As a general practitioner I am seeing the rise of chronic diseases every day.
Mental health has also been on the rise along with many gastrointestinal health problems like inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome and gastric reflux. Our lifestyles are mostly responsible for the decline in metabolic health which includes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
You must be wondering if the blog is about the gut why am I talking about metabolic health and mental health conditions.
It is not an error.
As a Lifestyle Physician, I love to get to the root cause of a health condition. And this is the reason why I am writing about the fast growing topic of our gut microbiome, which seems to be linked to almost EVERY aspect of well-being.
Why is it important?
Our gut has a very complex ecosystem of trillions of micro-organisms which form what we now call the gut microbiome. These play a vital role in supporting good health. Some of the ways the gut microbiome can work include:
- Help the body use important nutrients from the food.
- Modify ways our body responds to the food that has been eaten. There may be individuals who eat the same food however due to their individual gut microbiome, the overall affect can differ (1).
- Produces and changes several enzymes, vitamins and metabolites in the gut which cannot be absorbed directly from food.
Research is showing that the gut microbiome is crucial for overall health. Hence now being thought of as another organ within the human body. Evidence is that the gut microbiome influences may areas of health from innate immunity to appetite as well as metabolic health (2). So it is becoming increasingly important that we look after the gut microbiome the best we can. In fact, this BMJ article mentions that the gut microbiome maybe linked to obesity as certain specific bacteria have been found in obese individuals (2).
I have found it an extremely fascinating topic as I continue with my learning in nutrition and lifestyle medicine.
Dietary changes to support the gut microbiome-
A simple way to put this very complex matter is to incorporate more of what makes the good gut micro-organisms thrive and to reduce the lifestyle factors which lead to dysbiosis, a term which means increase in number of harmful micro-organisms.
Some of my tips are –
- Eat a diet which includes at least 30 plant foods per week! I know this might sound like a lot but let me give you a simple example. For breakfast if you have overnight oats with chia seeds soaked in a plant-based milk that is three plant foods already. Adding a mixture of nuts and seeds with cinnamon increases the number even more…and that is just breakfast. Including lots of herbs and spices counts towards this too.
- Include variety by trying different food items and including lots of colours by ‘eating the rainbow’! Adding the reds, yellows, purples and blues to the plate increases the polyphenols which the healthy gut micro-organisms thrive on.
- By following the above steps it is natural that food would be high in fibre, which really supports the gut bacteria thrive. Some of these dietary fibres can act as probiotics, which is a substrate used by the gut micro-organisms. With increased fibre in the diet the gut bacteria are able to produce short chain fatty acid (SCFA) which are vital in maintaining the immunity and lowering inflammation which is the root cause in most chronic health concerns (3)(4).
- Lower the intake of saturated fat. Try to include healthier fat alternatives like extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds along with avocadoes as saturated fat disrupts the gut microbiome. This can be something one needs to be aware of when following a keto diet long term, as they tend to be rich in saturated fats.
- Include fermented food in your diet on a daily basis. This can be in the form of yoghurts, kefir, fermented vegetables or fermented drinks like kombucha. These food items have live bacteria and yeasts which can support a healthy gut microbiome. I always love to make my own fermented vegetables and enjoy them with most of my meals in the evening. Some days I also include fermented lentil pancakes (dosa) for my lunch or dinner which is one of my favourite go to foods. These food items help the gut bacteria produce more SCFA as well, the importance of which I have already discussed.
- Avoid processed food as much as possible, as the chemical do not just harm the good gut bacteria they lead to increase in the number of the bad ones. Overtime this can present in the form of chronic health concerns related to the gut or even poor metabolic health like high blood pressure, lack of energy, mental health problems and Type 2 diabetes.
- Antibiotic use can destroy the gut bacteria and repeated courses can really deplete the gut of the thriving microbiome (5). In the UK we are not normally advising patients to take probiotics to support the gut while on antibiotics but there are many European countries who regularly use them. I often would ask my patients to include kefir or live yoghurt to their diet while they are on medication which can harm the gut microbiome.
It would be important to know that each one of us have our very own signature ‘gut microbiome’. This is where individualised approach to supporting the gut would be highly important but these tips which I have shared above, can be a starting point for anyone.
So now you can decide which step you would wish to incorporate into your routine.
- Human postprandial responses to food and potential for precision nutrition https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0934-0
- Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179
- The Role of Short-Chain Fatty Acids of Gut Microbiota Origin in Hypertension https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2021.730809/full
- The Potential of Gut Commensals in Reinforcing Intestinal Barrier Function and Alleviating Inflammation https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30060606/