Improving your microbiome is quick, cheap and can have far-reaching health benefits for body and mind. So, what are you waiting for?
There are two hitches with these undoubted life-savers. Firstly, over-exposure (not just as prescribed medicine but via their presence in meat we consume) has caused some harmful bacterial strains to develop resistance. Secondly, broad-spectrum antibiotics wipe our good bacteria along with bad, leaving a weakened immune system. Use with caution.
There are around 40 trillion bacteria in your body, most of which are in your intestines. You can help to support the bacteria in your gut by taking Link Nutrition’s Symbiotic 7 (£9.95, linknutrition.com), which provides over 40 billion strands of gut-friendly bacteria to support your health and digestive tract.
It’s a taboo topic, but nearly a third of adults suffer from constipation, with poor diet and an inactive lifestyle being the most common causes. It may cause people to feel sick, bloated or achy from lack of goodness entering the body. Constipation can be caused by out of balance gut bacteria, so take a look at your diet and make changes if needed.
Our microbes crave fibre-rich foods, particularly those that contain a chemical called inulin. Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, garlic, onions and leeks are all good sources and help a diverse and healthy population of microbes thrive. Foods that feed our microbes are known as ‘prebiotics’, and are an important part of a gut-healthy diet.
Besides observing large differences in the microbiomes of active adults versus those with a sedentary life, researchers have found that exercise increases levels of butyrate, an inflammationfighting short-chain fatty acid that’s produced by a certain colonies of microbes.
A shocking 54 percent of us Brits lack fibre in our diets. There are two different kinds of fibre – insoluble, which adds bulk and helps to keep our bowels regular, and soluble, which slows down digestion and keeps us feeling fuller for longer. Good sources of insoluble fibre include whole grain breads and cereals, while foods higher in soluble fibre include fruits and vegetables and oats.
We all want to avoid the dangerous pathogenic microbes that cause illness or infection, but did you know that a healthy population of helpful or ambivalent microorganisms can help keep them in check? In fact, research shows exposure to disinfectant triclosan can cause antibiotic resistance in some bugs.
OK, we’re not talking serious food deprivation, but did you know intermittent fasting is beneficial to your gut’s population of microbes? “The major microbe that loves fasting is called akkermansia,” says Professor Tim Sector in his book The Diet Myth (£8.99, W&N). “It snacks off our gut lining and cleans it up, strangely improving the diversity of other species.”
“Fermented foods are highly digestible because good bacteria pre-digest the food and also because beneficial cultures supply additional enzymes to assist with the digestive process, so that our digestive system doesn’t have as much work to do,” says Dunja Gulin, author of The Gut Health Cookbook (£12.99, RPS).
Fermenting is at the heart of Japan’s cuisine – after all, it’s the umami-rich koji culture that creates staple ingredients such as miso, soy sauce, mirin and sake. Is it a coincidence that Japan can boast the world’s highest life expectancy and low rates of obesity?
This vitamin is essential, as a deficiency can impact your skin, heart, bones, vital organs and gut. Up your intake with foods such as wild-caught fish, egg yolk, liver, spinach, spring onions, kale and cauliflower. According to the NHS, your recommended daily intake is approximately 1mcg a day for each kilogram of your body weight – so if you weigh 65kg, you should be having 65mcg of vitamin K.
Want more of this friendly bacteria in your diet? Make your own yoghurt! “First, try to find a good yoghurt starter (live-culture yoghurts, which are readily available from local healthfood stores),” says Dunja Gulin. “You can also buy store-bought yoghurts as starters, but you’ll need to buy a new one for every third batch or so, because laboratory-derived cultures aren’t as strong and stable as traditional cultures.”
Research proving the link between the bacteria in our gut (where our entric nervous system, AKA our ‘second brain’, resides) and emotional and cognitive function has given rise to ‘psychobiotics’. These targeted pre- and probiotics can, it’s claimed, help specific bacterial populations flourish that in turn communicate with the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters.
Including more naturallyprobiotic foods into your diet will take you on a fabulous journey of discovery that brings complex new flavours. Tried supermarket kefir and raw sauerkraut? Great. You’re ready to up your game with unpasturised kimchi, live pickles and natto, a powerful probiotic food made from fermented soy beans.
We know that our bodies are hosts to colonies of microscopic bacteria, yeasts and fungi, but checking the health and diversity of those populations is still a job for lab technicians. Diagnostic kits are expensive, but with researchers in this field predicting that testing will one day become routine, it’s worth being patient.
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for you and keep your gut healthy. One way that they do this is by helping to send food through your gut by affecting nerves that control gut movement. You can find probiotics in food such as yoghurt, but you can also try a supplement. Natures Aid has new range that is formulated by nutritionists and combines extensively-researched bacteria strains with supportive nutrients (from £12.95, naturesaid.co.uk).
Experts argue over the true benefits of probiotic supplements, which have to reach the gut intact to take effect. The best advice is to research your supplement, plumping for something clinically tested. Probiotic foods face similar questions, so read labels carefully to make sure you’re picking up a product that’s worth the money.
Our fibre-loving microbes can only get to work on nutrients that pass through the small intestine intact. That’s why resistant starch – green bananas and cooked lentils are good sources – are beneficial. Happily, the resistant starch in rice, pasta and potatoes can be upped by cooling them (and re-heating if desired) after cooking.
If you’re struggling with symptoms of an unhealthy gut, such as IBS, try taking a supplement to support your micribiome. Tummease offers IBS Relief Capsules (£7.99, crescentpharma.com), which are made from natural mineral clay and simethicone to relieve pain and soothe feelings of bloating.
Gut health has emerged as one of the most dynamic fields of research in recent years, giving rise to breaking news and lively debate in the science community. The best place to follow discussions is perhaps Twitter; researchers @timspector and @miguelmateas, and advocates such @drchatterjeeuk, are happy to answer questions.
While research suggests a plant-focused diet that is high in whole grains and low in refined foods helps microbes flourish, you might also want to put away the veg peeler. Skins are a great source of extra fibre and nutrients – switch to organic if you want to keep your accidental intake of pesticides to a minimum.
Stuck in a rut with your eating habits? Experts agree that a varied diet is the best way to encourage a diverse and healthy community of microbes in your gut. In fact, Dr Tim advises we eat at least 30 foods (including the herbs and spices that go into dishes); keeping a food diary will help you stay on track.
“Water kefir is an incredibly easy vegan alternative to milk kefir,” says Andrea , co-author of alcohol-free cocktail bible Redemption Bar (£12.99, Kyle Books). “We continuously have fermentations bubbling away in the restaurants, as I do at home. I look after them well so they will look after me. The probiotic bacteria created in the fermenting process aids detoxification and supports gut health, which in turn boosts mental wellbeing.”
We’re all grown up enough to know regular bowel movements are a good indicator of health, but even the most stoic might be a little grossed out by faecal microbial transplants (FMT), which apparently work wonders for those with an acute imbalance of microbes. Research suggests FMT helps symptoms associated with IBS, ME, MS, Crohn’s disease and more.
This fungi has got a bad name thanks to one of its variations – candida, a type of yeast, which can lead to thrush. But healthy yeasts are essential to kombucha, a probiotic drink that’s quick and easy to make from the teabags and sugar in your cupboard. You’ll just need a live scoby (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) – find them at happykombucha.co.uk
Extraordinary as it may sound, your microbiome has a role in regulating your sleep, as important neurotransmitters reside in your gut. The exact relationship between sleep, stress and microbial health has yet to be proven, but research suggests increasing your intake of prebiotics can promote shut-eye.