Is it me, or has the world gone gut health crazy? It seems we can’t escape the avalanche of advice and articles about good bacteria versus bad bacteria, the micro-biome, probiotics, prebiotics and intestinal dysbiosis.
Life was so much simpler as a medical student back in the 80’s (the music was better too!). Back then bacteria were bad news, end of story. They were the cause of plagues, illness, disease, infection and thank goodness for the white knight, Alexander Fleming and his trusty penicillin. We‘d been saved by the era of antibiotics.
But now we know life isn’t so straightforward. Antibiotics have become victims of their own success with the antibiotic resistant organisms posing a significant risk to human health and the realisation that far from being the bad boys of biology, some bacterial strains are actually so good for us that we couldn’t survive without them!
So, for those of you in a rush, but want to be able to join in the conversation, here are five things you need to know about gut health:
1 – We are more bug than human. It is estimated that there are over 40 trillion bacteria in our gut, accounting for 1-3% of our body weight. One gram of human faeces contains more bacteria than the total world’s human population. Essentially there are more bacterial genes within us than human genes.
2 – Bacteria make the things we need but can’t do ourselves. Various strains of good gut bacteria are responsible for producing many important enzymes, hormones (eg Serotonin, the ‘happy and content’ hormone), vitamins (eg vitamin K and some B vitamins) and our blood groups – all of which we need to maintain good overall health.
3 – Gut health is much more than nutrient absorption. Whilst breaking down the food we eat and absorbing the nutrients is a vital role of our intestine, the gut is much more important than that. Our gut health affects not just our nutritional status but also our immune system and our mental health. In fact, there is increasing evidence to show that poor gut health and in particular an imbalance in our bacteria (intestinal dysbiosis) is associated with depression, dementia, anxiety, Parkinson’s Disease and autism.
4 – Our 6th sense, our ‘gut instinct’, is real. We’ve known for some time that there are many nerves surrounding our gut but previously assumed that they were to control the general mechanics of how the gut worked and moved our food along. But the reality is more intriguing and exciting! The neural pathways around our gut are as large and complex as the brain of a cat – and we all know how intelligent our feline friends are!! Furthermore, there is a two-way communication between our gut nerves and subconscious brain via the vagus nerve – the gut-brain axis or enteric nervous system. Whilst the brain has our five ‘normal’ senses – vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch – to help us make sense of the outside world, it uses the messages from our gut (the 6th sense) to determine what’s going on in our internal world. Our gut can influence our mood, thoughts, fears and behaviours.
5 –Diet and lifestyle can improve your gut health. It might sound like common sense but do you eat to be healthy, or eat out of habit – because you’re bored, anxious or have a low mood? Do you eat to fuel your body or as a “treat”? These simple lifestyle habits will help support great gut health and all the benefits that brings with it.
- exercise (a brisk walk will do) for 30 mins a day
- vary your diet with lots of high fibre nutrient dense vegetables, nuts, seeds and berries
- avoid snacking (bacteria need rest too!)
- don’t be hygiene obsessed
So now you know, bacteria hold the key to great gut health which will impact not only on your nutritional status but also your mental wellbeing especially immune and mental health. So less bad boys of biology and more the good gut guvnors!
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Peter Campbell – March 27th 2019