Why taking care of our gut health is a crucial part of taking care of our immune health

When we think about optimising our health, our gut is probably not the first organ we might think of. And yet optimal health is almost impossible if we don’t look after our gut and the microbiome within it.

If you’re struggling with bloating, constipation or diarrhoea, abdominal pain, food reactions or acid reflux, then it’s time to look for the underlying imbalance. What happens in the gut, doesn’t stay in the gut. Almost every type of disease has a gut connection somewhere and these are simply symptoms of a body out of balance.

Our initial contact with our outside world is via our gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It serves two main functions: absorbing useful substances into the body (taking in the good stuff) and restricting the entry of harmful substances (keeping out the bad stuff). When either (or both) of these processes aren’t working, it’s very often where dis-ease starts in the body.

We used to talk about ‘you are what you eat,’ and that evolved to ‘you are what you digest and absorb’ but even more accurate is “you are what you feed your microbiome.” We can liken our microbiome to a complex bacterial ‘rainforest’ with thousands of competing and co-existing species living in overall balance. A high diversity of bacteria has been associated with states of relatively good health while low diversity has been associated with states of disease including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), allergies and obesity.

The major modulating factor on the composition of our microbiome is the food we eat. Eat to feed your beneficial bugs! A diverse microbiome is a healthy microbiome with many different species playing different roles in your overall health. Diversity in the gut is achieved by diversity in the diet, especially plant-foods which are high in fibre. Different types of diet influence different species of bacteria.

How many different plants have you eaten this week? If it is only a repetitive handful, then the diversity in your microbial species may be reflecting the same limitations. The more diverse your intake of plants and flora, including herbs and spices, the better your health and the more stable your weight. A rainbow on our plate can contribute to a diverse and balanced microbiome

Research has shown that a Mediterranean diet can improve microbiome diversity and reduce inflammation. This focuses on eating plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains; healthy fats like high-quality extra virgin olive oil; and lean meat or fish. Avoid alcohol, salt, sweets and sugary drinks, and artificial sweeteners or other additives. A variety of vegetable doesn’t only provide colour and phytonutrients, but it also provides the fibre which can help feed our gut bacteria.

Further support for your microbiome can come from prebiotic and probiotic foods. Prebiotics are the non-digestible component of food, which feed the “friendly” gut bacteria. Best prebiotic food sources include apples, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, fennel, garlic, legumes, leeks, onions, pak choi, oats and cold potato.

Probiotic foods are those which contain live bacteria such as yogurt and kefir or other fermented milks. They are also found in foods such as sauerkraut, fermented tempeh (type of soya), miso, kefir and yogurt. Other gut supporting foods include garlic, ginger, thyme and turmeric.

Eating slowly and mindfully and chewing abundantly is also important to optimise digestive function.

Take care of your gut, and it will help to take care of your overall health.