The past year has seen the terms ‘gut health’, ‘probiotic’, ‘prebiotic’ or ‘microbiota’ in a whole range of publications, and recipes to aid digestion are increasingly fashionable. This isn’t just a fad, however: it’s vital to maintain a healthy gut, and there’s plenty of high-quality research to show why.
So…what’s so great about your gut?
Bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microscopic living things are referred to as microbes for short. Trillions of microbes exist in and on your body but it is the bacteria in your gut that are the most widely studied. Interestingly there are more bacterial cells in your body than human cells. The collective bacteria in your gut, known as your gut microbiota, help to synthesise vitamins, minerals and other nutrients from food, enable the breakdown of fibre in food producing short chain fatty acids, which in turn help regulate insulin and blood sugar levels.
Probiotics and prebiotics can have a useful role to play in maintaining gut health. For your information and according to Healthspan Head of Nutrition Rob Hobson, “probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can be added to the diet through supplementation or foods such as live yoghurt. The most widely researched strains are Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. Prebiotics work hand-in-hand with the bacteria in your gut helping them to flourish. Indigestible fibres such as lignins and oligosaccharides found in foods such as bananas, chicory, onions and garlic act as prebiotics as do resistant starches that form on potatoes, pasta and rice when they are cooled.
So, what is it about gut health that’s sparked the attention of so many?
Firstly, it’s becoming apparent that your gut ‘micro flora’ does far more than keep your digestive system in order.
These beneficial bacteria have been shown to benefit not only gut health helping with bloating, constipation and diarrhoea but also support a healthy gut barrier and house 70% of the of your immune system that help to ward off pathogens and disease-causing bacteria.
Secondly, it’s not just your physical health that could benefit from a balanced gut, it’s your mental health, too…
New and evolving research has suggested that a link may exist between the diversity of bacteria in your gut and mental health via a communication between the central nervous system and the microbiota, which is referred to as the gut-brain axis. Research has suggested that imbalances in the diversity of bacteria in the gut and inflammation may have a role to play in mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. The ability of probiotics to restore microbial balance had led researchers to explore the potential role that these supplements may have to play in the treatment and prevention of mental health conditions although research is still in the early stages.
Thirdly, gut bacteria may even be linked to body weight….
Researchers have established a potential link between the gut microbiota and body weight although this is in the early stages and mostly observed in animal studies. It appears that obese people tend to have a different bacteria composition in the gut that leaner people although whether this is a cause or consequence of obesity is yet to be confirmed. One theory is that the microbiota of obese people may help the body increase the amount of energy harvested from food suggesting certain microbiota structures could increase the likelihood of becoming obese.
How to know if you need probiotics
Probiotics are safe to take on a daily basis and many people include them as part of their dietary regime. A poor diet rich in sugar and other overly processed foods that also lacks fibre-rich foods such as vegetables and pulses may upset the balance of god bacteria in the gut as may lifestyle factors such as stress. Taking a daily probiotic can be a good insurance policy to help maintain good bacteria in the gut. If not taken daily then probiotics are essential if you have been prescribed a course of antibiotics that destroy good bacteria in the gut. Probiotics have also been shown to help with constipation and after a bout of gastrointestinal illness that causes sickness and diarrhoea.
What should you look for in a probiotic?
You should look for a supplement that contains both the Bifidobactrium and Lactobascillus strains of bacteria and in a dose of 20 billion bacteria. Avoiding hot food and drinks and alcohol with your probiotic will help insure the survival of bacteria to the gut.