If your gut was on a dating website, you wouldn’t swipe right – but you’d be missing out! OK, it’s not the most glamorous organ in your body, but it’s incredibly intelligent. In fact, it’s often dubbed your ‘second brain’. ‘There are over 100 million neurons [which is more than the amount in the spinal cord] that extend throughout your digestive system,’ says Dr Michael Mosley, the man behind the famous 5:2 diet, in his book The Clever Guts Diet: How To Revolutionise Your Body From The Inside Out (Short Books Ltd).
Even so, your digestive system isn’t t even the real star of the show – the true A-lister isn’t part of your body at all. ‘It’s the 1 to 2kg of microbes that live in your gut (the large intestine) and make up the microbiome,’ explains Dr Mosley. They may be tiny but microbes play a large role in keeping your gut healthy, which is why they’re the next big thing in nutrition.
There are more than 50 trillion of them and at least 1 000 different species, including bacteria, fungi, viruses and primitive single-celled organisms – ‘a richer diversity of life than in a rainforest’. Read on to find out what changes you can make so you can improve your gut health.
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Gut health: Why microbes matter?
1. They may help regulate body weight…
Animal studies suggest that microbes may influence how much energy your body takes from each meal, which foods you crave, as well as controlling hunger pangs and blood sugar spikes. So, the wrong balance of your microbiome could make you fat, reveals Dr Mosley.
2. … and your immune system.
In the last 50 years, thanks to our sterile environments, there’s been a massive rise in allergic conditions. But by altering the mix of bacteria in your gut, you could reduce their impact.
3. They control your mood, appetite and general health.
The microbiome takes the bits of food our body can’t digest and converts them into hormones and chemicals, which can affect the above. Changing your gut make-up could help reduce issues like anxiety and depression.
4 ways to boost your microbiome:
- Don’t take antibiotics unnecessarily. If you need to, take a course of probiotics at the same time (but don’t take them with the antibiotics; have them a few hours apart).
- Get outdoors to increase contact with a variety of microbes. Plus, vitamin D may boost gut flora, so up your intake.
- Get your hands dirty to connect with the trillions of bacteria in the soil.
- Eat a variety of fruit and veg. Packed with phytonutrients, they help prevent disease and keep your gut working properly.
…and how to reboot your system if the boost doesn’t work:
‘If you have mild IBS or problems with pain and bloating, you may want to reboot your gut bacteria,’ says Dr Mosley. ‘You may need four weeks of “remove and repair” to give the lining of your gut a chance to recover.’
Phase 1: Remove and repair
‘I don’t recommend removing too many foods at one time, so it might be helpful to do “remove and repair” in several stages,’ advises Dr Mosley.
Avoid Dairy, pulses, alcohol and fibrous vegetables.
Include Non-fibrous plant-based foods, good-quality proteins, non-starchy vegetables, non-dairy fats, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, fruit, teas, red wine and dark chocolate.
Phase 2: Reintroduction
‘Now start introducing excluded foods,’ explains Dr Mosley. ‘Add them in one at a time, over three days. If symptoms recur, stop eating it, allow a few days for recovery, then try reintroducing something else.’ Why not also boost your good bacteria by eating more prebiotic and probiotic foods?
If you have significant medical problems or any troublesome symptoms, we recommend that you consult a health professional first.
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How to get the right bacteria for good gut health:
It’s not just numbers that are important. The right balance and diversity of good bacteria (a type of microbe) is essential for a healthy gut, too. Here’s Dr Mosley’s guide to a healthy microbiome…
Firmicutes: Digests fat. Great for extracting energy, but in today’s high-energy diets too much of this bacteria can cause obesity.
Bacteroidetes: High levels are associated with a lean body type and less gut inflammation. They also control your immune system and break down undigested fibre.
Butyrate: Helps control our gut wall cells, protecting us against bowel cancer.
Akkermansia: Strengthens our gut wall and reduces inflammation.
Lactobacillus: Lines your intestines protecting you from harmful invaders.
Bifidobacterium: Breaks down indigestible fibre and protects you from unfriendly microbes.
Prebiotics vs Probiotics: What is the difference and how do they improve your gut health?
A prebiotic is a fibre that can’t be digested. ‘It encourages the growth of “good” bacteria in your gut,’ says Dr Mosley. ‘It promotes a healthier biome, reduces constipation and improves bone health.’
How to lift your levels? Eat onions, leeks, garlic, chicory, asparagus and bananas. And boost your fibre intake with barley, oats, flaxseed, apples and legumes.
‘Probiotics are the live bacteria or yeast that you parachute into your intestine, in the hope that they will take root and do you some good,’ explains Dr Mosley.
How to lift your levels? Eat home-made yoghurt, cheese (in particular mozzarella, Cheddar, cottage cheese and blue cheese) and fermented foods including sauerkraut, kefir (a milk drink), kimchi (cabbage) and apple cider vinegar.