The gut microbiome is a trending topic in the health and wellness industry, but how much do you know about getting your gut to function at its best?
Research has shown that the trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms in your gut (or gastrointestinal tract) can have an effect on many aspects of your health – from your digestion to your immune function, and even on your mental health.
But, with so many special gut health diets and product claims it can be tricky to sift through the information and find out what actually works.
To help make it easier, we’ve broken down how to restore gut health in a few simple steps – so you can have a happier gut without the hype.
1. Keep your diet rich in wholefoods – particularly vegetables and resistant starch
Studies have shown that eating wholefoods, particularly fibre-rich vegetables, can help feed good gut bacteria.
The dietary fibre in wholefoods and vegetables is the part of food that is not digested in the small intestine. This fibre moves into the large intestine or colon where it’s broken down by the friendly bacteria that live there.
There are three types of fibre – soluble fibre, insoluble fibre and resistant starch. These are found in different foods and have different ways of working in your gut.
Most Australians are doing a great job of eating some high-fibre foods - like wheat bran, which helps with bowel regularity. But according to CSIRO research, what we need to eat more of is fermentable fibres such as resistant starch, which helps to support good gut bacteria and the lining of the bowel.
Resistant starch is found in slightly undercooked (‘al dente’) pasta, cooked but cooled potatoes (including potato salad), firm or under-ripe bananas, beans, lentils and some wholegrains like Freekeh.
Research has also found that spinach leaves contain significant amounts of a newly discovered enzyme, sugar sulfoquinovose (SQ), which feeds good gut bacteria.
2. Avoid highly processed, high fat and sugary foods
If you’re trying to restore or improve your gut health, then avoiding junk foods is key. Highly processed, sugary and fatty foods can disrupt the bacterial balance in your gut causing a range of issues.
In fact, research has found that having a high-sugar diet can actually affect your mood and encourage you to eat more unhealthy food.
As the bad bacteria feed and multiply in a high-sugar environment, your body responds by craving more of these types of foods to promote the growth of that type of bacteria.
So, the best way to take back control of these gut bugs is to temporarily eliminate their energy source — sugars and yeasts.
If you find yourself craving junk foods, why not consider healthier food swaps? For example, if you’re craving chocolate, why not make some bliss balls instead?
3. Only use antibiotics when absolutely necessary
Antibiotics are great at killing off bad bacteria. The problem is they kill the good ones too.
According to NPS MedicineWise medical adviser Dr Jeannie Yoo, taking antibiotics may have a long-term effect on the balance of microbes in your gut.
“Until recently, the impact of antibiotics on the normal gut bacteria was thought to be temporary, or short-term, with any disturbances being restored several weeks after treatment. However, emerging research now suggests the effect may be more long-term in some people, with imbalances still present months and even years after a course of antibiotics,” says Dr Yoo.
“Different antibiotics can have different effects on the gut bacteria, and how significant the effect might be to a person’s health will also depend on the strength (dose) of the medicine, how long it is taken for, if it is narrow- or broad-spectrum and how it is taken (e.g. oral, topical or injection).”
Dr Yoo says that by taking antibiotics when they’re not needed, such as for viral infections or other illnesses that will get better on their own, you’re unnecessarily risking longer term effects on your gut health (as well as short-term side effects like diarrhoea).
4. Don’t stress about probiotics
Probiotics are often advertised as a super ‘cure-all’ supplement but some new research has shown taking them might not be as good for your gut as once thought.
These two recent studies found that over-the-counter probiotics don’t always work to restore gut health.
In one study, probiotics had no effect on some people at all, while in others they colonised the gut but made it harder for the microbiome to return to its original, healthy state.