbiomes you inherit from your parents, but your environment and changes in lifestyle, diet and medications all play their part. Here are the major changes that you have some control over (we'll simply assume you can't go back in time and change your birth, childhood feeding habits or parents!).
1. Taking antibiotics. It's well known and widely studied that taking antibiotics wipes out much of your gut flora - around 60% suggest most studies. The advice is simple; only take antibiotics if you absolutely have to. If there is no other option but to take them, make sure you replace the gut flora with a good probiotic after the course of treatment. S. Boulardii is not killed during a course of antibiotics so it's worth taking a probiotic that contains it for gut health whilst on a course. Try this one from Optibac.
2. External exposure to bacteria. It is widely accepted that, the only way to defend yourself against a vast array of bad bacteria, is to have a host of good bacteria fighting on your behalf. This means getting down and dirty! Exposure to earth, plants, and even fresh air will help to generate the bacteria needed to fight off pathogens. Something as simple as opening a window and ensuring you have a good supply of fresh air in a well-ventilated room will help. "Bacterial communities in indoor environments contained many taxa that are absent or rare outdoors, including taxa closely related to potential human pathogens." (NCBI Architectural design influences the diversity and structure of the built environment microbiome -retrieved 15.03.15). Starting a garden or even a small window box will expose you to useful bacteria found in soil. Try our Plant N Grow range to start you off (edible flowers? yum!) or sprouting seeds.
3. Over-use of antibacterial soaps and cleaning products. Obviously, you need to kill as many bacteria as possible in a clinical hospital environment, but that's because people are seriously ill. You do not need to kill all of the bacteria on a daily basis for a healthy life. Try some gentle baby wipes if you want cleanliness on the go, or look at this range of soaps and natural cleaning products. Hot water and a good scrub will be just as effective at ridding you and your house of dirt without wiping out all of the bacteria. Natural solutions for cleaning can also be found here.
4. Internal exposure to bacteria - eat plants! Your gut microbes thrive on a diversity of fermentable substrates (aka dietary fibre). However not all fibre is the same – you need diversity and you need to be eating more of the whole plant – not just the tasty leaves! For example the trunk of broccoli has a different substrate for your microbes to feed on than the tips. So trying eating all of the plant as the parts that are harder to digest will help extend metabolic activity. Aim for as diverse a range of plants as possible. Here's our fresh fruit and vegetable selection. Try some of the specialist items and other fresh veg and trial a few new vegetables!
Naturally probiotic foods
Some foods are naturally probiotic. Mainly fermented foods - here's a link to our article on the fermented range available at Real Foods (complete with 'how to ferment your own foods') but for a quick summary, what we're talking about are foods that have fermented and created their own organisms. Sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, yoghurt, miso and tempeh are amongst them. Most of these are only available in-store as they are kept in the fridge. The health benefits of eating fermented foods include enhancing nutrients, protection from ‘bad’ bacteria, building your immunity and aiding digestive and pre-digestive processes. You can find starter cultures here.
Linwoods Flaxseed has added vitamin D and probiotics to encourage a healthy system. Try sprinkling over a bowl of non-dairy milk porridge to give yourself an excellent start to the day.
Helpful foods for health
Maintaining hydration can be key to having a healthy digestive system.
Plant juices can be very helpful to support health. Try Salus Plant Juices which use traditional natural remedies with as little processing a possible. Stinging Nettle juice is reportedly excellent for helping the metabolism.
Alternatively, try this range of herbal and fruit teas.
Psyllium Seed – An excellent source of soluble dietary fibre.
Chlorella - Its nutritive value, high plant protein and chlorophyll content make it one of the world's superfoods. Have a look at our superfoods shop, green superfoods can be particularly helpful.
Wormwood - In ancient Egypt, wormwood was highly prized as anti-parasitic. It promotes the secretion of bile and other digestive juices.
Aloe Vera - Nature's enzymatic aid to digestion.
Cayenne - Aids circulation and useful in inflammations, stomach and bowel disorders.
Senna - If constipation is a problem this helps cleanse the colon.
Garlic - Rejuvenates and stimulates the lymphatic system to throw off waste materials.
Rosehips - Digestive stimulant. Excellent antioxidant value from high vitamin C levels.
Probiotic and prebiotic supplements
We would recommend taking a good probiotic if suffering from digestive issues or some skin complaints (particularly eczema). OptiBac's range includes specific cultures for recovering from antibiotic impacts, travel and daily wellbeing.
BioCare provide a wide spectrum digestive support including lactobacillus acidophilus. Or they have a Micro FloraGuard supplement that includes natural remedies like garlic and cloves along with lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacteria.
Higher Nature have a powder suitable for people who don't like capsules, simply add to drinks.
Molkosan's prebiotic drink is excellent for activating the pancreas and other digestive functions. Again simply add to water or drinks.
Or try MagniFoods pre and probiotic natural supplement containing beetroot and burdock.
Acidophilus supplements can be found here in our webshop.
Stress has been linked to your gut health. Frankly, I find being told to 'reduce stress’ simply makes me more stressed! However, these tips should help focus you on how to reduce it.
Gentle exercise. Any exercise is good, but try to find something you enjoy! It may be yoga or Pilates with a good instructor, but dancing to your favourite music, learning a new skill (perhaps you've always wanted to try archery, or quite fancy a ballet class!). Whatever your interests, trying a class or getting together with friends to inspire each other, helps you to maintain the exercise.
Walking has been linked to reducing stress. A simple 20 minute stroll will help you reduce stress. What's particularly good is walking outside, in the fresh air (remember those good bacteria are everywhere!). Studies have shown that exposure to countryside scenes (even a picture of them) helps to improve your mental and emotional health and has a knock-on effect on your physical wellbeing. If you're lucky enough to live near water try walking along the canal or river and feel the benefits accrue.
Getting a good night's sleep - easier said than done for many people, but going to bed early and waking up naturally have a plethora of benefits for your health. Trying natural remedies like lavender, warm baths an hour before sleep and removing exposure to screens all help. Clipper's Sleep Easy tea has had good feedback on being helpful along with chamomile and peppermint teas.
Breathe! Meditation and breathing techniques can help reduce stress. There's no excuse not to, nobody is so busy they don't have a minute to practise calm breathing! Let's face it, you're breathing 24 hours a day, you may as well get the best benefits possible. This guide is from Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Hospital and has a 15-20 minute technique for relaxing - try it with a friend and see if it works for you.
Reducing caffeine, sugar and processed foods can all help reduce stressors on the body.
Symptoms of 'bad' gut health
The problem with many of the symptoms of an unhealthy gut is that they often fall into 'medically unexplained symptoms'. Many people suffer from persistent physical complaints, such as dizziness or pain, that don't appear to have an obvious medical cause. This DOES NOT mean that they are not real, with up to a fifth of visits to the GP in the UK being classed as medically unexplained. For example, fatigue, pain, headaches, heart palpitations, shortness of breath and dizziness and feeling sick are all often 'medically unexplained'. It is always worth seeing your GP,. Sometimes there is simply no explanation and doctors can't diagnose a cause. This isn't unusual in medicine and doesn't mean that nothing can be done to help you. Read more on the NHS website for the information you should take to your GP to try and find underlying causes.
Certainly they'll tell you to reduce stress, eat a healthy diet and take gentle exercise, however there may be an underlying cause of the symptoms and you need to get the tests done to rule out any illnesses.
A low FODMAP diet
This diet has been linked to reducing IBS and other gut issues. FODMAPS stands for Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and PolyolS. The idea is to follow a low FODMAP diet for 8 weeks, then review and re-introduce some foods slowly. It is supported by the NHS so it is worth consulting your GP for further support.
FODMAPs are osmotic (means they pull water into the intestinal tract), may not be digested or absorbed well and could be fermented upon by bacteria in the intestinal tract when eaten in excess. A low FODMAP diet may help reduce symptoms, which will limit foods high in fructose, lactose, fructans, galactans and polyols.
Fructose (fruits, honey, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), etc)
Fructans (wheat, garlic, onion, inulin etc)
Galactans (legumes such as beans, lentils, soybeans, etc)
Polyols (sweeteners containing isomalt, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, stone fruits such as avocado, apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches, plums, etc)
Try eating alternatives to dairy and soy - try almond, rice or coconut milks.
Limit gluten-containing cereals. Try naturally gluten free alternatives like brown rice flour, quinoa, buckwheat, sorghum, corn and oat flour. Oats have also been linked with providing excellent levels of fibre (essential for gut health) and promoting good cholesterol. All of our flours that don't contain gluten can be found here on the site. Please be aware - some are batch tested to 20ppm, these are suitable for coeliacs and people with strong sensitivity and are marked Gluten Free. Flours marked No Gluten Containing Ingredients, are not batch tested - while they don't contain gluten they could have been exposed in packing or production.
The idea is to follow a low FODMAP diet and drink plenty of water, then once the trial is over, gradually re-introduce foods and watch for symptoms of gastro-intestinal distress. We wouldn't recommend excluding groups of foods forever! For example, perhaps you're following a low-gluten diet with some impact on reduction of distress. However, it may be that wheat is actually the culprit, not gluten, by re-introducing foods gradually and noting your body's response you can find what your triggers are.
It is worth remembering that EVERYBODY is DIFFERENT. By all means try out a diet or foodstuff a friend has recommended but it's always worth recording a food diary and seeing if you can isolate culprits for yourself - food reacts differently with different people (not to mention different gut flora), so unless you've actually got an identical twin, seeing how other people manage may not help!
A review of other diets is available in this article.
By Kim Betney